November 12, 2022

The workforce crisis in policing


PERF members,

A core mission of PERF is to help you tell your story — to listen to what you are saying and build on that conversation. Last week in Washington we had a standing-room-only conference attended by representatives of hundreds of departments, and the large majority—from large and small agencies alike — told the same basic story: they are facing a serious crisis in staffing even as they struggle to meet rising demands to provide services and address violent crime. This may be the single most daunting challenge that policing has faced in decades: finding the next generation of cops.  

Prior to the meeting we surveyed the PERF membership and found:

  • More than 50% of agencies have fewer sworn staff than they did four or five years ago, though the number of professional staff has largely held steady.
  • More than 50% of agencies have seen an increase in retirements.
  • More than 50% of agencies have seen an increase in resignations.
  • In nearly three-quarters of agencies, the number of applicants for sworn positions has decreased.

This combination of rising retirements and resignations and falling applications is squeezing the workforce at both the front and back ends.

More Overtime, More Competition Among Agencies

How are departments dealing with their staffing issues now? One common way is through increased overtime — in many cases, mandatory overtime. But as many participants in the meeting pointed out, the new generation of cops are less interested in overtime; they prefer more time off. And when management forces them to work overtime, some decide the job isn’t worth it and resign to take another job with less pressure and better hours.

More generally, the new generation is demanding a bigger voice in how departments are run. As Senior Police Officer Terry Cherry of the Charleston, South Carolina Police Department said, “Policing is a business. And if you’re not running it appropriately, people leave.”

Senior Police Officer Terry Cherry, Charleston Police Department

Many departments also have been forced to offer incentives and bonuses to attract officers from neighboring agencies, which can help solve their staffing problems but makes other agencies’ staffing problems worse. In a number of places it’s become a bidding war, where the departments with the greatest resources can poach from other agencies.

As Chief Marcus Jones of the Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department commented, “When we know that we have local agencies offering $20,000 to join their agency, it does have an impact on us. And so we have to strategize to get folks in our door as quickly as possible.”

Chief Marcus Jones, Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department

“Frankly, it’s cutthroat,” said Chief Vic Brito of the Rockville, Maryland Police Department. “You know if you don’t hire an individual quickly, you’ll get stepped on and somebody else will hire that person right away.”

Chief Vic Brito, Rockville, Maryland Police Department

Changes in Hiring, Recruiting, and More

Responding to this challenge, some departments are streamlining their hiring processes to better attract and keep applicants, which is a good outcome of this crisis. Prince William County, Virginia is one example: they took a hard look at their process and recognized that it was costing them applicants. The department simplified the personal history statement and polygraph exam by removing items that were irrelevant or redundant, and updated its eligibility guidelines and posted them on its website. Thanks to these and related changes, Prince William County now has an applicant pool that’s far more diverse and reflective of the community. The Kansas City, Kansas Police Department also revamped its hiring process, and as Chief Karl Oakman said, “We are not talking about lowering standards; we are talking about changing processes.”

Chief Karl Oakman, Kansas City, Kansas Police Department

Many agencies are strengthening their recruitment efforts. Captain Ryan Frashure of the Anne Arundel, Maryland County Police Department said, “We wanted to be more diverse with our recruiting. We had minority recruiters — recruiters that speak Spanish, or Korean — and put them in different areas. That way, when people come up to our recruiters, they’re talking to somebody who looks like them, thinks like them, and they can see themselves in that uniform.”

Many departments are also making major changes to their physical fitness tests, which can drive out many otherwise-excellent candidates — disproportionately women. For example, Chief Billy Grogan of the Dunwoody, Georgia Police Department said, “What we found was when we looked at our data was that a lot of people who failed, particularly women, were failing in the in the run. And we thought, how often do we need to run that far?” So they changed the required run from a mile and a half to half a mile, and more candidates are now passing the test.

Some departments are responding to the staffing crisis by rethinking their business practices. “We completely redesigned how we take shoplifters from our local businesses,” explained Commander Adam Meierding of the St. Cloud, Minnesota Police Department. The department has begun collaborating with local retailers to have community service officers handle shoplifting cases, rather than uniformed officers. Local merchants are pleased with the results.

Commander Adam Meierding, St. Cloud, Minnesota Police Department

Chief Rex Troche explained that the Sarasota, Florida Police Department “upgraded our webpage so citizens can report minor crimes online. That really did come in handy, especially with the recent hurricane. Florida got hit pretty hard, and during that time, it allowed us to really take care of business, rather than going to some of these minor complaints.

Chief Rex Troche, Sarasota Police Department

Public Image of Policing a Major Issue

Then there is the elephant in the room: the harsh public scrutiny that cops face in the current climate as they try to do their job every day, which can make it hard for agencies to attract and keep needed staff. As Chief Malik Aziz of Prince George’s County, Maryland commented, “When I talk to potential applicants or even our younger officers, they say to me, why would I want to join a police department where I might go to the penitentiary? I don’t want to go to jail for a split-second decision.”

Chief Malik Aziz, Prince George’s County, Maryland

And when I asked the meeting whether they would want their son or daughter to follow in their footsteps and enter policing, considerable concerns were expressed, though many were still supportive. Detective Sergeant David Hornsby of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Police said, “This is still the noblest profession and it’s a calling. And if my two daughters have a calling to do this, then I will support them any and every way I can.”

Yasmine Bryant, a graduate of the summer internship program conducted by PERF and the Baltimore Police Department, attended the meeting and spoke about how departments can appeal to younger and more diverse candidates. “The biggest problem you face is not just changing the image.... You have to convince them to transition from ‘Why would I ever be a police officer?’ to ‘Why wouldn't I be a police officer?’ It is the greatest community service.”

I think we are at a critical moment in policing. We are seeing tremendous turnover as many younger officers resign and older officers retire while applications plummet. And departments are competing for existing officers, making one department’s solution another department’s problem. We don’t have all the answers. But my hope is that, by sharing your story, we can put a spotlight on the issue. Your agency and your community are not alone. This is a national issue that requires a new way of thinking of how we are going to engage the next generation of cops.