Philly PD is short 1,300 officers and the situation is about to get worse

More than 800 officers and civilian employees have set retirement dates within the next four years after enrolling in the city's deferred pension program


By Anna Orso and Ryan W. Briggs
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Police Department has faced a critical shortage of officers for months — one that's all but certain to get worse as hundreds more cops plan to leave.

With the police force already operating about 20% below its target staffing level, more than 800 officers and civilian employees have set retirement dates within the next four years by enrolling in the city's deferred pension program.

Philly PD is virtually guaranteed to see about 200 retirements for each of the next four years. But this year, just 120 cadets will be eligible to graduate from the police academy.
Philly PD is virtually guaranteed to see about 200 retirements for each of the next four years. But this year, just 120 cadets will be eligible to graduate from the police academy. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The decades-old program helps officials prepare for the departure of longtime employees by allowing city workers to begin collecting on pension benefits four years before they retire. Fresh pension records analyzed by The Inquirer show the number of Police Department enrollees doubled in four years.

The figures mean officers are leaving faster than the department can recruit them. The force is virtually guaranteed to see about 200 retirements for each of the next four years. But this year, just 120 cadets will be eligible to graduate from the police academy.

The wave of impending retirements comes atop nearly 600 existing officer vacancies, soaring resignations, and hundreds of injury claims that have taken more cops off active duty. All told, the force is already some 1,300 officers short of its full complement of 6,380.

The growing officer shortage within one of the nation's largest police forces is colliding with the highest rates of gun violence Philadelphia has seen in generations. Last year, there were 562 homicides, the most in recorded history — and so far this year, the pace has not slowed.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw invoked the staffing crisis following a West Philadelphia shooting that on Tuesday night left five young men wounded and 100 shell casings outside a recreation center.

Outlaw said adequate staffing allows police to have a more "visible presence."

"We will never, ever be able to truly quantify how much violence would never occur," she said, "if prospective offenders see police in the area before they act."

The officer exodus coincided with both a political shift around policing and a broader trend of municipal workers leaving their jobs in droves. Outlaw has said for months that morale among officers is low, which she has attributed in part to politics and increased scrutiny.

Ranks have dwindled in almost every unit, and the effects are noticeable. Police response times have slowed since 2020. Some officers were redeployed to boost patrol strength.

Officials admit recruitment has faltered, blaming both the city's uniquely stringent hiring requirements and a nationwide shortage that has made the market for recruits more competitive.

They emphasize that the problem isn't unique to Philadelphia. Police departments across the country have faced severe challenges recruiting officers, with some offering massive signing bonuses or retention pay.

"It's been very difficult across the country to have people wanting to get into policing and law enforcement," Mayor Jim Kenney said during a recent news conference. "I can't force people to become police officers."

A department hemorrhaging cops

While agencies across city government have buckled under persistent short-staffing over the last year, police in Philadelphia are leaving more quickly than other municipal workers. They also make up a disproportionate amount of expected retirees, according to city employment records.

As of July, 809 Police Department employees were enrolled in the city's Deferred Retirement Option Plan, known as DROP. While uniformed police and civilian staff account for about a quarter of the city workforce, they make up more than 40% of the workers enrolled in DROP.

The full number of department retirees in the coming years will likely be even higher, because not all Police Department retirees enroll in DROP — over the past three years, more than a third did not.

In all, the department is likely to see more than double the 100 annual retirements averaged before the pandemic.

In addition to those retiring, some officers will inevitably quit. And resignations similarly surged last year: According to the department, 128 officers quit in 2021, more than twice the year prior.

While resignations across the municipal government as a whole slowed this year, the same cannot be said for the Police Department. Eighty-seven officers have already resigned this year, meaning the department is on track for more resignations than 2021.

Atop it all, injury claims are keeping hundreds of paid officers out of work — a trend driven, in part, by some exploiting disability programs. Today, about 580 police officers report being too injured to work, and another 110 are on "limited duty."

Aaron Chalfin, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said shortages have a real effect on crime.

He said research shows lower police staffing is linked to increases in both violent and property crime. Experts believe that's because when more officers are in an area, they're making more arrests, and their mere presence deters crime.

