June 21, 2024

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Think Differently

Police agencies are desperate to hire. But they say few want the job.

As law enforcement leaders ring alarm bells, reform advocates see a chance to reimagine policing

Officer Jarrett Gilbert at the Georgetown Police Department in Georgetown, Tex., in April. Like many departments across the country, it is understaffed and struggling with recruiting. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

The San Francisco Police Department is down more than 600 officers, almost 30 percent of its allotment. Phoenix needs about 500 more officers to be fully staffed. The D.C. police force is smaller than it has been in 50 years, despite troubling gun violence and carjackings, as officers leave faster than they can be replaced.

Police departments across the country are struggling to fill their ranks, creating what many current and former officials say is a staffing emergency that threatens public safety.

They cite an exodus of veteran officers amid new police accountability measures that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd, increased hostility from the communities they police, and criminal justice laws that seek to reduce the number of people in jail.

Advocates for police reform see the moment as an opportunity to hire a new generation of officers and reimagine policing. But as agencies seek fresh recruits, they are getting fewer qualified applicants than in past years — leading some to make the risky move of lowering the bar for hiring to fill their ranks.

“We’re having to really, really work hard to fill what we have,” said Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Ill., whose department is short more than 300 sworn officers. “And we’re still not filling at the rate that we would want.”

Cook County’s 5,000-inmate jail can’t afford to cut corners for safety reasons, so the patrol division runs understaffed, Dart said in an interview. Complicating matters, smaller police departments in the county’s villages and towns are shorthanded also, and have asked Dart’s agency to step in.

“Before, I’d occasionally get a department that needed some help on a weekend or something like that,” Dart said. “Now I get departments calling to ask me to do entire shifts for them, and then for weeks they just don’t have the bodies.”

That doesn’t bode well for the future of policing, said Christy E. Lopez, a Georgetown Law professor who worked in the civil rights division at the Justice Department from 2010 to 2017, helping negotiate court-approved improvement plans for departments marred by misconduct.

Lopez said the Justice Department rarely emphasized hiring while advising departments. Lofty staffing goals can lead to lowered academy standards, she said, and promote a culture that values retaining officers over accountability.

“You really want to avoid putting the department under pressure to get people on the street,” Lopez said. “Leadership becomes so worried about people leaving and ‘officer morale’ that you don’t want to do anything that upsets them, things like disciplining people. And that has disastrous consequences.”

When the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police asked departments across the state to quantify their personnel struggles last year, 60 percent of 239 responding agencies said they were not fully staffed, and 19 percent said they were short more than 10 percent of what was budgeted. Almost half of all new hires in 2020 and 2021 were transfers from other agencies — a dramatic and unprecedented spike.

Illinois department chiefs, surveyed anonymously, admitted they were lowering standards for educational and criminal records so they could achieve bare minimum staffing.

That kind of staffing crunch led Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to announce a recruiting push for his police department amid rising crime in 2017. The city dramatically reduced training standards in response to the pressure to graduate more officers, The Washington Post reported in March. Among those recruited: five officers now fired and charged with murder in the beating earlier this year of Tyre Nichols.

For many departments, the full consequences of lowering hiring standards are not felt for years, Lopez said. She advocates reducing the number of officers needed by using unarmed mental health professionals to respond to some calls, ending hot-spot or saturation policing, and narrowing the criteria for which service calls require a police response.

“This is a very difficult job that not very many people can do well,” Lopez said. “And if you’re just trying to hire, hire, hire more and more people, it becomes less and less likely that those ranks are going to be filled — or even half-filled — with the people who have that unique set of skills.”

In April, the Justice Department assembled more than two dozen policing minds — from department chiefs to labor bosses to nonprofit leaders — at a meeting to brainstorm how the federal government can help remedy what Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta described as a “crisis.” Recommendations are expected this year.

Any solutions, Gupta told The Post in an interview, must go “hand-in-hand with police accountability and constitutional policing. … We are only going to be able to expand the pools of people to come into law enforcement when they see this as an aspirational, professional choice.”

To fill their police academies, cities have expanded the geographic area from which they draw recruits, offered hiring bonuses and multiyear contracts, beefed up recruiting efforts, decreased onboarding obstacles and adjusted admission requirements.

Many have poured city resources into advertising, a strategy police reform advocates warn will backfire unless the ads convey a new message about the purpose of the job.

“I don’t think it’s simply that less people want to become police officers,” said Craig B. Futterman, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. “It’s that less people want to participate in an outdated type of policing that has been especially harmful to Black and Brown communities and largely ineffective at reducing violence.”

At the Justice Department meeting, Georgetown, Tex., Police Chief Cory Tchida, whose department in a suburb of Austin is 10 percent short of its budgeted roster, stressed the need for a law enforcement rebranding.

“We need to start selling the sense of purpose over the sense of adventure,” he said, quoting a recent webinar presentation by former Seattle police chief Carmen Best.

When Tchida first heard the webinar, he realized that Georgetown’s recruiting video features an officer performing a “J-turn,” in which a car is driven backward then jerked 180 degrees and driven forward without losing momentum.

