‘No one wants to be a cop these days’: Mass. police chiefs talk recruitment
Police chiefs across the Bay State say civil service requirements and low pay are some of the biggest challenges
By Chris Van Buskirk
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — For Attleboro Police Chief Kyle Heagney, hiring new recruits over the past year and retaining current officers at his department has been a “nightmare.”
“No one wants to be a cop these days,” he said. “... Salaries are not equal to their civilian salaries [at] their current position, so a lot of them are telling me that they’d lose money becoming a police officer, they can’t do that.”
Police chiefs from different parts of Massachusetts who spoke to MassLive in recent weeks said they are experiencing difficulties as they look to hire new people to fill gaps left by retirements, transfers, or departures and are running into trouble keeping current officers around.
Among the problems: Low pay at smaller departments leads officers to seek better-paying jobs, police chiefs say negative rhetoric around policing makes it hard to attract new recruits into the industry, and civil service requirements lead to lengthy onboarding timelines.
All of this is accentuated by increased public pressure for transparency and accountability of police following several high-profile cases of police misconduct that resulted in criminal charges including the deaths of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by Louisville, Kentucky police officers.
It also comes as Massachusetts continues to implement a new policing reform law that seeks to increase accountability in law enforcement in part through a statewide commission tasked with certifying officers.
Police chiefs say that recruiting and retention challenges are most felt in departments that adhere to the state’s civil service law as well as small-town departments, who say they find it hard to compete with big cities that sometimes offer better pay or even other professions that have higher salaries.
Heagney said he lost three officers to the State Police Department a couple of weeks ago, another to Walpole, and two to Taunton. It’s made worse, Heagney said, when officers who have been on the job for multiple years decide they want to leave the profession because of current political rhetoric.
“We’re not one of the higher paying police departments, and we’re losing officers to other departments that have a higher salary,” Heagney said. “That’s happened quite a bit for us. It’s like free agency out there right now for police officers.”
For comparison, officers starting in Attleboro who are not offered education-based incentives make $54,412 while a first-year officer working day-side in Boston receiving no educational incentives makes $73,551, according to a Boston Police Department officer salary chart provided to MassLive.
At full capacity, Attleboro carries 92 officers, and right now the department is looking to fill 16 positions. There are officers in the pipeline to fill the spots, Heagney said, but it takes over a year to get them fully trained because of civil service requirements.
And the argument that recent policing reforms and criticism of the profession have resulted in a drop in recruits or a rise in departures may not be the whole picture.
Boston University Criminal Justice Professor Dr. Shea Cronin said there is not great evidence to support the notion that criticisms and implementation of reforms have in fact led to declines in the field.
There’s not perfect evidence to the contrary, he said, but emphasized there are many factors at play that could be contributing to a perceived drop in recruitment numbers or increased departures police chiefs are warning about.
Like many industries, the effects of the pandemic could have prompted people to seek other jobs, Cronin said.
“I also think that when the public sees the ways in which some police organizations, some police representatives, and not usually the chiefs of police, but certain representatives of the policing field, respond to the kinds of challenges that have prompted reform calls, they see it as a difficult organization to go work for,” Cronin said.
Hiring challenges are a familiar concern for Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn.
Wynn — who serves on the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission — said he has dealt with staffing issues for over a decade. The department’s authorized strength by budget is 97, Wynn said, but the actual sworn strength runs at 88, a number that has been fairly consistent over the past two decades.
The department has requested additional staffing as things have picked up in Pittsfield, and Wynn said he’s been fortunate enough to receive help through several budget requests. But the process of getting a new officer in the door is “onerous and lengthy.”
“We’ve never come close to that authorized strength of 97,” he said. “We got within four or five a couple years ago, and then we had a large class that had come out together age out and they all retired.”
Since June 2020, 10 officers — whose ages averaged 44-years-old — at the Pittsfield police department have retired, according to figures provided by the city, including five who had “essentially” reached full retirement age, one who was described as a mid-career officer that left for medical reasons, and four who were “young officers” that left for other employment opportunities.
Springfield Police Department Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood said she expects the department to have around 484 officers after a class of recruits graduates later this month, a number below the department’s authorized strength of 512. The department typically fluctuates between 460 and 480 officers, according to Clapprood.
Clapprood said officers have left the Springfield Police Department — which offers a starting salary of $67,500 — for “strange reasons and at times that I’ve never seen before.”
“It used to be when you came on the police department, you’re working towards your pension, you want to get that 32 years on the job. I’ve had a lot of officers with less than 10 years on the job leave me, two last month to start up their own company,” Clapprood told MassLive. “And these are young men in their late 20s, early 30s with less than five years.”
