Police

U.S. Cops Are Facing a Recruitment Crisis. Will It Force Them to Change Their Ways?

Nationally, 66 percent of police departments report seeing declining numbers of applications.

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The number of people applying to be cops in Montgomery County, Maryland, has dropped by half in recent years, according to a department complaint last week. Officials suggest it's because of growing national skepticism toward policing.

"When you do a job that's being highly criticized on a daily basis, we have to ask ourselves, how do we find good candidates that really want to be under that type of scrutiny," said Acting Police Chief Marcus Jones.

Montgomery County won't have an easy time importing its officers from other communities, either. Recruitment of law enforcement officers is down in areas around the country, and the drop in numbers is stark.

"The number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 residents decreased, from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17 in 2016," the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported last summer. The raw number of police officers in the U.S. also declined slightly, from 724,690 in 2013 to 701,169 in 2016.

Next door to Maryland, police departments in Virginia also saw declines in applications. So have departments in Minnesota, in Nashville, and in New York City, to name a few.

Nationally, 66 percent of police departments report seeing declining numbers of applications, according to a survey of 400 law enforcement agencies by the the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

The FBI suffers similar recruiting challenges, with special agent applicants plummeting from 68,500 in 2009 to 11,500 last year. This year, the Bureau doubled its recruitment advertising budget in an effort to attract more warm bodies.

These drops aren't necessarily a bad thing. The cop hiring crisis offers an opportunity for rethinking how we keep the peace in this country.

That opportunity could be squandered, however, if authorities don't address the problems of brutality and bias in police forces while resisting intrusive tactics that could make policing even nastier.

"The American policing profession may be facing the most fundamental questioning of its legitimacy in decades," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, in a 2017 organizational newsletter. "The very essence of policing is being debated in many cities, often because of controversial video recordings of police officers' actions. Community trust has eroded, and the professionalism of the police is being questioned."

A healthy job market gets some of the credit for the police recruitment crunch but, as Jones and Wexler describe, law enforcement has lost its gloss in the eyes of many Americans. Public opinion of law enforcement slid to a 22-year low in 2015, according to a Gallup poll.

Numbers have somewhat rebounded since, but that only emphasizes a racial gap in perceptions of police. African-Americans, in particular, tend to view cops as the government's enforcers rather than as protectors, amidst widely publicized racist incidents and concerns that their communities are disproportionately (and corruptly) targeted. In addition, a militarized police culture that arms officers with weapons of war and trains officers to treat the public as enemies worries those who feel targeted not over race, but just for not being cops.

The FBI has its own issues with declining supportespecially among Republicans—after once again getting drawn into political shenanigans. Given the Bureau's history of misconduct, it's arguably to Americans' discredit that it took so long for us to become disenchanted.

Heavy-handed modern policing hasn't just alienated the public; it's decimated the pool of potential recruits.

"Some potential hires are ineligible to be considered because of prior arrests and convictions on minor criminal charges, such as possessing an open container of alcohol in public," PERF's Wexler points out. "This situation is especially prevalent in agencies that have practiced strict 'zero tolerance' policing in the past."

That last point may offer a key to improving relations between the public and what used to be known as "peace officers," by pursuing a less confrontational approach to policing.

"This militarized transformation of American law enforcement—and all that comes with it…should not be a part of the American landscape," former Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief of Police Stephen Downing wrote for Reason five years ago. He went on to propose a program including ending drug prohibition, doing away with federal provision of military equipment and training to police departments, dumping civil asset forfeiture and its incentives to official banditry, reining-in search procedures, and establishing effective civilian oversight.

"With these kinds of reforms in place we could begin to heal our communities; diminish the mass incarceration of people of color; allow more parents to be with their children and fewer children to be sent to foster homes; recognize that addiction is a health rather than a criminal-justice problem, and supplant prison with treatment; abate the arms race between the police, gangs, and cartels; end police profiling; and restore the requirement of reasonable suspicion as an irrevocable feature of constitutional policing," he added.

Downing's proposals parallel, in many ways, the 2015 recommendations of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. While stopping short of a retreat on drug prohibition, the task force's report noted, "law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to impose control on the community." The report called for less-brutal tactics, consent-based searches, demilitarized police forces, and civilian oversight, among other changes.

The proposals were largely ignored at the time and pushed aside by the Trump administration's renewed emphasis on law-and-order policing even as crime rates continue their three-decade decline. But reformist ideas about restrained, less-intrusive policing aren't just philosophically attractive to those of us who care about liberty—they may help thinning police ranks reconcile with a hostile population.

Unfortunately, improvement isn't inevitable. Bad ideas abound, too.

"Contemporary researchers and police believe that they can…predict a crime before it happens—using computer algorithms," Reason's Ron Bailey warned in 2016.