"It doesn't mean every city and every year there will be an impact," Chalfin said. "But at a 30,000-foot view of it, murder is responsive to the number of police officers. Overall violent crime is responsive. Property crime is responsive."

Others see the shortage as an opportunity to fill the void with support systems outside law enforcement to curb those same problems.

The city's police budget grew by about $30 million this year, with some money earmarked for recruitment. But Kris Henderson, executive director of the Amistad Law Project, advocated for using the reduction of the force to reinvest some of those funds in quality-of-life services, job programs, and community-based violence intervention.

"People in a few neighborhoods of the city are really hurting, really need something holistic," Henderson said, "and it's frustrating that the only thing that's really being given is more money for cops."

Why hiring is not keeping pace

Recruiting officers was a struggle even before the pandemic.

Some police brass recall days when academy classes had more than 100 recruits each. But even in 2019, four different classes saw an average of just 57 cadets.

Then, hiring virtually ground to a halt during the pandemic. Today, according to police data, there are 160 cadets in the academy who will be eligible to become new officers within the next year. But they are hardly enough to dent 600 existing vacancies — let alone the hundreds more anticipated.

The slow hiring can be chalked up to a handful of social and regulatory factors.

Across the nation, departures from police departments accelerated dramatically in 2021, creating an overwhelming demand for officers.

At home, Philadelphia's transit police have also struggled to staff up, while in other Pa. cities, like Pittsburgh, police staffing has reached critical levels. The Los Angeles Police Department has 650 fewer officers than before the pandemic, and officials from Seattle, to Phoenix, to Atlanta all say they're similarly scrambling to hire cops.

But some argue local policies have exacerbated the staff shortages in the Philadelphia Police Department.

The city's residency requirement has been a major barrier to hiring, department leaders have said. In 2020, City Council passed a law requiring applicants live in the city for a year before applying. Philadelphia is the only large American city with such a rule.

During a spring City Council hearing, police leaders said after the rule took effect in 2021, applications dropped by 30%.

In April, the Kenney administration waived the pre-residency requirement for police officers. But it contributed to a deficit the department has not recovered from.

Additionally, the vast majority of applicants fail to pass a battery of screening programs.

The department said last year, for example, it invited nearly 3,800 applicants to attend spring orientation.

Just 900 showed up. Upwards of 500 failed the reading test or agility test. More were eliminated following drug tests, background checks, and a psychological evaluation.

The department ultimately offered jobs to 65 people. Forty-eight started training at the academy.

Just 41 graduated.

'I'm very concerned'

Kenney said the Police Department, which has a nearly $800 million budget, is recruiting on campuses and at job fairs but "it's difficult to get people to want to be in public service."

The city is trying several tactics to widen the pool. The department slightly reduced the age to apply from 21 to 20, a change that follows reductions to age and education requirements made in 2017.

The department also partnered with local colleges and the YMCA to prepare recruits for the reading and agility tests. In June, City Council allocated an additional $250,000 for recruitment.

But with gun violence still at historic highs, the police shortage is likely to be a sticky issue — just as the campaign for Philadelphia's next mayor heats up.

Former City Councilmember Allan Domb, who last week resigned and is considering running for mayor, led a hearing on police staffing in the spring. He says the city isn't equipped to fix the shortage on its own and should hire outside firms to help find cadets, promote the benefits of being a police officer, and study the department's pay scale.

"I'm very concerned," he said. "You can't improve our public safety if we don't have a police department."

Others have suggested the city could replace some uniformed officers with civilians, including at-large City Councilmember Helen Gym, who is also considered a potential mayoral contender. She has championed policies like assigning health care providers to respond to people in mental health crises.

Gym said the "alarming" vacancy rate means police should civilianize as many functions as possible to free up uniformed officers.

"The public has made it very clear that the top priority is focusing on violent crime," she said. "Trained officers are the ones most suited to be able to do that."

NEXT: A 13-step plan for speeding up the police recruitment process

Inquirer staff writer Chris Palmer contributed to this article.

(c)2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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