U.S. Cops Are Facing a Recruitment Crisis. Will It Force Them to Change Their Ways?

By J.D. Tuccille, Reason

(Blend Images LLC/Newscom)

(Blend Images LLC/Newscom)

The number of people applying to be cops in Montgomery County, Maryland, has dropped by half in recent years, according to a department complaint last week. Officials suggest it's because of growing national skepticism toward policing.

"When you do a job that's being highly criticized on a daily basis, we have to ask ourselves, how do we find good candidates that really want to be under that type of scrutiny," said Acting Police Chief Marcus Jones.

Montgomery County won't have an easy time importing its officers from other communities, either. Recruitment of law enforcement officers is down in areas around the country, and the drop in numbers is stark.

"The number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 residents decreased, from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17 in 2016," the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported last summer. The raw number of police officers in the U.S. also declined slightly, from 724,690 in 2013 to 701,169 in 2016.

Next door to Maryland, police departments in Virginia also saw declines in applications. So have departments in Minnesota, in Nashville, and in New York City, to name a few.

Nationally, 66 percent of police departments report seeing declining numbers of applications, according to a survey of 400 law enforcement agencies by the the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

The FBI suffers similar recruiting challenges, with special agent applicants plummetingfrom 68,500 in 2009 to 11,500 last year. This year, the Bureau doubled its recruitment advertising budget in an effort to attract more warm bodies.

These drops aren't necessarily a bad thing. The cop hiring crisis offers an opportunity for rethinking how we keep the peace in this country.

That opportunity could be squandered, however, if authorities don't address the problems of brutality and bias in police forces while resisting intrusive tactics that could make policing even nastier.

"The American policing profession may be facing the most fundamental questioning of its legitimacy in decades," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, in a 2017 organizational newsletter. "The very essence of policing is being debated in many cities, often because of controversial video recordings of police officers' actions. Community trust has eroded, and the professionalism of the police is being questioned."

A healthy job market gets some of the credit for the police recruitment crunch but, as Jones and Wexler describe, law enforcement has lost its gloss in the eyes of many Americans. Public opinion of law enforcement slid to a 22-year low in 2015, according to a Gallup poll.

Numbers have somewhat rebounded since, but that only emphasizes a racial gap in perceptions of police. African-Americans, in particular, tend to view cops as the government's enforcers rather than as protectors, amidst widely publicized racist incidents and concerns that their communities are disproportionately (and corruptly) targeted. In addition, a militarized police culture that arms officers with weapons of war and trains officers to treat the public as enemies worries those who feel targeted not over race, but just for not being cops.

The FBI has its own issues with declining supportespecially among Republicans—after once again getting drawn into political shenanigans. Given the Bureau's history of misconduct, it's arguably to Americans' discredit that it took so long for us to become disenchanted.

Heavy-handed modern policing hasn't just alienated the public; it's decimated the pool of potential recruits.

"Some potential hires are ineligible to be considered because of prior arrests and convictions on minor criminal charges, such as possessing an open container of alcohol in public," PERF's Wexler points out. "This situation is especially prevalent in agencies that have practiced strict 'zero tolerance' policing in the past."

That last point may offer a key to improving relations between the public and what used to be known as "peace officers," by pursuing a less confrontational approach to policing.

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Olivia McDowellComment