Worcester Police Chief Steven Sargent could not be reached for comment on staffing numbers and to answer questions on his department’s recent experience with hiring and retention.
Officers in Worcester, including those on last chance agreements, ranked among the highest-paid employees in the city in 2021. The highest-paid person on the city’s payroll was Police Lt. John Towns, who brought in over $302,000 in 2021.
‘I’ve never seen it like this before’
The civil service hiring and training process can take over a year to complete as recruits need to first sit for an exam, complete an application process with a department, and pass a background check. After the background check, the onboarding process can’t start until there’s a vacancy in a training academy.
Civil service laws in Massachusetts require departments to hire from a list of candidates provided by the state’s Civil Service Commission. There was a time when Heagney says he never made it off the first page of civil service candidates.
“I would never get off page one ever. I’m on page 13,” he said. “... I’ve never seen it like this before. It’s just getting people to become police officers is hard and then the people that are signing up, we’re not going to lower our standards.”
Since 2013, the number of police applicants for the civil service exam — which is administered every two years — in Massachusetts has declined overall. Last year, 10,345 people applied to take the exam compared to 16,813 in 2013, according to data provided by the Executive Office of Administration and Finance.
The numbers bounce around, but decline on average, when looking at just applicants for municipal police: 2,418 in 2013, 12,230 in 2015, 4,796 in 2017, 10,025 in 2019, and 2,925 in 2021.
The state’s Human Resources Division, which administers civil service in Massachusetts, declined to comment, instead pointing to a lengthy portion of state law that dictates the civil service process in the state.
Supporters of civil service say the system — which bases hiring and promotions on merit — helps eliminate patronage, provides protections to employees from discrimination, creates a fair set of standards for moving up in rank, and provides veterans special hiring status.
Northeastern University Criminology and Criminal Justice Professor Chris Bruell said the civil process does, in theory, give everyone an equal playing field and offers a “one-stop shopping” experience for candidates.
“You could qualify oneself for theoretically 145 or 146 different departments at the same time, simply by taking that test,” he said. “In terms of being a civil servant, there’s still that element of the protection for appeals for discipline, as well as termination under civil service where that would go to the state at that point, rather than in many instances to an arbiter who might be selected by a jurisdiction.”
Cronin said the exam is also intended to serve as a predictive measure of a person’s propensity to be a good police officer.
“That is the theoretical sort of idea behind all of these exam processes, whether or not they’ve achieved those ends is not entirely clear,” Cronin said. “And how well are they predictive of good performance as a police officer is not entirely known. But they do set some uniform baseline for what it means to be a police officer in the state of Massachusetts.”
Extensive examinations and training processes are important for the policing field because of the power officers hold, Cronin said. A centralized credentialing process like the one the state’s POST Commission is in charge of makes a lot of sense, Cronin said.
“If this is going to be a profession, it should be sort of treated like a profession with some barriers to entry into the field that are standardized and agreed upon,” Cronin said.
Heagney said the civil service hiring system in Massachusetts is “broken.”
Legislation filed at the state level would allow the Attleboro Police Department to hire in a non-civil service manner, send candidates to training academies, and then once they complete a one-year probation after graduating from training, they would enter into civil service.
“They really need to do away with civil service hiring. It’s an abomination. Its usefulness has expired,” he said. “... We’re just trying to remove the problematic process of civil service hiring. It would save us money, time, duplication of effort, it would increase productivity.”
Cronin said if people are going to hold policing up as a “high prestige type of job” then the length of time associated with becoming an officer is not outside of what other criminal justice jobs require.
“If we think of police officers having to make high stakes decisions and hard situations and deal with really complicated situations, then recruiting the right officers to start the training process is very important,” he said. “I think we could probably extend the training for police officers in the United States generally. In other countries, that process is much more lengthy, and rigorous, and guided by a great deal more by professional standards.”
The Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank based in the United States, found that duration and training types for police vary worldwide but that recruits in the United States spend “significantly less time in police academies than those in most European countries.”
“Basic U.S. training programs take twenty-one weeks on average, whereas similar European programs can last more than three years,” a Council of Foreign Relations study found. “In Finland and Norway, recruits study policing in national colleges, spending part of the time in an internship with local police, and earn degrees in criminal justice or related fields.”
A combination of causes
Upton Police Chief Michael Bradley, who serves as president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said there have been issues with recruitment and retention across the state. In the last couple of years, he said, roughly 100 chiefs of police have retired or left the profession.
Issues have seeped into recruitment as well.
