Why law enforcement is facing unprecedented challenges in hiring and keeping recruits

In the wake of a spasmodic year of protests and pandemic, the profession may be fast approaching a generational and possibly historic reckoning


Reprinted with permission from Behind the Badge

By Greg Mellen

It’s not easy being Blue.

The understaffing and negativity have an expected effect on officers, who are feeling the strain.
The understaffing and negativity have an expected effect on officers, who are feeling the strain. (Photo/Steven Georges of Behind the Badge)

For several years now police departments have struggled to recruit, hire and retain officers to fill their thinning ranks. In the wake of a spasmodic year of protests and pandemic, plus an aftermath of violent crime, the profession may be fast approaching a generational and possibly historic reckoning.

“We are in uncharted territory right now,” Executive Director Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit police policy research group, told National Public Radio. “Policing is being challenged in ways I haven’t seen – ever.”

The outflow of officers retiring and resigning earlier and earlier has become a torrent while at the same time, the influx of academy graduates has slowed to a trickle.

The confluence of factors that have combined to create this moment include:

  • Rapid increases in retirements and resignations
  • Fewer applicants
  • The COVID-19 pandemic
  • Negative portrayals of and attitudes toward police
  • Lengthy and difficult entrance requirements
  • Low unemployment nationally and a strong job market
  • Attitudinal changes and expectations of Millennials and Gen-Xers

Overlay all this with existing officers being overworked, burned out, and stressed out, at a time when the mental wellness of police is a growing concern and being closely examined.

The modern landscape

Numbers across the country are grim.

In June, PERF surveyed nearly 200 agencies to examine “stories about a staffing crisis in policing.” This study came just two years after a larger report by the group titled, “The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies are Doing About It.”

The International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2019 issued a survey “The State of Recruitment: A Crisis in Law Enforcement.”

Sense a trend?

PERF found in its most recent report:

  • Retirements increased 45 percent
  • Resignations were up 18 percent
  • Hiring was down 5 percent
  • 93 percent of authorized positions were filled

In Southern California, the news isn’t much better.

In Bakersfield, the Bakersfield Police Department received funding to beef up its staffing to 500 officers to meet the needs of its growing population, but has struggled to fill the 50 additional openings.

“Our biggest challenge these days is getting people to realize Bakersfield isn’t just a small town off the freeway,” Assistant Chief Mike Hale said.

In Westminster, officers have plenty of opportunities to work overtime, which might be more appealing if it weren’t required due to short-staffing.

“We have at least three officers pulling overtime every shift,” Westminster Police Commander Kevin MacCormick said. Currently, the Westminster Police Department has 80 officers to fill a budgeted 88 positions, and six of those officers are currently in training.

Trainees count toward personnel levels but cannot act as independent officers and must ride with a training officer, making Westminster Police Department’s effective officer count 74, said

MacCormick said officers assigned to motor patrol and traffic safety are often pulled into patrol duties. He added that it is tough to compete with larger surrounding communities all trying to pull from a shrinking pool of candidates.

“We don’t have all the sexy stuff of other departments,” he said, alluding to special equipment and units. “You’re fighting with all the big cities.”

In August, the Los Angeles Daily News reported the Los Angeles Police Department had 296 empty officer positions and almost 500 fewer officers on duty than this time last year, according to LAPD reports. In 2020, the number of officers dipped below 10,000 for the first time in more than a decade, with 631 retirements or resignations.

In New York, 2,600 officers retired in 2020, up 491 from the year before. In the Portland, Ore. Police Department, 144 cops retired or resigned, a more than three-fold increase from the year before.

Recruit applicants jump a six-foot wall during Tustin Police Department's physical agility test in November 2020.
Recruit applicants jump a six-foot wall during Tustin Police Department's physical agility test in November 2020. (Photo/Steven Georges of Behind the Badge)

Burnout and stress

The understaffing and negativity have an expected effect on officers, who are feeling the strain.

“They’re worn out,” LAPD Chief Michel Moore told the LA Daily News. “They’re frustrated. They’re tired. They’re feeling fatigued, and they’re saying they’re looking for options outside the profession.”

Over the past five years, a quarter of the resignations have come from officers with less than five years on the job, according to the LA Daily News.

“Certainly with the way police have been portrayed and vilified in some cases, they have decided that it is not the life for them,” said Chief David Zack of the Asheville Police Department in North Carolina to the New York Times after losing nearly a third of his force.

According to the PERF report, Minneapolis Chief Medaria Arradondo said reduced staffing made his department ‘one dimensional,’ with officers reacting to 911 calls and unable to do “proactive policing.”

Root causes

So why is the pool of potential candidates shrinking? Again, there are a number of factors. Let’s begin with the most basic of American values: pay.

Pay for police work varies widely from state to state and by region. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for patrol officers was about $65,000. Since median pay indicates the point where half of salaries are either above or below the number, entry-level officers tend to make less – sometimes significantly less.

Job recruiting sites report wide spreads. According to Ziprecruter.com, entry-level police salaries range from $44,239 to $68,817 in California. Indeed.com sets the average entry-level wage in California at $62,542.

