Ohio city says it's seeing fewer, but more diverse, police applicants

"Our goal is always to make our police department look like our community," said Lt. Allen Fite, who leads Akron's recruitment unit

By Sean McDonnell
Akron Beacon Journal

AKRON, Ohio — The city of Akron is trying to hire the next generation of police officers, but it's seeing about half the interest in joining the force as just a couple years ago.

Akron police want to hire 50 police officers over the next two years. However, a recruiting effort launched in April brought in 757 applications, down from the 1,433 attracted during a similar out in 2019.

Cadets of the Akron Police Department Academy keep socially distanced as they await their graduation ceremony May 28, 2020, at Canal Park.
Cadets of the Akron Police Department Academy keep socially distanced as they await their graduation ceremony May 28, 2020, at Canal Park. (Tribune News Service)

It's a sign that less people are interested in the profession, and it comes at a time when retirements and resignations on the force also are trending upward. But the problem isn't unique to Akron.

[READ: 5 takeaways for police recruiters from the ‘Who wants to be a cop?’ series]

"It's a nationwide issue, and it's definitely something we're seeing across the state of Ohio," said Sarah Shendy, director of Ohio's Office of Law Enforcement Recruitment.

Akron working to fill spots in the police department

Akron has put a lot of effort into bringing in new officers, conducting large recruiting drives and making changes so the department is more competitive.

In 2019, Akron police relaunched its academy and started paying cadets $28.30 an hour with benefits during their 24-week training. The maximum age also was raised from 35 to 40 to help attract both diverse candidates and military veterans.

After those changes in 2019, the department brought in 1,433 applications. The department hired 45 of those applicants in 2019 and another 15 in 2021.

In the past 3½ years, the department has been able to stay slightly ahead of attrition.

According to personnel records obtained through a records request, the department has added eight more officers than it's lost since the beginning of 2018.

From 2018 through this month, Akron police have made 91 hires, but 52 officers have retired and 30 have resigned.

Akron police have averaged 12 to 13 retirements a year since 2018, but have already had 14 so far in 2021, according to records. The department had nine resignations in all of2018 and nine so far in 2021.

Lt. Allen Fite, commander of Recruitment and Background Units, said the department expected a lower turnout on applications and the recent increases in retirements and resignations.

The department started recruiting with the goal of hiring 50 more officers. Fite said that's still the plan, but hiring will happen sooner than expected.

He said the department would like to get about 17 to 20 cadets who already have peace officer certifications into an accelerated academy that would start in October. He said the fast-track class is to help fill gaps because the department expects to lose more officers this year to retirements.

The department would then run a full academy starting in January.

Police applicants a smaller but more diverse class

Akron did get fewer applicants, but the men and women who applied are more diverse.

In 2021, 27% of the applicants were Black, an increase from 24% in 2019. Non-white applicants made up 40% of the potential officers in 2021, compared to 36% in 2019.

In both 2019 and 2021, only one out of five applicants were women.

Fite said he's not happy with the overall number of recruits, but he is happy about the diversity.

"Our goal is always to make our police department look like our community," Fite said.

He said the recruiting team worked hard to bring in good and diverse recruits, despite the challenges.

[READ: Minority applicants share their experiences during the police recruitment process]

Fite said COVID-19 precautions limited the places recruiters could go and cut into the face-to-face time they'd normally get with potential applicants.

He said the department went into it knowing the profession has been "sort of under the gun."

This year's hashtag for recruiting was "The Difference is You."

"We wanted people to make a difference," Fite said. "If you want to change law enforcement, come in and make a difference."

Why do fewer people want to be cops?

Fite said some people are rethinking going into policing, and others already in the career field are thinking about if they want to remain.

"It's a reality today that law enforcement is going through changes and it's not as popular as a career field as it was even four to five years ago," Fite said.

Fite said in the last 10 to 15 years, the department might see anywhere from 1,200 to 1,600 applicants during a recruiting cycle.

Before then, he said the department could see 3,000 or more applicants.

Fite said most departments are seeing the same problems.

Clay Cozart, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Akron Lodge 7, said the department has an excellent recruiting team. He said the shortage has more to do with the uphill battle they're facing.

Cozart said local and national politicians have put out a false narrative that has criticized and condemned the police profession.

"We continue to lose young officers to other departments who pay more but also to other professions where the compensation and working conditions are much better and without the detractors," Cozart said.

[READ: What young cops want (and what police leaders can do about it)]

Fite said the department pays well, but there are departments that pay more. He said officers have left for other jurisdictions that paid more or were closer to home.

Communities statewide struggle to attract officers

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine created a new agency last year to help departments statewide that are struggling to find police officers.

Shendy, a Copley police officer, was named its director of the new Office of Law Enforcement Recruitment in September.

She said departments are facing both recruitment and retention issues for a host of reasons. Large departments are suffering the most.

One reason is retirements, she said.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton and others pushed for more community policing, and departments hired large groups of officers.

Those officers are all hitting retirement age all at once, she said, adding that with the emotional and mental toll police face, it's tough to stick around more than 25 years.

Shendy's the first to say she has the "best job in the world." But an average officer will also see about 600 to 800 traumatic incidents across their career, she said. The average person sees a handful.

Officers leave the profession for a variety of other reasons, from COVID-19 concerns to lack of childcare options, Shendy said.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests and riots that followed after didn't help, Shendy said.

COVID-19 made it even harder to repair those relationships, she said. The normal things police do to engage the community, like ride-alongs, safety towns and coffee with a cop events, all stopped for safety reasons.

"Things were taken away from us at a really tough time," she said.

Police departments aren't alone in worker shortages. Many types of businesses are having a hard time looking for workers.

The solutions: Bringing people back into the profession

Fite is one of three generations in his family to join law enforcement. His father was an Akron cop before him, and his son is now on the force.

He still believes what his father taught him and what he taught his son: Being an officer gives them the chance to "make a difference in other people's lives."

Fite said the profession also has to progress and change with the times.

Fite is hopeful that the city can create a mentorship program that can lead young people into the career. He said it's something they're already working on through Akron's efforts to reimagine public safety.

"If we're getting these young people in, they're going to be in a situation where they're learning more and more about law enforcement," Fite said.

He said eventually, attitudes towards law enforcement will shift.

"I think it's a pendulum, and I think it will swing back the other way," he said.

Shendy said shifting attitudes will start with community engagement.

In her 13 years of police work, Shendy said she's never talked to a civilian who understands what cops do.

She said that lack of understanding is one of the profession's biggest mistakes.

"Our job entails so much, and if people really understood what we do and why we do what we do, they'd want to be part of the team," Shendy said.

She said people assume police just make traffic stops, handle accidents and solve crimes.

A lot of the marketing police used in the past shows an action-packed job with officers kicking in doors and handling SWAT operations, Shendy said. That's probably only 10% to 20% of what officers do, she said.

What people don't see are cops working as victim advocates, teachers, counselors and problem solvers.

She said departments need to engage and educate the community, and that individual officers will have a big role as "walking billboards" for the profession.

"When people see who you are and what you do, they're going to want to be a police officer," she said. "They're going to want to be part of the change."

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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