“I know area departments where I am at have seen our numbers drop for applicants,” he said. “Five years ago, I would have maybe 70 or 80 applicants for one position and now it’s more like 15 or 20 with only two or three qualified candidates.”
Bradley traces departures in law enforcement — both among chiefs and officers — to a combination of causes.
“The last couple of years have been difficult for law enforcement with police reform, and new legislation and a little bit of the unknown in how to navigate those waters with the POST Commission,” he said. “There’s certainly still a lot of unknown as we recertify officers and have different demands put upon us.”
Bruell said it’s hard to tell how much current rhetoric around the profession plays into people leaving departments or deciding against becoming a police officer. It’s also difficult to rank its prominence against other hiring or retention issues and the recent nationwide wave of resignations dubbed the “Great Resignation.”
But the notion does have some “teeth,” he said.
“I don’t know that it’s the number one reason,” Bruell said. “But I think people are understanding that it’s really hard work. It’s really difficult to be a police officer as well, not just in terms of the experiences that one has, but it’s a two-way street, the way that police interact with community members, but also the way that community members interact with police officers.”
The state’s POST Commission adopted new recertification regulations on June 8 ahead of a July 1 deadline for officers with last names starting with letters A-H to recertify. The debate around the regulations centered on how employing agencies could consider an officer’s good moral character and fitness for employment.
Clapprood, the Springfield Police Department superintendent, attributes troubles with hiring and retention to a number of reasons that include the new credentialing requirement through the POST Commission.
“It’s some of these new expectations are taking a toll on morale, some of the questionnaires they’re filling out for POST, some of the lookbacks that are going on now to see people’s records and people’s records being tossed out in the public that has a big impact on morale,” Clapprood said. “The new qualifications and standards has a big impact on morale.”
The POST Commission and the state’s police certification system were created as part of a police reform law the Legislature passed and Gov. Charlie Baker signed in 2020. It was part of a nationwide push for greater policing accountability and additional transparency in the wake of Floyd’s murder.
Supporters of credentialling police in Massachusetts argued it creates a more uniform and rigorous approach to holding law enforcement officers accountable by documenting misconduct in a publicly searchable database.
Some departments have faced budget cuts in the wake of protests calling for more police accountability, transparency, and the creation of new public safety response methods.
The Northampton City Council voted in June 2020 to cut their department’s $6.7 million budget by 10 percent for the next fiscal year, MassLive previously reported. The budget cuts were used as a way to fund alternative methods of public safety, including the city’s Department of Community Care, which is tasked with responding to issues dealing with substance abuse and mental health.
Greenfield also recently voted to reduce the city’s police budget by $400,000 after a jury found the town’s police department discriminated against a Black former officer. The reduced budget leaves eight new officers without jobs, MassLive previously reported.
When the budget cuts in Northampton happened, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said five positions were eliminated. And since then, an additional 17 officers have left a department that has an authorized strength of 60 and actual strength of 58 officers, Kasper said.
“We laid off some as a result of the defunding, then we got our budget for the next fiscal year, and then 17 officers, in addition to the five, left this agency and went to mostly other police departments,” Kasper told MassLive.
The budget cut and turnover make for a hard pitch to potential recruits.
“It’s less of a pitch, other than just a recognition of where we are in policing. We are in the midst of a reform movement — nationwide, and certainly statewide,” Kasper said. “But at the end of the day, this is a police department that has an excellent reputation. It is accredited. We really want to see new people coming into the field who want to be developed and supported in-house.”
Unlike Pittsfield or Attleboro, the Northampton Police Department left civil service in 2005, which Kasper said gives the department more flexibility in hiring and speeds up the process. Typically, departments ultimately need legislative action at the state level to leave civil service but must first meet certain requirements and seek approval from local officials.
Outside of reductions, some departments are finding trouble attracting candidates from other regions because of housing, police chiefs say.
Yarmouth Police Chief Frank Frederickson said rising housing costs on Cape Cod have led people to look for jobs elsewhere. Last summer, Frederickson said two officers were starting out with a base salary of at least $60,000.
“But it was not enough to find a house that they could afford,” he said. “And they also did not qualify for any assistance or any other housing rental type things because they made too much money. So they’re in limbo.”
Bradley, the Upton police chief, said smaller departments losing out to better pay in larger cities like Boston is something that any industry experiences when there is a shortage or demand for workers.
And while the issue isn’t new in law enforcement, he said, there’s a little more strain on the system because of fewer applicants.
“If you go back 10, 20 years ago, or almost 30 years ago, when I started, there were a lot of applicants and there were a lot of people competing for positions,” he said. “You didn’t have some of the difficulties that we have now.”
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