Police in some communities already adjust how they interact with people they meet based on risk scores assigned by computer algorithms. Cops like predictive policing because it lets them target anticipated trouble spots. But such tactics can become self-fulfilling.

"This creates a vicious cycle where police are sent to certain locations because the program predicts these locations to have the most crime, and the police begin to believe these same locations have the most crime because these were the locations to which they were sent," cautions the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Dozens of cities have already deployed predictive policing software, Vice reported earlier this year. That means there's a good chance police will soon have a risk assessment appended to your name that will affect how much violence they bring to traffic stops and appearances at your door.

So, which will it be? Will law enforcement agencies rein-in their excesses and start interacting with the people around them as humans to be protected rather than as enemies to be dominated? Or will they instead assess us as committers of crimes that have yet to occur?

With their ranks diminishing and morale in the pits, policing will certainly change—for better or worse.

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  1. There are way too many cops as it is. Just because they want even more doesn’t mean it’s a crisis.

    1. There are also more people, which means more drug takers and more crime. As a person with a healthy evening news habit, I’m Well Informed about how high the crime rate has gotten. Our Police Officers need all the help they can get. I would even support a few years of mandatory service for all 18 year olds like how Israel does it.

      1. Sarcasm? If so, it was poorly done. If not, you need to get better sources. Despite the media hype, crime rates have been steadily falling for decades now.

        Several very good comparative studies have shown that the decline can not be statistically explained by differences in policing tactics. That is, the decline is the same in cities with lots of police using aggressive tactics as in cities with less aggressive policies.

  2. No.

  3. “When you do a job that’s being highly criticized on a daily basis, we have to ask ourselves, how do we find good candidates that really want to be under that type of scrutiny,” said Acting Police Chief Marcus Jones.

    Considering the number of people arrested for pointing camera phone lenses toward law enforcement, I don’t think you’ve ever had good candidates who invite scrutiny.

  4. As Serpico said. It’s not going to get better until the bad cop fears the good cop, and not the other way around.

    1. It’s not a problem of “bad cops”. A police officer can commit horrible injustices against citizens without deviating at all from their training and their handbook. It’s not going to get better until cops face prosecution for violating citizens’ rights.

      1. That’s only half the story. This isn’t going to get better until we stop policing peaceful human activity. Stop giving the police a never-ending list of reasons to interact with the public.

  5. “”These drops aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The cop hiring crisis offers an opportunity for rethinking how we keep the peace in this country.”

    Maybe, maybe not. It may make it more desirable to hire a cop that was fired from somewhere else, just because he was a cop.

  6. One option would be to eliminate as many “crimes” as possible, starting with the ones where there is no victim. Once people are comfortable walking around with a loose cigarette, or with a simple pocket knife, or get used to buying marijuana or sex like they buy other age restricted items, there will be a lot less tension between the cops and “everybody else”.
    But no, we just have a way to hire more cops for the same old ways.

    1. Maybe even “have to find a way” ?

    2. “One option would be to eliminate as many “crimes” as possible, starting with the ones where there is no victim.”

      Said no police or prison guard union ever.

  7. Any chance an improving economy is giving people more and other sorts of employment opportunities?

    Government work being about the only thing that grows in an economic downturn.

    Perhaps looking at some longer trend lines might tell a better story?

    1. Yes, they referenced that point in the article. Also, just because short term trends are downward doesn’t mean we are at a cop shortage. I think I can assume that the number of police officers was likely at an all time high in the past few years, and I doubt that the numbers will continue decreasing for long.

      1. So, not a crisis then.

  8. I have a relative who joined the army as an MP so she could be a cop when she got out. found out how crooked all the cops were that they worked with and decided to not be a cop when she got out. its the police who need policing and new methods of dealing with the public more like Andy Griffith of Mayberry and less like a warriors in Falujha. Watched Live PD and they went to arrest a person on a warrant with a dozen cops acting like there was a sniper on every roof by having some cops sweep their guns in every direction as if they were ready for an ambush, fucking clowns.

  9. Why would anyone with good qualifications and talent want to go to work in a union shop?

    1. In the hope of becoming a union boss?

      1. Good qualifications is not how you become a union boss. Talent for corruption and intimidation, maybe.

  10. no shortage of applicants in California — the pay and benefits and pension are too good to pass up. 70K to start (several years ago, probably more now), and retire at near full pay (or more if you game it) after only 30 years, in your early 50s. Hard to beat that.

    The nationwide drop in applicants is undoubtedly due to the strong economy giving the marginally employable more options. Being a cop is a tough job compared to a lot of others.

  11. “The very essence of policing is being debated in many cities, often because of controversial video recordings of police officers’ actions.

