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Police reform backfires

Cities struggle to recruit and retain officers amid increasing crime

Demonstrators and officers at the police headquarters in downtown Kansas City, Mo. Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Riedel (file)

Police reform backfires

The majority of employees at the Brookline, Mass., police department have considered leaving in recent weeks, some after decades of service, according to an anonymous survey conducted between Feb. 22 and March 6. It found 86 percent of respondents described morale as “poor.”

“My family members were proud to work for the town,” one respondent said. “Now, all of us can’t wait to retire/leave.”

Many cited internal issues, like a lack of leadership, poor pay, and increasing workloads. Another common complaint was lack of support from the community and its leaders. “Why would any officer want to stay here when the citizens march against us in the streets for something that happened in the country so far away?” another respondent said.

Police across the United States seem to share these officers’ frustration. Many cities have reported declining police forces even as violent crime rises. After a year of focusing on police reform, city leaders must navigate making changes without driving their cops away.

The national conversation about police reform has focused on accountability, especially for use of force. Some argue police departments are systemically racist and cities should divert funds from law enforcement to social services. Others say social workers should respond to mental health emergency calls alongside—or instead of—police. Forming police oversight boards, publicly releasing body camera footage and disciplinary records, and abolishing the qualified immunity legal defense were popular ideas.

But stripping protections from bad cops who want to hide misconduct also leaves good cops without recourse when they make split-second, life-or-death decisions that go badly. Activists protested when then-officer Kim Potter shot a young black man apparently by accident, equating him with George Floyd, who died after ex-Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck and refused him medical care. Several recent policy changes left officers feeling misunderstood and frustrated. When Illinois passed a massive reform bill, Barrington Police Chief Dave Dorn said, “All these things boiled together are going to make police not want to do their job.”

Many cities are reporting police shortages. A recent report showed 249 Seattle police officers left the force in the past year, including 66 from January to May 2021. The department had about 1,080 deployable officers—“the lowest I’ve seen our department,” Police Chief Adrian Diaz told KING-TV. Seattle Police Officers Guild President Mike Solan told Fox News, “We don’t have the political support from our elected officials … as we’re seeing officers flee this area, it’s a direct result of that lack of political support.”

Between January and late April, 79 Philadelphia officers told the city they planned to retire, compared with only 13 during the time frame last year. The department has nearly 270 vacancies. John Viola, police chief of the Philadelphia suburb Haverford Township, told The Philadelphia Inquirer departments were trying to boost recruitment by waiving application fees and funding the police academy instead of charging recruits. “People don’t want to be police anymore,” he said. “It’s a good job, and good-paying job, but when you look at national news every day, people just don’t want to be officers.” His department has only received 72 applications for the current recruitment period, as opposed to previous years’ average of 200 or 300. Other cities like Baltimore, Albany, and Fairfax, Va., also report difficulty retaining and recruiting officers.

Experts are still debating the cause, but during the pandemic criminal homicides increased significantly in many major American cities. The 66 cities that responded to the Major Cities Chiefs Association’s survey for 2020 reported 8,077 homicides, compared to 6,087 in 2019. So far in 2021, violent crime has stayed up. In Seattle, 50 people died from murder in 2020—a 61 percent increase. SPD statistics showed the city has had seven homicides so far this year.

Randy Petersen, a senior researcher at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, believes the political climate of hostility towards police and the increase in crime are related.

“The anti-police rhetoric, symbolic and real ‘reform’ initiatives, and a complete lack of support for our police officers have all had exactly the effect that everyone knew they would,” he wrote in late March. “The decades-long trend of declining violent crime rates came to an abrupt end last year, and it shows no sign of getting better.”

Petersen agrees that reform is needed, but instead of cutting funds and increasing punishment for failure, he thinks improving police training is the best solution. “Training officers requires resources, and that’s the very opposite of defunding,” he pointed out. “Training is the first thing police agencies must cut when they lose the already limited resources they have, and that makes our police less able to perform the way we expect them to.”

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.



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