America’s Cop Shortage: Fewer Good Men and Women

Law enforcement agencies are not just competing for a significantly diminished pool of police candidates — but facing these challenges as well

It used to be where applicants would apply and show up in droves to take the police officer exam, allowing police administrators to pick from the cream of the crop. Not anymore. Now, law enforcement agencies are competing for the significantly diminished pool of police candidates. Sign-on bonuses and other creative recruitment tools are being used to encourage folks to join the police profession.

As Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) Colonel Mike Rapich told Governing Daily, “We’re in a really aggressive recruiting effort, probably more so than I’ve seen in the 25 years I’ve been with the agency.” He is not the only police executive or recruiter experiencing the bake-off to attract the best talents. And retention becomes an ingredient in a stable police force assuring public safety.

What drained the police pool, creating a shortage of cops? Where’d the once-oversaturated police pool of aspirants go?

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Many police agencies are reporting that retirements created a void with which recruitment units must keep in step. But that is made difficult when candidates are not applying to fill vacancies left by police veterans. Thus the seeming epidemic is born of exodus without influx. A building’s revolving door with outflow and little to no inflow is a dwindling entity beckoning takeover — we’ll cover that in a bit.

Monumentally, the demonization of police and chronic anti-cop climate is the fanged monster in the room. Another demographic — cops departing for private-sector positions — is purportedly because of that same anti-cop stench wafting in the air. Gradually, human nature kicks in, a la: “Enough is enough! I’m out!”

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Moreover, the exodus of police personnel who feel ill-supported by police command staff prejudicially knee-jerking from public opinion is another reported contributor. It seems many law enforcement execs don a brassy uniform yet act as political bigwigs answering only to barks from the constituency (civilian review boards) who have zero police experience and somehow render judgments and promulgate police policy.

Richard Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA), hammered the reasoning behind ill interest in law enforcement jobs: “The national narrative of the last couple of years is pretty condemning of policing. It has had a strong adverse effect on recruiting people from the very communities we most need to hire.”

At times when societal woes exploded/imploded, folks expected police officers to arrive as kid-gloved surgeons in the faces of vile behavior directed at them. Policing has never been a pretty and luxurious job, and it only became more defaced, devalued and debased when the narrative Myers alluded to was propagated and perpetuated by those who were the actual lawbreakers with ill-placed, myopically calculated messages spread virally. It must be true if it is on social media, right?

That last part goes back to some “police leaders” who were ostensibly atrophied with regard to dousing the flame of discontent hurled at the police force. Contemporarily, police echelons have seemingly become political pawns, sometimes knee-jerking before actually investigating.

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Any edited (myopic) viral clip is the half-baked anti-cop narratives that police execs seize upon prematurely. For this brand of police executive: Never mind politics, you took an oath to enforce the U.S. Constitution on behalf of the people, not the mayor’s or city council’s whim or spinelessness.

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Due process is as fundamental in law enforcement as hammers and nails are in carpentry; without requisites, nothing is positively constructed. That, too, is a poison pill we are asking prospective police recruits to swallow.

While former President Barack Obama sought to actually lower standards so that more ill-equipped cops could have a crack at police work, the real McCoy in any police department will strive to raise the bar. And when that bar is raised, the economy naturally comes with it. A community’s safety quotient transcends commerce, which translates to tax production, which is reinvested in the community spirit: one vibrant and well-functioning ecosystem born of cyclic fashion.

Conversely, socio-economically depressed areas experience blight whereby businesses have no trade and become empty shells. Criminals get bolder out of desperation. Crime entrenches and spreads like red tide, suffocating everything in its area of dispersing enterprise. Local governments caring enough to push back and rejuvenate the budgets can overthrow such spoils and breath new life into community lungs.

But what happens when some law enforcement agencies simply just can’t afford to pay their cops what they are worth, feel paralyzed, and are unable to reverse course? That factor defaults to police officers looking for greener pastures. That is a preamble to the ecosystem’s cycle of life. That’s where creative governance comes in handy.

I’ve always been a firm believer in grant opportunities. Some police departments exercised wisdom and assigned a sworn officer or civilian police member to the task of seeking out funding opportunities and applying for grants.

Remember when former President Bill Clinton launched COPS Grants with the promise to hire 100,000 new cops throughout the U.S.? He sought to implement the Justice Department as a conduit for all of America’s police departments to apply for federal funding to either hire and train newly hired cops or equip police personnel tools to perform their duties.

