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Cops Say Low Morale And Department Scrutiny Are Driving Them Away From The Job

A demonstrator holds her hands up while she kneels in front of the Police at the Anaheim City Hall on June 1, 2020 in Anaheim, California. Reform pressures have many cops leaving the job.
AFP via Getty Images
A demonstrator holds her hands up while she kneels in front of the Police at the Anaheim City Hall on June 1, 2020 in Anaheim, California. Reform pressures have many cops leaving the job.

The historic calls for police accountability, reform and attempts at racial reckoning have left police departments nationwide struggling to keep the officers they have and attract new ones to the force.

The crisis comes as many cities continue to grapple with the fallout from the pandemic and sharp increases in shootings and murders.

In many places, police morale has plunged and retirements and resignations have soared. A June survey of nearly 200 departments by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit think tank, shows a startling 45% increase in the retirement rate and a nearly 20% increase in resignations in 2020-21 compared to the previous year.

"We are in uncharted territory right now," PERF's Executive Director Chuck Wexler says. "Policing is being challenged in ways I haven't seen, ever."

The exodus is affecting departments large, small and in between. The research group's survey shows that in the largest departments with 500 hundred or more officers, the retirement rate increased by nearly 30%. Overall, new police hiring has dropped 5%.

And the timing of these staffing problems couldn't be worse: multiple cities are seeing startling increases in shootings and murders just as more areas start to return to a sense of normalcy following 15 months of pandemic-induced disruptions. Large cities have seen a 24% spike in killings so far this year, following a more than 30% rise in homicides last year. Overall crime figures, however, went down during the pandemic.

"So at that very moment you're hoping you can put police out there to try to deal with crime, you're seeing the workforce shrinking with an unprecedented number of retirements and resignations," Wexler says.

Washington has pledged to help fight gun crimes

President Biden addressed the sharp rise in homicides and shootings Wednesday. He touted his administration's plan to tackle gun crime by cracking down on gun sellers who fail to run required background checks. The president is also redirecting some $350 billion in federal stimulus money toward police departments in cities where crime is up. The spike in violent crime follows nearly two decades in which violent crime trended downward. "This takes us back to levels, homicide rates, that we would have seen in the late '90s," says law professor Ronald Wright at Wake Forest University.

Exit interviews in the PERF survey and other data show that a key factor in the police resignations and retirements is the national conversation and protests that center on changing what the police do, how they're funded, and how to better hold officers accountable for abuse of force and racial bias.

Some cities are pushing for police to no longer be the first responders for persons in a mental health homeless or substance use crisis. Studies show that nearly a quarter of fatal police encounters followed calls about "disruptive behavior" directly tied to a person's mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder.

"Let's be honest, the conversation nationally has really been very, very much questioning police authority, what they do, how they do it," PERF's Wexler says. "So if you wake up every day and that's what you hear, it takes its toll."

For some officers that toll means a career change.

"You know, cops need to be resilient and they are. But for some, if they have an opportunity to do something different, that's what's happening," he says.

Retaining and recruiting police is proving to be difficult

The recruitment challenge is likely to only get worse as the economy further rebounds in the months ahead. Recruitment was already a serious challenge before the pandemic and racial justice protests, as we've reported.

Making matters worse, it can take on average six months to a year or longer to recruit, hire and train an officer.

As Miami-Dade Police Chief Art Acevedo recently put it in an interview with NPR, addressing the crime surge amid the recruitment challenges is about more than expanding patrols in high-crime areas.

"It's also making sure that you have the proper supervision, the proper oversight and the proper mindset in terms of how we approach the way we treat the community," Acevedo said. "I think when we do that, people appreciate you. If you harass them, then they become, I think, upset, and you start heading your relationship in the wrong direction."

Activists and analysts alike say police leaders can and should do more to actively engage in the fraught and complex national conversation about race and law enforcement underway.

"How do we find a middle ground between where the police need to be and where the reform issues are?" Wexler asks, noting that the areas with the highest spikes in shootings are among the most economically disadvantaged or in communities with people of color. "So the people who most need the police right now, that's what we should be concerned about. Maybe there's an opportunity to to see a way to find a middle ground."

Cash incentives are being offered to potential recruits

The recruiting and retention crisis is affecting departments across the nation. While not a representative sample of the nation's more than 18,000 police departments, the PERF survey includes responses from departments small and large and nonetheless offers insight into a festering problem for American policing.

In Minneapolis this April former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of multiple murder counts in the death of George Floyd. Since his murder the police department there has lost nearly 300 officers from attrition, disability leave and retirements, Minnesota Public Radio reports. So far this year the number of gunshot victims in Minneapolis is up 90% from last year.

In Seattle, police leaders are warning of a staffing crisis after more than 180 officers quit last year and almost 70 others have left so far this year, the AP reports. Exit interviews show the majority who left tired of City Council policies, including threats of layoffs and cuts as well as an anti-police climate.

In Philadelphia from January through April of this year at least 79 Philadelphia officers took the city's Deferred Retirement Option Program, meaning they intend to retire within four years, according to the mayor's office. In the same time period last year, just 13 officers made that move.

NPR member station WGBH reports thatin Watertown, Mass., Police Chief Michael Lawn posted on social media to try to attract new applicants last year, just six people attended the event and only two dozen took the civil service test. It was among the suburban Boston town's lowest turnout in department history.

"This job has changed," Chief Lawn told WGBH News. "Nobody wants this job anymore."

Chandler, Ariz., is now offering cash incentives up to $5,000 to try to attract and hire new officers and dispatchers, as NPR member station KJZZ reports. In 2020, the chief in Tempe abruptly resigned. The station says departments across Arizona report recruitment challenges.

In comments to PERF for their report police leaders make clear the challenges are the worst they've seen. PERF granted the officials anonymity so they could speak freely.

"We have seen an approximate 40% reduction in applicant packets this last fiscal year. In addition, we are seeing fewer 'above average' candidates," one official wrote, adding. "The current rhetoric and negativity surrounding law enforcement is having a negative impact on the number and quality of applicants we recruit."

Another senior police official told PERF that many of those are applying are not meeting the minimum requirements. They are "failing either the background investigation or polygraph. Minority hiring, a significant goal, has been considerably more difficult," the official wrote, adding. "Police accountability has been a source of conversation and concern among those who are hired, and those who left."

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.