In some departments, such as Santa Ana Police Department, starting wages are much higher. A graduate coming out of the police academy earns between $92,000 and $112,000 depending on education, and the department adds premium pay for bilingual skills.

Nationally, the average starting salary for a college graduate from the class of 2020 was  $56,484, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers winter report. However, about 17 percent of 2019 graduates said they expected to earn more than $85,000 per year from their first job after graduation, according to a survey by AIG Retirement Services and EVERFI.

Police experts say many younger job seekers fail to recognize or put little value in the benefits most departments offer, including paid academy, overtime opportunities, regular pay increases, job security and generous retirement benefits.

Studies show younger job seekers are more interested in other kinds of compensation. According to the IACP, these candidates “are more apt to value work-life balance than their Baby Boomer counterparts.”

Police departments are slowly catching on and have begun to offer other incentives, offering student debt relief, flexible schedules, shorter academies, or online training options. A number of departments also pay for academy training and salaries while candidates are in the police academy, signing bonuses, and early raises.

Some, like the Bakersfield Police Department, tout the benefits of their communities as desirable places to settle.

“We are one of California’s biggest cities, we have a diverse community, an award-winning restaurant scene, an active outdoor life, and you can still buy a home here, which isn’t always the case in a lot of California,” Hale said. “Police officers can live and work in Bakersfield and still be home in time for dinner.”

Issues such as affordability, culture, quality of life, and diversity can all be draws to certain areas that might otherwise be overlooked.

Like many departments, Bakersfield has also marketed aggressively on social media with promotions that tend to reach younger applicants with headlines such as “10 reasons why job seekers should apply at Bakersfield Police Department.”

Even with those benefits, police departments have to adapt to a kind of generational wanderlust and transience. Many youngsters are not interested in building a career with one agency, or even in one profession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average tenure in a job is 4.1 years.

Golden West College Police Academy Class 153 graduation recruits take the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics oath at the conclusion of graduation ceremonies in March 2017.
Golden West College Police Academy Class 153 graduation recruits take the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics oath at the conclusion of graduation ceremonies in March 2017. (Photo/Steven Georges of Behind the Badge)

The perception problem

2021 Gallup Americans’ Confidence In Major Institutions poll found only 51 percent of adults placed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in police.

That is the second-worst rating in the history of the poll, which launched in 1973. However, that rating was 3 percent higher than the 2020 poll, conducted when civil protests and demonstrations still roiled in the streets. The 48 percent mark in 2020 was the first time less than a majority of adults had “a great deal” of faith in the police.

Police are under more scrutiny than ever with the proliferation of personal recording devices, viral videos and social media postings and so-called “audits” of police behavior online. This has led police to become more leery of the public.

About 81 percent of police officers felt unfairly treated by media in a 2017 Pew Center study of agencies with 100 or more officers, and that was before the protests and public posting trends. Other studies by the Pew Center show deepening and troubling trends in race relations with the police and the public.

A state poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found only 39 percent of residents thought police treated all races fairly “some of the time,” or “almost never.” Among Blacks, that number fell to 19 percent.

As first-responders, police also face greater exposure to the COVID-19 virus, which deters possible candidates.

Of course, it could be worse.

According to Gallup, Congress, television news, big business, the criminal justice system, and newspapers all have confidence ratings at or below 21 percent.

Making the grade

Merely getting to and through the police academy can be a long and taxing experience. Typically police department candidates undergo a written exam, agility and endurance drills, several interviews, a background check and a polygraph. This is in addition to the basic training academy, which is a state-mandated minimum of 664 hours, but can be more than 1,000 hours. During the academy, recruits are tested in 42 separate areas.

When Steven Hunt was Chief of the Azusa Police Department, he told Scriberrnews in 2019 that of 100 preliminary candidates that his department vetted, not one remained after the process was complete.

Many departments say it is common for 90 percent or more of applicants to fail to pass the screening process.

Increasingly, police departments also prefer that applicants have a college degree. The hiring process as a whole often can take four months to more than a year to complete. Many applicants may not want – or be able – to wait that long. With many other businesses in hiring mode, waiting and wading through police bureaucracies can be unappealing.

And it’s easy to be disqualified for transgressions including past drug use (even for now-legalized marijuana), bad credit, and even speeding tickets. Some departments still disqualify candidates for visible tattoos. While many have relaxed the prohibition, candidates with vulgar or racist ink can be disqualified.

Silver linings

The good news for those interested in a career in law enforcement and the perseverance to go through the process is that most police departments are hiring.

In Orange County, not all police departments are struggling to fill vacancies.

While that makes it tougher for candidates to get into some agencies, plenty of options are available nearby in fine agencies.

In Santa Ana, during the past year, there were times when all vacancies had been filled for the first time in 20 years, according to Police Chief David Valentin.

Similarly, the Tustin Police Department reports no difficulty hiring and recruiting and had only three open spots in early September, according to Sgt. Matt Nunley.

Nunley said, like in Santa Ana, the agency’s reputation precedes it, making Tustin a popular destination for new and lateral recruits. Nunley also credits positive leadership.

“If command isn’t supportive, I imagine it’s pretty depressive,” he said.

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

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