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Police officer hiring in US increases in 2023 after years of decline, PERF survey shows

As a whole though, the profession “isn’t out of the woods yet” said PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler


AP Photo/John Minchillo

By Claudia Lauer
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Police departments across the United States are reporting an increase in their ranks for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 killing of George Floyd, which led to a historic exodus of officers, a survey shows.

More sworn officers were hired in 2023 than in any one of the previous four years, and fewer officers overall resigned or retired, according to the 214 law enforcement agencies that responded to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF.

“I just think that the past four years have been particularly challenging for American policing,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF, a nonprofit policing think tank based in Washington, D.C. “And our survey shows we’re finally starting to turn a corner.”

Individual departments are turning that corner at different rates, however, according to Wexler, who noted many are still struggling to attract and keep officers.

As a whole, the profession “isn’t out of the woods yet,” he said.

The survey shows that while small and medium departments had more sworn officers than they did in January 2020, large departments are still more than 5% below their staffing levels from that time, even with a year-over-year increase from 2022 to 2023.

The survey also showed smaller departments with fewer than 50 officers are still struggling with a higher rate of resignations and retirements.

The survey asked only for numbers, Wexler said, so it’s hard to say whether those officers are leaving for larger departments or leaving the profession altogether. He also said smaller departments, which account for 80% of agencies nationwide, were underrepresented in the responses PERF received.

Many larger departments have increased officer pay or started offering incentives such as signing bonuses for experienced officers who are willing to transfer, something smaller departments can’t really compete with. At least a dozen smaller departments have disbanded, leaving the municipalities they once served to rely on state or county help for policing.

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But even some of the highest-paying large departments are still struggling to get new hires in the door.

“I don’t think it’s all about money. I think it’s about the way people perceive their job and feel they are going to be supported,” Wexler said. “You have West Coast departments that are paying six figures, but still seeing major challenges in hiring.”

In addition to pay and bonuses, many agencies are reexamining their application requirements and hiring processes.

Wexler believes some of those changes make sense, including allowing visible tattoos, reweighing the importance of past financial issues and processing applicants’ background checks faster. But he cautioned that PERF does not support lowering standards for training or for applicants.

PERF’s survey showed a more than 20% drop in resignations overall, from a high of almost 6,500 in 2022 to fewer than 5,100 in 2023. They are still up over early pandemic levels in 2020, however, when a few more than 4,000 officers resigned across all responding departments.

As with the hiring increases, the rate of decrease in retirements tended to depend on the size of the departments. There were fewer retirements in 2023 than in 2019 at large departments, slightly more retirements at medium departments and elevated retirements at small departments. The survey found a steep drop in resignations at large agencies with 250 or more officers and medium-size agencies with between 50 and 249 officers.

In addition to pay and benefit increases, the improved retention can be partly attributed to a shift in how some public officials view their public safety departments, Wexler says.

“We went from having public discourse about defunding the police just a few years ago to public officials waking up to the fact their workforce is leaving,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question that there has been a sea change among political leaders.”

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