In an attempt to push back at the anger over violent police conduct and efforts to reform policing in America, we've been warned that all this outrage is damaging police morale, causing officers to quit and recruiting to plunge, possibly contributing to 2020's spike in homicides and gun violence.
A survey released in July by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found what they called a "widespread staffing crisis," declaring a dramatic 45 percent increase in retirements between 2019 and 2020 and an 18 percent increase in resignations.
This report when it was released drove a lot of fretful reporting that the "political climate"—demands for police defunding and restrictions on police behavior—was pushing cops out the door. The survey actually presents it as a more complex matter. Some of the quotes from the departments they've surveyed suggest that officers were retiring as soon as they could because they didn't want to deal with the policing conflicts, but other quotes indicated other reasons and one mentioned "pandemic fatigue." Some departments insisted that everything was fine, while others indicated that the problem was not with who they were losing, but with difficulty recruiting new officers.
A lot of people quit, retired, or lost their jobs during the pandemic. So this doesn't really tell us much about increases in police resignations and retirements compared to other fields; we don't have enough evidence to indicate that it's a morale issue connected to demands for policing reform.
Once we actually do put the losses in the context of all other industries, the reality becomes clear: We actually have not seen a massive decline in the number of police compared to drops in employment in other fields. Over at The Marshall Project, reporters looked at the actual numbers coming out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In reality, police employment has been fairly stable, losing less than 1 percent—4,000 jobs—during 2020.
The losses actually followed several years of expanded police job growth, essentially returning it back to numbers from just a couple of years ago.
The Marshall Project also notes that the defunding of the police that we keep hearing about is not really happening. The Biden administration is allowing cities to use the $350 billion in COVID relief funding to hire more officers. Peter Moskos, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The Marshall Project that many of the officers who retired were likely to retire in the next couple of years anyway; police departments' generous pension programs discourage officers from just up and quitting, but it does explain why—as America has become a stressful place to be a cop in the last two years—police officers who have reached retirement age might not want to bother padding the payout instead of taking the money and heading for the door.
There are somewhere around 700,000 law enforcement officers in the United States at all levels. A loss of 4,000 officers in local departments is actually only a slight deviation from what is standard, but when you represent changes in small numbers as percentages, they sometimes seem like much bigger problems than they actually are.