The maneuver, Tchida said, is against department policy. He also thinks including it in the video sends the wrong message at a time when he is seeking recruits who thrive on community engagement and conflict resolution.

“You hear old-school cops say, ‘It’s not my job to be a social worker,’” Tchida said. “Bro, that is the vast majority of your job. You’re definitely a social worker.”

Sam Blonder, co-founder of Epic Productions, a Phoenix-based producer of media including digital marketing videos, said the police recruiting wing of his business has exploded in the years since Floyd was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police.

Departments that once marketed with simple photo shoots featuring K-9 units and SWAT teams are now paying up to $500,000 to produce cinematic renditions of police work. “They’ve never had this kind of need before,” Blonder said. “In the past they would put an ad in the newspaper, 5,000 people would show up, and they just had their pick of the litter.”

Police agencies are also increasingly recruiting laterally, offering bonuses and competitive salaries for officers to leave their departments, a strategy once unheard of in policing.

Tchida said he was told that the Austin Police Department had sent a recruiter to another small suburban agency’s headquarters, hoping to pitch a job in the state capital to officers preparing to begin their shifts. An Austin police spokesman said agency personnel brought brochures about the department to a suburban headquarters in 2021 but didn’t speak to any officers and hadn’t been back since.

“You never had to compete with or try to steal from other agencies before,” Tchida said, declining to name the smaller agency because he did not have that chief’s permission to do so. “Now we’re desperate to hire. The challenge is to avoid hiring desperately.”

Kenny Winslow, a former Springfield, Ill., police chief who now heads the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said the changing political environment around policing in liberal areas has left many veteran officers disillusioned.

His traditionally blue state is bleeding officers who are transferring to more conservative states like Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Iowa. Especially in Illinois border towns, Winslow said, the allure of more conservative communities, legislatures and prosecutors has been enticing to law enforcement veterans.

Near the end of Winslow’s tenure in Springfield, the department lost three officers in six months to Indiana departments, he said. Each cited the SAFE-T Act, a 2021 Illinois law that includes use-of-force changes and accountability measures.

“They thought the red state would be more police-friendly,” Winslow said, adding that the new law “scared a lot of people and affected recruiting all over Illinois.”

Jason C. Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department from 2016 to 2018, said he’s heard the same complaints from officers in liberal jurisdictions across the country. While left-leaning officials and prosecutors are scrutinizing law enforcement actions more closely, he said, Democratic-majority state legislatures are working to limit incarceration for nonviolent offenses.

“When you have what looks like a wholesale abandonment of law and order, it makes [officers] feel less relevant professionally,” Johnson said. “When I talk to police officers who are policing in left-leaning or liberal cities, they are much more likely to be disenchanted with policing. I think it’s entirely about a sense of professional esteem and not being considered the bad guys.”

Experts say the national examination of police abuses has also tarnished the profession for potential recruits, especially from poor or minority communities. Many of them say they would feel ashamed — or face blowback from friends or relatives — if they pursued a law enforcement career.

Andy Saunders, a former police officer in Wilson, N.C., raised money in 2020 to launch a nonprofit that would offer police agency signing bonuses to undergraduate criminal justice majors from historically Black colleges and universities.

Saunders said he quit his own policing job because of racism he encountered within the department. He thought bringing in more Black police recruits could help heal the profession from within.

But after 100 interviews with HBCU students, only four signed up for his initiative. Saunders scrapped the idea. His current nonprofit, New Blue, focuses on mentoring reform-minded officers who are already on the job.

“We asked, ‘If there’s an organization that would support you becoming police officers, what would it take?’” Saunders said of the recruiting conversations. “And for most of them, there was nothing that we could do. The number one barrier was, ‘What would my friends and family think of me?’”

Criminal justice professors across the country say they have heard similar concerns from their students.

At a March job fair for students interested in law enforcement and social justice on the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia, swarms of students approached recruiters for the public defender’s office, which provides free attorneys to criminal defendants who can’t afford to pay. But the police recruiters spent much of the session chatting among themselves.

Criminal justice expert Cheryl Irons of Temple University said two camps emerge in her classroom after each high-profile police killing: students who believe policing need only remove the “bad apples” to build public trust, and those who believe the institution itself is rotten. With each police brutality incident caught on video, she said, the latter camp is swelling.

“When you have video, and it’s right there for everybody to see, it’s hard to process,” said Irons, an assistant professor in Temple’s College of Liberal Arts. “And then, it’s hard to then want to become a part of that.”

Justice Henry, a senior from the Bronx who hopes to become a criminal defense attorney, said the classroom divide often falls along socioeconomic lines. Students from wealthier backgrounds, she said, tend to side with the police.

“I think the institution of policing is so toxic that there’s enough bad going on that the whole system needs to be revamped,” said Henry, who is Black.

Aileen McMonagle, a senior criminal justice major who has interned with the Philadelphia Police Department, said she finds herself in the minority of students defending law enforcement after police killings.

“Nobody wants to be a cop because of how much social media has impacted and changed the perspective of what it’s like to be a cop,” said McMonagle, who is White and from Montgomery County, Pa., outside Philadelphia. “People think you’re a bad person if you want to be a cop.”