Police Shortages Threaten Big Cities, Small Towns

It’s never been harder to find a hero. Police departments across the country are struggling to fill their ranks, and it’s overworking officers, worrying residents, and frustrating city and state officials.

Big cities don’t have nearly enough police officers walking the beat. Baltimore, for example, is down more than 100 officers since last year. That’s despite finishing 2016 with the second-highest murder total in the city’s history. In Seattle, city officials have seen a 90 percent drop in applicants over the last decade.

Small towns aren’t doing any better. Reno, Nevada, is seeing half as many applicants as they did 20 years ago. Overall, more than 85 percent of police officers agree their departments are understaffed, according to a Pew Center Survey.

More Jobs, Fewer Cops

A few factors have driven this shortage of police recruits over the last several years. The biggest is the continued success of the job market overall. Since the recovery began in June 2009, and employers began adding jobs regularly in February 2010, the economy picked up more than 16 million jobs over 85 months of nonstop growth. Last year was particularly strong. Employers added 2.24 million jobs and as of last month, the unemployment rate returned to a 10-year low of 4.5 percent.

And it’s stretches of sustained economic growth such as this that have historically been bad for police departments nationwide. The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests the law enforcement category of jobs has suffered “slower than average” growth, limping along at nearly half the growth rate of other professions.

Economists concede that every time the job market improves, police departments suffer, putting officers at increased risk for injury on the job because of lack of support. More career choices tend to lure recruits to the more lucrative private sector. At the same time, departments across the board have been tightening their rules to become officers, whether its through increased education requirements or longer training periods.

Societies Perception

It doesn’t help recruiting efforts when the job you’re trying to fill is increasingly unpopular. On one hand, you’ve got a distrustful public making the police officer’s job harder. On the other, you’ve got municipal and state budget hawks trying to cut benefits and freeze department sizes. Whether it’s because of the latest police shooting or viral cell phone video, confidence in the police force fell to a 22-year low in 2015, according to research from Gallup. It rebounded slightly in the 2016 poll.

“It’s a thankless job, and it’s become more so recently,” Roseville, Michigan Police Chief James Berlin told NBC News. “You’ll be criticized and degraded, and many people think ‘who wants to do that’?”

Colorado Springs endured that after Aug. 9, 2014, when a Ferguson, Missouri police shooting sparked weeks of protests across the country. The Colorado Springs Police Department saw a 50 percent jump in their attrition rate. After a pair of mass shootings last year in Colorado, the department saw 54 officers walk out the door.

“A lot of spouses are putting that same pressure on officers,” Mike Singels, president of the Colorado Springs Police Protective Association told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “(Officers) are looking at the risk and deciding, ‘This is not a job for me’.”

Riskier Than Ever

The concern is valid. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 135 officers died in the line of duty in 2016, the highest total in five years. More that 20 of those deaths were the result of ambush-style attacks, a 20-year high. Nearly 40 percent of officers told Pew researchers that they nearly always or often had serious concerns about their physical safety when they were on the job. Another 42 percent admitted they sometimes have these concerns.

It appears potential candidates are looking for safer, better-paying lines of work with better hours. Or as Seattle police recruiter Jim Ritter told ABC News, “You can get shot at for $40,000, or be home with your family for $60,000”.

But that isn’t to say officers aren’t essential – or supported. There are resources out there to back police officers and their families despite these arguments. We fully stands behind our law enforcement men and women. In support of a much needed police force, Colorado workers compensation attorney and department head Nick Fogel, along with his father Marshall Fogel, started a scholarship competition for the Denver Police Officers Foundation.