From firefighters to public school teachers to sanitation workers, has seen a steady decline since the start of the pandemic. But there’s one profession that’s become a particular concern nationwide: law enforcement officers. And the hiring woes have been building for years. A survey of police departments that nearly 80% of agencies reported struggles with hiring qualified recruits. Half of the agencies said they changed internal policies and qualifications to get more candidates.
“In large departments and small, in urban and rural… I think we’ve seen this problem growing steadily over the last, say, ten years or so, but it really ramped up post-COVID,” said John Letteny, President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Departments across the country saw 47% more resignations and 19% more retirements in 2022 compared to 2019, according to a survey of police chiefs by the .
This has been a particular problem with the New York Police Department, whose officers have been targeted for recruitment from other cities. Metro PD ads can be seen throughout New York subways, promising signing bonuses and moving assistance to DC. According to the , the Chief of Police in Aurora, Colorado, traveled to New York to try and directly recruit officers to fill his 50 vacancies, promising a lower cost of living and higher starting salaries.
“Some states have added a recruiting bonus to out-of-state applicants who are already certified, which they’re all interesting ideas,” added Letteny. “But when we’re taking from one agency to another, we’re not solving the problem. We’re just moving it.”
across the country have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars from city budgets on overtime pay, especially as crime rates continue to creep upward. The overtime led to overworked officers and resignations.
“Overtime was a big issue,” said Thaddeus Johnson, a former ranking law enforcement official in Memphis and Assistant Professor in Criminology at Georgia State University. “I mean, and many officers now, a big part of their salaries comes from overtime, particularly when you have shortages. You’re on shift, and [then]: ‘Oh, I know you just worked 8 hours. Is it possible for you to stay over on the midnight shift or stay over on this shift?’ Not to mention that you’ve got offices working midnight shift, afternoon shift, and you have court now; you’ve got to go spend all day in court and then return to work. How can we expect our offices to not run out of hours, the best service, when we don’t support them with mental health, physical health and provide these type of mental welfare breaks?”
In addition to wage concerns and a lack of work-life balance, a hurdle for hiring and retention has been the public’s perception of the police, according to some officers.
“I hear often about a negative national narrative about the law enforcement profession that has been growing over the years,” noted Letteny, “and we understand why there are some incidents and issues that happen in our profession that are absolutely inappropriate, tragic, and criminal in some cases. And they have to be dealt with. But they are minuscule in volume, not in impact; in impact, they’re huge, but in volume, they’re very minor compared to the number of incidents and interactions police officers have on a daily basis.”
Declining enforcement can lead potential recruits to stay away from the academy. The widespread availability of bodycam videos and high-profile incidents of police brutality, including the murder of George Floyd, have created generational divides in the perception of policing as a career, according to Pew and Gallup research data.
Johnson has noticed the impact in his own classroom.
“When I started teaching at the university as a graduate assistant, and this is just 2017, 2018,” he explained, “I’m asking people who wants to be a police officer in my course… maybe about a quarter to a third raised their hand. I asked that question just this last year, and nobody raised their hand.”
Experts say hiring shortages can lead to agencies windows or lowering testing qualifications in order to fill crucial vacancies. Some chiefs of police expressed concern that, to fill vacancies, they risk becoming a so-called “second-chance department” for officers that were dismissed elsewhere for misconduct or even criminal activity.
Laurie Woods, a former Special Agent with the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University, stressed that this can lead to hiring or retaining problematic officers. “I’ve known officers who got fired from one department and gone to another one because they got the training; they’ve got the post certificate. They can hit the ground running. And so the department said, well, we’ll take a chance on him,” she told Scripps News.
A number of departments have responded to the by dedicating more funds to competitive salaries. Others have lessened low-level requirements for the academy, like “no tattoo” rules or easing restrictions on prior marijuana use. But ultimately, many insiders say that in addition to improvements with wages, benefits, and work-life balance, there has to be a more fundamental cultural shift to address the lack of trust between officers and civilians.
“What you really don’t want is that hard-charging kid who believes that guns are the answer,” added Woods. “And you need somebody that’s got a gentler soul.”
Johnson agreed: “If you promote ‘gun and running,’ guess it would be the leaders and chiefs 20 years from now, and you keep the cycle going. It makes it even harder for people who have different mindsets and different skill sets to come into the police force. Community-centered policing, where you’re rewarding officers properly for this type of work, really comes in. And that’s the best recruitment effort that you can have.”