That has never waned and is now under the Department of Justice (DOJ) office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). One need only apply (and not be a sanctuary city) in order to secure money to beef up police salaries. It’s but one option leading to many more.

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Larger police departments often have the larger tax base and fiscal means to attract, hire and retain police candidates. Conversely, smaller cop shops must make do with what they have. But the turnover is rather static at smaller agencies, and that equates to revolving-door reinvesting: Cops come and go, and the cycle repeats.

If one were to conduct cost studies pertaining to how much it costs to hire new officers versus retention costs, I wonder about the differential; it makes for an intriguing project. However, other features can boost not only a potential cop’s salary but also offer components ensuring/enhancing morale.

So what do agencies of any size do to sweeten the cop shop pot? Years ago, take-home cars was an unheard-of proposition in police culture; cops would report for duty in their personally owned vehicles (POVs) and saddle up in a police cruiser parked among the fleet at HQ. Years later, when the same attraction/retention issues arose, take-home cars became a thing, a win-win feature with mutual dividends.

Take-home cars may have cost the city more up front (enough vehicles to go around), but, in the long run, studies found police cruisers were more honed and taken care of by assigned users. Take-home programs also heightened the pride in one’s department along with the accountability in caring for city vehicles, thus defraying maintenance costs.

Truth be told: Agencies found that take-home cars were better maintained than fleet cars that cops had to begrudgingly share. Chalk it up to human nature. The mobile office was born, and police personnel babied their new rides; their neighbors also received free alarm systems, so tax expense arguments were rather nil and crime rates were deflated thanks to that police car in the subdivision.

When any police entity experiences a deficit in staffing, not only the cops but also the public feel the pangs. In Cleveland, the police union raised Cain over an understaffed department whose police officers are overworked and ill-equipped to adequately respond to citizens’ calls for service. City leaders are scrambling to make nice-nice with its remaining cops, claiming it is not a matter of money but a demographic depleted due to uninterest stemming from a denigrated profession.

Cleveland’s dilemma is not unique: Police officers are frustrated from lack of support and moving on. How can that be ameliorated? The narrative. Whether governance gets tough on crime, stops kowtowing to whiners with paper cuts demanding an unwarranted plethora of attention, and holds the public responsible and accountable for its misdeeds and self-serving constitutions … Nothing will buff out for the better.

City leaders are scrambling to make nice-nice with its remaining cops, claiming it is not a matter of money but a demographic depleted due to uninterest stemming from a denigrated profession.

Variables. Ordinarily, police candidates make strides and generally go with the first “conditional offer” from a police agency executive. However, choosing the size and demographic flavor of a police entity is not unheard of. When it was time to choose, I had the opportunity to work as a cop for either a huge sheriff’s department, a midsize city police agency, a university campus PD, or a small municipal cop shop. I chose the latter.

It was kind of like “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name. The camaraderie was out of this world. Yet, much to my surprise for a “small” agency, the salary was pretty compatible with the larger-size departments in the county.

Again, tax revenue plays a persistent role. The jurisdictional responsibility was smaller, but that didn’t matter as much to me as it does to others. As mentioned, there are choices to consider.

The nearby university police department (UPD) kept churning out cops due to low pay and a super-charged political environment, plus they neither had take-home cars nor were such policy plans on the horizon. Many of the UPD police officers processed, gained experience during their agreed upon probationary time, departed their department, and were hired with my agency.

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Incidentally, we never had to “lure” them over; they just came of their own volition …seeking that greener pasture we are inclined to pursue. Wage wars among police departments is not a surprising strategy. It just seems more prevalent now due to gross uninterest in the police profession; we’ve already posited why that may be.

“There are fewer applicants than there were 10 or 15 years ago, but they’re out there. We’re figuring out a way to find them, and we know other agencies are doing the same,” said Heather Randol, the recruitment figurehead with the San Jose Police Department.

Still, finding qualified cops and keeping them is a difficult task, especially when a healthy economy equates to robust compensation/benefits packages offered in the private sector.

Lately, the Trump administration has received ample accolades for boosting the American economy by staying true to his campaign promises (“Make America Great Again”) and hanging tough in the face of international commerce tugging. Surely, a healthier economy enables better pay for police officers via better-funded local governments.

