Study: George Floyd Protests Did Not Cause Mass Exodus of Police Officers

Most officer retirements happened in 2021, and there is no evidence showing cities with more intense protests saw a greater number of officer exits.


Did the social justice protests of 2020 cause a wave of police officers to leave the force? A recent study suggests the truth may not be so simple.

In May 2020, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by pinning him to the ground with his knee. When video of the encounter circulated online, the image of a white police officer nonchalantly kneeling atop a black man until he asphyxiated ignited a powder keg: Americans, stir-crazy from sheltering in place for the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, took to the streets to protest police brutality, in some cases violently.

The conventional wisdom says that amid a nationwide spike in crime and mounting protests in which demonstrators proclaimed that "all cops are bastards," many officers simply gave in. "As anger bubbles in parts of the country, some US police departments are facing their own crises and some officers have now opted to walk away," CNN reported in June 2020, less than a month after Floyd's death.

"The law enforcement community is suffering in a year that began with a global pandemic and is now seeing significant social upheaval," Police1 reported in October 2020. "In just a few short months, officers went from being lauded as essential workers to working amid a social discourse that paints all officers in a negative light."

A June 2021 survey from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found a 45 percent increase in retirements in 2020–2021 when compared to the previous year, as well as an 18 percent rise in resignations.

But a new study from Duke University law professor Ben Grunwald challenges this narrative. To assess the validity of the claim that officers resigned en masse after the 2020 protests, Grunwald collected data "on every job held by every officer in all 6,800 local law enforcement agencies across fifteen states that, together, cover half the U.S. population." That database came to encompass over 972,000 officers between the mid-1990s and 2022, though for the study, he focused only on 2011–2021.

Grunwald found that "the increase in separations" among those agencies "after the summer of 2020 was smaller, later, less sudden, and possibly less pervasive than the retention-crisis narrative suggests."

"Separations were nearly stable in 2020 compared to the year before," he writes, while "in 2021, separations increased by historically large numbers but substantially less than the most widely reported figures for that period." Specifically, separations in 2020 increased "by less than 1% compared to 2019" while they "rose far more in 2021, by 18% relative to 2019." Grunwald notes that while this increase "was historically unusual, larger than any two-year period in the previous decade," it is also much smaller than the 2021 PERF study suggested, and about one-third of it "can be explained by pre-existing trends that long predate the events of 2020."

"All told, the cumulative effect on aggregate employment by the end of 2021 was just 1%," Grunwald concludes. "This was not because of increased lateral mobility [officers transferring to another department or another role within law enforcement], as some have wondered. Rather, [the database] shows that the vast majority of excess separations in 2021 were by officers leaving the field, at least for a while." He does acknowledge, though, that "a substantial minority of large departments [those with 500 or more officers] were meaningfully hit, losing over 5% of staff by the end of 2021."

As to why officers chose to leave when they did, Grunwald conceded that he was unable to test for factors like "social hostility" or criticism from city leaders making officers feel unsupported. But he did examine "whether the intensity of local protests affected local separations," comparing police separation rates with the reported attendance numbers for over 9,800 protests during the summer of 2020. "The results," Grunwald concluded, "provide no evidence that more intense political activism caused more separations among agencies with the highest protest intensity."

Instead, Grunwald proposes four possible alternatives for an uptick in officer resignations. "The first is economic," he writes. "Like workers in other fields, officers quit for better compensation, benefits, training, and opportunities for promotion—particularly in periods of economic growth….The U.S. job market surged dramatically in the first half of 2021, with monthly job openings rising 70% by the end of the year." In June 2021, the same month that the PERF survey found a huge spike in officer retirements and resignations, The New York Times ran an article headlined "Why Police Have Been Quitting in Droves in the Last Year." Focusing on the Asheville Police Department as a microcosm of the national trend, the article noted that officers felt increasingly "demoralized" but also noted that the starting salary was $37,000, not nearly enough to buy a house in the city.

Another potential factor Grunwald identified was the pandemic itself, not only that officers had to contend with "personal obligations, like family or childcare" but also "burnout" as "the pandemic amplified old stressors and created new ones."

Grunwald also suggests that political activism may have contributed to officer attrition, either as a result of demoralizing protests or pressures for reform, though "this timing is also consistent with the pandemic" and cannot be easily separated.

Finally, he suggests that demographic shifts may have played a role, as a large number of officers who were already approaching retirement age, hired either as part of the baby boom generation or after the 1994 crime bill, may have taken the opportunity to go ahead and call it quits. The Marshall Project reported in January 2023 that while some cities and counties struggled to staff their police departments in the years since 2020, those same jurisdictions were having a hard time finding "firefighters, bus drivers and other government workers" as the overall job market rebounded.

There are other plausible explanations as well. Fordham University law professor John Pfaff noted that "a cop's annual pension payout is a function of their total income—not base wages, but wages PLUS OVERTIME—of their final few years." In Atlanta, officer overtime pay doubled in 2020; Chicago paid out over $177 million in overtime that year, a 27 percent increase over the year before.

Grunwald's results will not alleviate every concern about the current state of policing—his data cannot address, for example, whether or not police officers are "quiet quitting," staying on the job but only expending a bare-minimum effort. But it does demonstrate that, despite recent fearmongering, the protests of 2020 likely did not cause cops to flee to the exits in droves.