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'Why stay?': Law enforcement advocates explain exodus from police forces

A police officer holds a firearm as community members gather, Sunday, June 6, 2021, in Minneapolis, for Winston Boogie Smith Jr., who was fatally shot by members of a U.S. Marshals task force several days earlier. (AP Photo/Christian Monterrosa)
A police officer holds a firearm as community members gather, Sunday, June 6, 2021, in Minneapolis, for Winston Boogie Smith Jr., who was fatally shot by members of a U.S. Marshals task force several days earlier. (AP Photo/Christian Monterrosa)
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Law enforcement has always been a difficult job but over the past year, more police officers are leaving the profession.

The problem has been acute for large cities. Seattle lost 200 officers, leaving a force of 1,080 to police a city of 725,000 people. New York City lost 15% of its force last year, or about 5,300 officers. Over 200 officers have resigned or taken leave from the Minneapolis Police Department in the year following the killing of George Floyd. The Louisville, Ky. Police Department shrank by 20% in 2020, after police were charged with the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.

According to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), officer resignations were up 18% in the first half of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. Police departments reported a 45% increase in the retirement rate over the last year.

"I can tell you anecdotally, as well as from statistics coming out of the largest agencies in the nation, that we are in a retention crisis for law enforcement," said retired Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith, spokesperson for the National Police Association.

In some cases, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed older officers into early retirement. Others left their posts to join other departments. On the whole, more police dropped out of the profession entirely because of the negative public perception around policing.

"If it seems like the whole deck is stacked against you as an officer, why stay?" Smith noted.

Recruitment has also suffered. Departments have reported fewer applicants and fewer who have the qualifications needed to be a public safety officer. The Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department saw a 44% decrease in the number of initial applicants last year.

One officer described the challenge in PERF's June workforce survey, saying, "The candidates are non-existent or very sub-par." Another respondent raised concerns that the rhetoric and negativity around law enforcement adversely impacted the number and quality of recruits.

Maria Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice warned that the "anti-police climate" in the country could do lasting damage to the profession.

"If we continue to do this, it will be irreversible damage to the profession in the long-term," she said. "Then nobody will want to become a police officer."

Haberfeld, who works with hundreds of police officers each semester, described a confluence of factors that started last summer and have continued. Police officers were painted with the broad brush of being racist and violent. Politicians and activists continue to call to defund police departments and eliminate qualified immunity. District attorneys refused to prosecute crimes including misdemeanor theft, traffic stops, disorderly conduct, and in some cases, rioting.

"From my conversations with police officers, it was just too much to handle," Haberfeld said. "The ones who are dedicated to the idea of policing, these people tell me, 'We're done. We are done as a profession.'"

That frustration spilled out in the open last month in Portland, Ore. when 50 officers resigned en masse from a special unit assigned to respond to the often violent nightly protests in the city.

"Our Rapid Response Team members did not volunteer to have Molotov cocktails, fireworks, explosives, rocks, bottles, urine, feces, and other dangerous objects thrown at them," said Portland Police Association. "Nor did they volunteer to have threats of rape, murder, and assault on their families hurled at them."

The officers reportedly stayed with the police force but have refused to serve on the response team. Portland has seen over 100 officers leave the department since last summer.

The exodus has left large and small departments reeling from staff shortages. Some have extended shifts up to 12 hours. Others have decided there will be some emergency calls that officers just won't take.

The Seattle Police Department has lost roughly 200 officers since the beginning of 2019. That included former Police Chief Carmen Best, the city's first Black female chief, who retired suddenly last summer after weeks of protests and the seizure of a local police precinct by a so-called autonomous group.

Seattle Police Department Chief Adrian Diaz explained that they could no longer mount an adequate response to 911 calls due to the shortage of police officers.

"We are struggling to make sure we’re responding to all calls for service," Diaz told KOMO News.

The Asheville, N.C. Police Department declared a "staffing crisis" after losing 84 officers over the last year—roughly one-third of its force. As a result, response times to emergency calls have slowed up to three minutes for the most serious cases, like armed robbery and homicide. Absent any other options, the department announced it would no longer respond to calls for minor theft, property damage, simple assaults and non-life-threatening harassment.

The Tulsa, Okla. Police Department is losing about six officers each month. The department now has to prioritize responses to only the most serious crimes, Police Chief Wendell Franklin told KTUL. The department is authorized to have 943 officers but is down to 800 after recently losing close to two dozen officers. “That sent us from us being OK to immediately us into crisis mode," said Franklin.

Protests last summer put a spotlight on police brutality and forced a larger reckoning on racial inequality. Activists and politicians began rethinking the role of law enforcement. House Democrats introduced legislation to fund and deploy non-police first responders to emergency situations, like mental health crises. Officials in the country's 50 largest cities cut police funding last year by 5% on average.

Some activist groups have questioned whether police are necessary at all, calling to defund law enforcement, abolish prisons and otherwise dismantle the criminal justice system.

"I think this country is answering its own question about whether or not we need police," said Smith. "As police are being defunded, reimagined, as specialty units are being disbanded, police services are being reduced, what's happening? Crime is rising more and more."

According to a report by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, violent crime increased 30% or higher in 34 major cities last year. More Americans are concerned about rising crime than at any time since the early 1990s.

Minneapolis, where the George Floyd protest movement began, saw a 64% spike in homicides in June compared to the same time period in 2020 and a 73% increase in shootings. The city voted last summer to cut $8 billion from its police budget before approving $6.4 million in additional police funding earlier this year amid the crime surge.

Last week, a local judge ordered the city of Minneapolis to hire more police officers after residents sued over what they saw as inadequate staffing. Hennepin County Judge Jamie Anderson ruled that by understaffing the police force, city officials "failed to perform an official duty clearly imposed by law."

"I don't think people understand what's going on. This is a crisis of our own making," said Leonard Sipes, a retired senior federal spokesperson and creator of the crime research site

Sipes cited the decline in proactive policing, a strategy that includes routine traffic stops and pedestrian stops. Of all the anticrime strategies, proactive policing is the only tactic that has been proven to reduce crime, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It also carries the most risk of disciplinary repercussions for an officer. Proactive policing tactics have been associated with numerous charges of excessive force, racial bias and over-policing.

Yet over the past several years, law enforcement has been less engaged in proactive policing, whether because of staff shortages or officer reluctance.

"It's the perfect recipe for an increase in violence," Sipes said. "I don't understand why everybody doesn't get that."

The trend in officer resignations has emerged clearly over the past year, but it is not uniform across the country. There are almost 18,000 police agencies in the United States. Most of them are local police departments with varying requirements for officer recruitment, education and training.

According to Smith, many officers who are staying in the profession are leaving big cities for smaller towns where they may feel more support from their communities and political leaders.

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"I am fearful as an American what we’re going to see the de-policing of more urban areas, who really need police, and we're going to see a mass exodus of police officers going to areas they're more appreciated," she said.

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