    Misplaced the adjective. It’s not the videos that are controversial, it’s the police officers’ actions.

  12. Half as many cops sounds like a great start.

  13. I know in Seattle they can’t recruit anybody, because they treat the cops like shit, and won’t let them do their job. There are bad cops that need to be dealt with harshly, but many cities are now outright anti-police from an SJW moron perspective, and simply hate them on principle… Because having a civilized society that maintains standards is evil or something.

    A cop here told me a ton of people that do work for SPD are all shopping around for gigs in other cities/counties where they actually are allowed to do their jobs and aren’t default considered evil people for maintaining order.

    1. Another problem is that many urban police departments are under consent decrees from the Justice Dept. requiring them to increase minority hiring. In many cities the racial disparity between the police force and the population is such that the police are virtually forbidden to hire any more white officers. They end up perpetually understaffed as they struggle to find Black applicants who can pass minimum standards.

      1. Yup. And then the few blacks or Hispanics they hire STILL aren’t allowed to do their jobs because apparently they’re racist against their own people in their arrest percentages!

        It’s all a farce.

    2. Maybe the cops should just stop doing so much evil?

      1. THEY DON’T. At least not the kind delusional people think they do.

        Everybody likes to focus on one dude getting an over the top smack down… Ignoring that there were 10,000 police interactions that fell within the range of acceptable behavior for every one time shit goes horribly wrong. I think bad cops needs to get their asses handed to them, but after I stopped being a snot nosed 18 year old kid I came to realize the police do a valuable job. Reforms are needed, but they’re not the devil.

        1. Maybe you’re confused here. Let me help clarify.

          Drug laws = evil

          Cops = enforcing drug laws

          cops = evil

          Pretty simple goddamn math, Vek. It goes for every single amoral law that police uphold. They have a choice in being a police officer, and even as a police officer they have a choice in who to arrest and when and how. If a police officer is willing do to something like kidnap and imprison a person because they have weed, then how are they any better than the ones who wrote the law in the first place?

          Just because enforcing the law is your job doesn’t make it right to do so. You can always find other work. The ones that stay and continue doing police work are the ones sociopathic enough to continue enforcing bad laws on normal people.

          There is a huge difference between illegal and wrong. Just because an arrest for possession went peacefully doesn’t make it right. Fuck all of this “the law is what it is” nonsense. Everybody has a goddamn choice, including the cops. THEY DON’T HAVE TO DO THE GODDAMN JOB, VEK.

          If every single police officer in America simply grew a conscience and stopped enforcing bad, evil, and blatantly unconstitutional laws tomorrow morning, I might be on your side. But they won’t, because the pay and benefits are too good. Imagine that, would you? People willing to do amoral things to folks because they’re paid to do it with stolen (sorry-TAXED) funds. Sounds almost like knights in a feudal society, yeah?

          Trip there isn’t saying there should be no cops. He’s saying they should be the paragons of justice they’re envisioned as. And that’s not possible if they’re willing to do awful and immoral things just because they’re told to, or are afraid of losing their jobs for not doing so.

          Put another way, less hate-rant-ish: A bad, immoral, or illegal law has no traction if nobody is willing to enforce it. If a law is amoral, only those without morals will enforce it.

          People without morals, willing to do terrible things to innocent people = evil

          And yes, Vek, arresting someone is evil. Forcing them to go through a kidnapping and Christ only knows how many court proceedings is evil. Making people spend their money and time defending themselves from horseshit victimless laws is EVIL.

          Clear enough?

  14. only going to get harder in the coming years as reality necessitates pension reform.

  15. […] Source: U.S. Cops Are Facing a Recruitment Crisis. Will It Force Them to Change Their Ways? – Reason.com […]

  16. […] as Reason magazine recently pointed out, nationally, 66 percent of police departments report seeing declining numbers of applications, […]

  17. […] A healthy job market gets some of the credit for the police recruitment crunch but, as Jones and Wexler describe, law enforcement has lost its gloss in the eyes of many Americans. Public opinion of law enforcement slid to a 22-year low in 2015, according to a Gallup poll. Read More > at Reason […]

  18. […] La nivel național, 66% din departamentele de poliție raportează o scădere a numărului de cereri de angajare. […]

  19. […] pushback can have a larger impact beyond the immediate incident. Police departments across the country, as well as the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI, are facing recruitment […]

  20. […] pushback can have a larger impact beyond the immediate incident. Police departments across the country, as well as the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI, are facing recruitment […]

  21. […] pushback can have a larger impact beyond the immediate incident. Police departments across the country, as well as the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI, are facing recruitment […]

  22. […] pushback can have a larger impact beyond the immediate incident. Police departments across the country, as well as the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI, are facing recruitment […]

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