Police departments across the country are facing a "vicious cycle" of retirements, resignations, and fewer hires, according to policing experts, leaving the communities they protect with understaffed departments and potentially underqualified officers.
A survey released on April 1 from the Police Executive Research Forum of 182 law enforcement agencies indicated that while police departments are recruiting more officers compared to a 2020 decrease, departments have seen 47% more resignations and 19% more retirements in 2022 compared to 2019.
"There's a vicious cycle of it getting worse," John Jay professor and former police officer Peter Moskos said.
Law enforcement experts expressed concern that due to increased challenges in recruiting fresh candidates and spiking rates of retirements and resignations, departments cannot hire and train enough officers to make up for the departing officers. The staffing crunch may leave departments with fewer candidates, less qualified candidates, and fewer officers on call to respond to emergencies.
"If you don't have enough cops, at some point, you're going to have an active shooter situation where police response is critical, and getting there a minute later could cost you 20 or 50 lives," PERF executive director Chuck Wexler said.
Multiple experts attribute the recruiting challenge – that fewer people are willing to be police officers in 2023 – to increased external scrutiny and reputational harm to the overall profession. Some note that the lack of job flexibility, demanding hours, and the need to work on holidays (especially for junior officers) contribute to the crisis.
"Media coverage has led many young people to view police differently than their parents' generation may have," International Association of Chiefs of Police president John Letteney said. "And a lot of officers think their job has gotten more difficult since high profile use of force incidents."
While the scrutiny lessens the total number of potential officers, the disincentive to pursue law enforcement due to that scrutiny can create a net positive by limiting the applicant pool to candidates who would be willing to approach the modern challenges of policing.
"I've told myself countless times that I would rather have a vacant position than put the wrong person wearing a police officer's uniform and badge," Letteney added.
According to Yale Law professor James Forman, departments could serve their communities best if they took an active approach to community policing rather than recruiting officers who desire to engage in a "heavy-handed aggressive policing" that makes excessive force and brutality "inevitable."
"[Police departments] have to send the message from the beginning of the kind of policing that they want in their community -- that they are looking for people who want to be community caretakers they want, they are looking for people that want to help communities grow and thrive," he said.
Regardless of the larger goals, the current market for law enforcement officers does not appear to satisfy the hiring demand.
A survey of police departments from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, conducted in 2019 before the availability of officers worsened, found that 78% of agencies reported issues recruiting qualified candidates. Fifty percent of agencies changed their internal policies to gain qualified candidates, and 25% said they eliminated services, units, or positions due to the inability to staff their departments adequately.
The persistent demand for officers and limited pool of qualified candidates can create a bidding war between departments, often leading to the wealthiest departments winning out.
That cost dilemma creates a concern for East Cleveland chief of police Brian Gerhard, who does not want his police force to become a "second-chance department."
Prosecutors indicted 10 active-duty officers over the last three years, as well as the former police chief, leaving Gerhard's department with 30 officers. He wants to have 50 quality officers, though his city’s charter permits up to 72 officers.
When asked about the bodycam video of officers abusing and assaulting residents circulated in the media and online, Gerhard admitted, "It looks horrible, period;" however, he said he is committed to "rebuilding" his department. Case in point, Gerhard told ABC News that he wants to hire capable and qualified recruits, not more attainable officers seeking a "second chance" after leaving or being fired by other departments. Financial considerations make this goal challenging, if not time-consuming.
Two of Gerhard's recent hires left the East Cleveland Police Department after less than a year for higher-paying jobs. He noted that he's limited to paying $17.27 an hour, though it is set to increase to $19.19 an hour.
Regardless of the pay hike, Gerhard was assured, "They're gonna make substantially more money than we have."
For example, the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., began offering $20,000 signing bonuses for new officers in 2023.
"There's also a dual-edged sword of signing bonuses and better pay like you want to be able to recruit to have some parity, but you don't want people becoming cops just for the signing bonus," Moskos said.
Departments like suburban New York's Nassau County Police Department boasts an average salary for officers after nine years of $121,659, an enticing offer to pull successful officers from the New York Police Department.
Poaching efforts from wealthier departments can also damage police forces by pulling officers from their jobs just as evidence suggests they become fully effective after five to seven years of service, according to Letteney. Moskos added that these wealthier departments also have the luxury of hiring applicants with clean records while leaving behind potentially problematic officers.
All of these factors create an overall challenging environment for departments to be able to recruit with an eye towards reform or even retain their ranks.
"If you walk into a room of police officers, or chiefs, and they're really being honest with you, say, 'How many of you would like your kids to be cops,' very few will raise their hands," Letteney said.