Trade, sanctions, embargoes, and tariffs have become catchwords in President Trump’s “America First” covenant. Indications are that the economic plans are gaining muscle, perhaps enough to stunt growth in traditional public service markets.

A report released by the Department of Defense reveals our military is also taxed with finding recruits. Per a Fox News piece published on April 22, 2018, “The downside of a booming U.S. job market: It can hurt the U.S. Army’s recruitment efforts.” An Army spokesperson acknowledged that the projections do not look good, claiming Army recruitment “will not meet its goal of recruiting 80,000 active-duty soldiers this year,” in effect lowering the goal to 76,500.

Robust economy and ill-suited candidates are the two main reasons cited by the military. Just a few months ago, OpsLens contributor Brian Brinker wrote a piece underscoring variables pertaining to substandard traits among today’s military recruits.

Between the military and law enforcement sectors, the former generally has a fixed rate of starting pay, whereas the latter comes up with its own salary offering (usually based on size of city, county or state and its pay scale formed from tax doles). For example, pay-scale pulse in rural police departments may be dull, while an overpopulated thriving metropolis with gobs of tax-produced revenue can offer more riches.

Using the Cleveland model again, their recruitment page stipulates the following salary structure for new hires: “The starting salary while in the Police Training Academy is $15 per hour. Upon successful completion of the academy, the salary for patrol officer is $49,683 per year.”

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Subsisting on $15 an hour while training in the academy may be a hindrance, especially for a recruit with a family and inherent responsibilities. Therefore, a potential police candidate may default to the private sector, where full salaries from the get-go are the relative norm. Same principle applies for a small-town police agency with few officers and even fewer dollars to dole out.

Looking at police compensation by state, Louisiana is labeled as the state with the lowest pay scale for cops, averaging $33,350 annually for new cops. Conversely, California is billed as the state with the highest police officer salaries, averaging $93,550 for new hires.

Although the disparity between the highest and lowest paid salaries for cops in states may cause one to gasp, the locale and economy must be factored: The cost of living in Louisiana is not a nail-biter for most whereas it may compel involuntary coffee-spitting when compared to the significant cost of living in California. They’re things to take into account, I suppose, plus a crucial point for cop shops when considering salary boosts to attract and keep police personnel.

In some departments, anomalies bewilder more than just the pool of police candidates. In October 2014, NBC News did a police compensation study and found one St. Louis, Missouri-based agency’s pay rate was $10.50. NBC called it “poverty wages.” Not that it needs emphasis, but to put that into enhanced context, that department in question employed 11 officers proximate to Ferguson, Missouri. Assuredly, they felt (participated in) the Ferguson fallout.

In another extremely bizarre example, back in 2007 the New York Police Department sought to severely slash its salary offerings for new recruits “from $40,658 to $25,100, a nearly 40 percent reduction,” the New York Post published in a piece it titled “UNDERPAID COPS” (yes, in all caps).

At that time, the Post claimed the federal poverty level was $22,610. The fallout from that suggestion was far-reaching. Buddies of mine left the Big Apple (with families in tow) and were hired by police departments paying much better than the NYPD model.

Of the relatively current resources I checked with respect to “average police officer salary,” the spectrum varied between $49,808 and $57,759. Researching further muddied those figures, so I went with the consensus. Suffice it to say, anything in the area of $25,000-$30,000 is not going to be the magnet departments need to attain and retain candidacy.

So do law enforcement agencies have enough moxie, resources, and wherewithal to create hiring packages handsome enough to attract cop candidates? With respect to metropolis departments versus rural town agencies, is it akin to Walmart bumping out the mom and pop shops?

This implies larger departments will gobble up smaller ones. That happens when tiny sovereignties simply can no longer afford to operate public service provisions. Some resign to the ubiquity of liability and its inherent compounding costs. While some agencies are implementing sign-on bonuses, others are handing over the keys to the village jail.

Will the ebb and flow of policing subside so as to replenish the base? Will the former U.S. armed forces slogan, “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure,” be revived? Perhaps influenced by better salaries, will the sense of adventure return gusto in policing an ever-evolving modern American society?

Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and field training officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens article is used with permission.

Read more at OpsLens:
Respect the Rank
Dereliction of Duty

meet the author

Stephen Owsinski is a LifeZette contributing editor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is also a columnist for the National Police Association.

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