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Vacancies plague local police departments

Law enforcement agencies struggle to recruit officers

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay

Vacancies plague local police departments

In Austin, Texas, residents submitting nonemergency police reports give information to artificial intelligence software instead of a police officer. City officials announced the program in March, saying it would reduce residents’ wait times.

That’s not the only change Austin residents have noticed. The sleek black-and-white Chevy Tahoes of Texas state troopers have replaced the local police department vehicles monitoring rush-hour traffic on MoPac Boulevard and other streets. In March, the city announced it would partner with the Texas Department of Public Safety to improve police response times as the police department struggles with staffing.

As of mid-April, the Austin Police Department was 300 officers short. “This unprecedented staffing challenge has led to longer wait times in response to calls for assistance, more traffic injuries and fatalities, and an increase in gun crime,” Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said in a memo to local leaders.

Austin is one of many departments across the country struggling to recruit and retain officers. As experts debate the cause of the shortages, local departments work to attract new recruits by countering negative opinions about law enforcement and building better relationships with their communities.

Analysts have predicted police staffing shortages for years. They warned about staffing difficulties as baby boomer retirements accelerated and the unemployment rate continued to fall. The International Association of Chiefs of Police predicted a crisis for the approximately 18,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in a 2019 study. Anti-police rhetoric in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 only intensified the trend.

Officers are leaving faster than departments can hire new ones, a Police Executive Research Forum study reported in April. In 2022, 47 percent more officers resigned and 19 percent more retired than in 2019. Though departments hired almost 35 percent more officers in 2022 than 2020, sworn staffing was 4.8 percent lower in January 2023 than January 2020.

In 2021, 210 Austin police officers retired or resigned. The department loosened requirements in October to boost cadet enrollment. Now applicants must be marijuana free for six months instead of two years, a change due in part to the department recruiting from states where recreational marijuana is legal. But the size of the force continues to shrink: This year, 89 officers already retired or left for other professions, forcing the city to call in state troopers.

In the first week of the partnership, violent crimes fell 25 percent compared with last year’s weekly average, dropping 58 percent in high call-volume areas where Texas DPS officers were stationed. It isn’t the first time DPS has assisted city departments. Troopers deployed to Dallas in 2019 to help quell a spike in violent crimes.

But it isn’t a long-term solution. Lars Trautman, the national director for the conservative criminal justice reform initiative Right on Crime, called the partnership a “Band Aid.” The Texas DPS is suffering from its own shortages: Earlier this year, an official told state lawmakers the agency had more than 500 vacancies. Solving shortages requires departments to address the multiple factors behind the complex problem, Trautman said.

It’s not just police departments. Prisons and jails are having trouble staffing guard positions. “We’re seeing shortages across local governments,” said Trautman, “especially since the pandemic.” He added that wages play a role, too. Public sector jobs traditionally pay less and are slower to respond to inflation.

An aging workforce is another concern. While the median age of the American worker was 41.7 as of 2021, public administration employees average about four years older. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 enabled local departments to hire 100,000 new police officers, many of whom are now reaching retirement age.

“The Austin Police Department has seen many officers who had been with the department for many years retire,” department communications manager Brandon Jones said in an email. “We have also seen officers move into a different profession.”

The city’s high cost of living has also played a role, Jones added. He said the police department is intensifying its recruitment campaign and hosts four to five new recruit classes per year, but those approaches won’t solve the problem instantly. “We anticipate that it will take several years to fully staff the vacancies on the department,” he said.

Public sector workers encounter more politicization and hostility than they did a few years ago, Trautman pointed out, and police and sheriff departments have borne the brunt. “So people either want to leave the profession or don’t want to join it in the first place,” he said. As a result, there is more work to do and fewer people to do it. Burnout is common, especially among police officers who often wear multiple hats. “We expect them to be able to do a dozen different jobs and do it fairly flawlessly,” he said, such as social work and mental health care. Taking some of that burden off of the shoulders of law enforcement may help with recruiting and retention.

Some local departments focus on bolstering community engagement to attract more recruits. “Anytime we see issues with police-community relations … we tend to see a decline in our applicant pools,” said Sherry Skaggs, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Central Arkansas. adding that friends and family members often discourage students from entering what they see as a dangerous field.

Skaggs, who is also the public information officer for the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office, sees firsthand how this affects local departments. She advertises on social media for open positions and attends job fairs and other outreach events. Departments used to hire officers who grew up in the area, but now that applicant pool is smaller. “We have more and more departments that are looking outside of their communities, in many cases, even advertising and looking outside of their state,” she said. She encourages her students to participate in experiential learning projects with their state or local law enforcement agencies.

To boost community relations, the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office partners with faith leaders to host activities for residents during National Faith and Blue Weekend every fall. The department hosts a Christmas event and partners with local nonprofits to distribute toys and resources to children and their families.

In Brownstown, Mich., a suburban community south of Detroit, Deputy Chief Andrew Starzec said the department would be completely staffed once an incoming candidate passes his background check. Starzec attributes the success to community engagement initiatives like their Cop on the Block event where officers listen to neighborhood concerns over department-funded food trucks and shaved ice.

Starzec said that, instead of lowering standards, departments should hire officers dedicated to understanding and interacting with their communities, which will attract more recruits in the long run.“We don’t want to change our standards just to fill a role where we want very specific people,” he said.

Officer Dave Harding agrees. He’s the crime prevention and community outreach officer for the Mooresville Police Department in North Carolina. Not all of the department’s positions are filled. “It’s always a battle to get people,” Harding said. “It takes just a special person who wants to pursue a career in law enforcement, and we’re very picky.” He works hard to get the department involved in community life. Officers read to children in schools and the public library and volunteer at the soup kitchen. They play bingo with residents in assisted living homes.

“You cannot have a successful police department without the support of the community you serve,” said Harding. “It takes a whole lot of work, but it’s imperative that you have a great partnership.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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