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Cleveland police academy sees its smallest class of recruits in 25 years

“There are going to be scary times for the city,” said the union president about the continual decline of staffing


Joshua Gunter

By Olivia Mitchell

CLEVELAND — The number of people who want to serve and protect is shrinking in Cleveland.

The city’s police academy has just nine recruits in its latest class, a far cry from when the city hired 87 academy graduates in 2000, according to police records.

The class is the smallest in 25 years. It underscores a nationwide trend in which fewer men and women are seeking to make law enforcement a career.

The drop at the academy comes as the department is more than 200 officers short of the city’s budgeted number of 1,498, and it is more than 400 shy of the budgeted rosters of recent years. Scores of officers have retired or fled to suburban departments for higher pay and quieter shifts.

The city has pushed to draw more recruits, but it has had little success. Twenty years ago, it faced the opposite problem.

“We had young, qualified men and women stepping forward to become police officers who did not make the cut simply because we had more applicants than we had roles for them to fill,” said Martin Flask, the city’s police chief from 1999 to 2001 and its safety director from 2006 to 2014. and The Plain Dealer obtained numbers from the city that show the downward trend. In August 1999, 68 potential officers attended training classes, and 59 graduated. The following year, the department had 101 students in an academy class, and 87 graduated.

Last year, the department brought in 20 prospective officers, and 17 graduated. A class of 13 that began in December is continuing. The latest academy session, which started last month, has just nine, police said.

“There are going to be scary times for the city,” said Jeff Follmer, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, which represents rank-and-file officers. “It’s a national problem. But the city is going to have to do more in the recruitment game.”

Capt. James O’Malley is a fourth-generation Cleveland police officer and the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 8, which represents supervisors. He agreed with Follmer.

The inability to recruit officers “takes its toll,” O’Malley said.

“Imagine going to work and not knowing until the end of your shift that you can’t leave,” he said in an email. “Then this stress happens over and over and over again. Working a zone car in Cleveland is a dangerous, stressful job. Not having proper relief is difficult. It can lead to errors in judgment and accidents.”

The reasons for the drop in recruits are many, officials said. Like Follmer and O’Malley, Michael Polensek, the chairman of Cleveland City Council’s Public Safety Committee, has said the city needs to do more to market and draw potential applicants to the department.

Mayor Justin Bibb, in his State of the City speech last month, said Cleveland will push to interest more youths and teens in a career in law enforcement. and The Plain Dealer reached out to the Bibb administration for details about the new initiative.

A survey from the International Association of Chiefs of Police showed that the long hiring process often contributes to the low number of applicants. Also, many young people do not want to work long hours, often with mandated overtime, or face childcare challenges.

The survey revealed that the low number of applicants for police positions will have a direct impact on communities. Residents will experience longer waits when they call for help. Fewer crimes will be solved, according to the report, and officers will experience burnout.

Brandon Kooi, a criminal justice professor at Aurora University in Illinois, said the struggle to recruit officers impacts departments across the country. He said many cities, such as Cleveland, have been hit by retirements. Last year, 87 officers retired, and 26 have stepped away so far this year, according to Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia, the department’s spokesperson.

A major issue, however, has been the intense scrutiny officers have faced, Kooi said.

“The largest negative impact on recruitment has been ongoing videos showing police use of force,” Kooi wrote in an email to and The Plain Dealer. “Very few citizens want to join a profession that is vilified by their community, and little is being done to demonstrate the significant problem-solving capabilities that police agencies can offer with the right leaders in place.”

In recent years, cities and counties have spent millions of dollars on body cameras for officers, a move that offers transparency for residents. In some instances, the videos have shown officers brutally attacking residents.

Some examples include Memphis police officers beating Tyre Nichols to death in January and Minneapolis patrolmen killing George Floyd in May 2020.

In the past, Flask said, marketing techniques also helped with recruitment. The department used RTA bus wraps, billboards, radio spots and signage in storefronts to attract people to careers in law enforcement. Those kinds of recruitment methods gained the attention of potential candidates, as well as parents and grandparents who would encourage their children and grandchildren to consider a job with the police department, Flask said.

But Flask said the greatest recruitment tool is the work of officers.

“The safety director (Karrie Howard) and police chief (Wayne Drummond) should challenge individual officers to interact, identify and recruit someone for the division,” Flask said. “And if they find a candidate who successfully completes the academy, the officers who recruited the person should be rewarded monetarily or receive compensatory time off.”

The city has pushed a police explorer program to youths 14 to 20 who are seeking opportunities in law enforcement. It offers hands-on training related to police work and gives participants a chance to train with police officers and learn techniques with hope that they will consider joining the division.

Kooi said departments should also make greater efforts to hire women and minorities.

“Too often physical requirements are found to have a discouraging impact on female recruits and academy attrition without any evidence that these requirements improve officer performance,” Kooi added.

The department has 220 women officers, Ciaccia said.

The recruiting issues – and the solutions to fix them – go beyond Cleveland.

“Who wants to go into a field where you’re criticized for every mistake you make?” O’Malley said “We are human. Mistakes happen, and yes, there are officers who violate the law and policy, but they are held accountable for that. A message of ‘police are all bad’ that has been expressed is not the answer. Society change has to be part of the solution.”

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