As police officers quit the profession in droves, an opportunity for change emerges
Police departments across the country are hemorrhaging officers faster than recruiters can find qualified applicants.
Seattle has lost more than a quarter of its police force in the past 2.5 years. The Fairfax County police chief in Virginia declared a personnel emergency on July 28, instituting mandatory overtime. Three small towns – Kenly, North Carolina, Melbourne Village, Florida, and Springfield, Colorado – experienced mass resignations this summer: The entire department in each community called it quits.
Advocates pushing for defunding or abolishment of police may see fewer officers as an encouraging sign. But some city officials said it affects the communities the police serve.
In Seattle, the mayor in July declared the department could no longer promptly and effectively provide essential services.
“This reality is contributing to exhaustion and low morale among officers, as the police department’s staffing crisis harms public safety,” according to the mayor’s comprehensive plan to retain and recruit new officers.
Recruiters face a myriad of challenges: the great resignation, COVID-19, a cultural divide between baby boomer leadership and Gen Z recruiting base.
In addition, some experts also blame social media and news coverage of high-profile police shootings, in-custody deaths and violent interactions – all of which has led to a growing mistrust of law enforcement.
“Particularly after the George Floyd incident, there was a dramatic shift,” said Phil Keith, former director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – known as the COPS Office, which is run by the Department of Justice. “The narrative in the national media was not a favorable one, police were painted with a real broad brush. We were villainized by many media outlets.”
In addition, more officers are retiring or leaving to pursue a different career. Overall, the resignation rate in 2020-21 increased 18% and the retirement rate rose 45%, according to a survey conducted last year by the Police Executive Research Forum.
Some law enforcement leaders see this exodus as an opportunity. Some departments aren’t doing much to change the dynamic in terms of who they hire, but others are trying harder to change the process and attract candidates who better reflect the communities they serve, with a concentrated effort on hiring more women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I don’t think there’s a way to solve the recruiting crisis by sticking with the status quo,” said Maureen McGough, chief of strategic initiatives for the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law. “And so much of the recruiting crisis is the result of the status quo that I don’t think people are going to have a choice pretty soon.”
Officer Terry Cherry, a recruiter for the Charleston Police Department, agreed. She said exits aren’t always bad, especially because police culture typically resists change. And sometimes, “old ways” get trapped in an institution.
“Sometimes that leaving an organization makes way for new ideas and different types of thinking,” she said. “So you have these new people coming in, they’re excited. They’re excited because they’ve seen the world. They know about Ferguson. They know about George Floyd. They know about body cameras.”
And they’re ready to fight for what they believe in to change and innovate, Cherry said, adding that she’d rather see her department short staffed than filled with officers who harm the profession.
“If you don’t like the company, get out,” she said. “Get out because it’s changing, and the world is changing.”
'Very few of them are innovating'
At a recent recruiting event in Fort Worth, Texas, about 50 potential recruits came to speak with representatives from 14 law enforcement agencies across the state, including Arlington, Dallas and Houston.
Some recruiters stood for hours but only spoke to a few possible applicants. The officers packed up their department-branded water bottles and stickers a half hour early, trading swag before packing it back into boxes for the next event.
Sgt. Jaime Ramos, recruiter for Houston police, described the crowd as “so-so.” He noted that many interested applicants get “teed out” – disqualified – because of drug use, tattoos or social media behavior.
“When they get past polygraph into background, something always comes up,” Ramos said. “It’s like, ‘Well, you didn’t tell us about this.’”
Bryan Graham attended the event for Arlington in a role recently created to help address recruiting challenges.
“Several years ago, they would say, ‘This is the number of seats for this (police) academy.’ And you had it, you know, you filled it every time,” Graham said. “In the last two years, we haven’t filled the class.”
The Arlington department created a new recruiting initiative, called Choose to Be APD, along with Graham’s new position. After 22 years on the force, Graham swapped SWAT for selling a career in law enforcement.
“I officially start next Monday,” Graham said at the event, adding that the department plans to invest more money on travel for recruiting, including trips out of state.
“There hasn’t been much of a recruiting budget over the last few years,” Graham said. “I mean, pretty much enough to print up some pamphlets and stuff like that.”
President Joe Biden’s May 25 executive order on police reform included an “updated approach to recruitment, hiring, promotion and retention” but no new recommendations. The Department of Justice’s recruitment best practices and recommendations have remained the same for years.
“Most of the police departments out there are complaining about personnel shortages, very few of them are innovating, and doing things in a way to significantly address those shortages, long term,” said Theron Bowman, former chief of police in Arlington.
One common strategy departments use to attract recruits: raise wages.
At a recent community event in Tucson, Arizona, the police department’s recruiter passed out pamphlets with orange stickers placed over the pay details. The city council voted on a nearly 20% pay increase last year – the largest raise ever for officers, according to the Tucson Police Officers Association – to compete with other departments. The department had yet to print out new brochures.
Law enforcement officials across the country have deployed other strategies: Arizona relaxed its standards for prior marijuana usage and prior use of Adderall without a prescription. The Arlington Police Department changed its policy to allow employees to display “approved tattoos” while in uniform. The Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky dropped its college credit requirement and now only requires a high school diploma or equivalent.
Kevin Robinson, who teaches criminology at Arizona State University, left the Phoenix Police Department six years ago. Looking back, he said he would do things differently. After experiencing how the FBI conducts background checks for candidates they accept into training, he realized the benefit.
“They were ensuring that the people they were selecting were the right people for these opportunities,” he said. “I just think law enforcement needs to do more of that. Law enforcement will argue it’s too expensive, it takes too long.”
But the cost of hiring somebody who’s not right for the job could erase any savings: “I just don’t buy that.”
Numerous academic journals have published articles examining the effects of department hiring practices. A study published in 2021 in the journal Science indicated diversity in officer demographics can make a difference. Researchers used Chicago as a case study and found Black and Hispanic officers made far fewer stops and arrests and used force less often relative to white officers in communities of color, and that female officers use less force than males within all racial groups.
“Twenty, 30 years ago, it was cool to think diversity in recruitment. Today, it’s essential,” said Bowman, who was the first Black chief in Arlington. He worked with the Department of Justice preparing its best practices manual and owns a consulting firm that works with departments across the country.
“And if your recruitment plan or efforts doesn’t include a strategy to diversify, it’s not successful.”
Cherry said representation is a positive thing, but it’s not necessarily about increasing diversity just to reflect the community. The point of trying to get people who are different – in terms of thought, background, race, gender, etc. – is that allows people to share ideas and be creative.
“Back then, it was tall men, white, no tattoos, very rigid, typically from the military or something,” she said. “And when you get people from different backgrounds, they see the world differently because they haven’t been involved in it the same way as that specific group.
“You now have a multitude of people talking and changing and speaking.”
Addressing the gender gap
Ivonne Roman has more than 25 years of experience in policing, working her way from officer to police chief in Newark, New Jersey.
But when she helped co-found the 30×30 Initiative to increase the number of female officers, things changed.
“I went from being the cop’s cop to being a pariah,” Roman said. “People were saying I was weakening policing, that I had lost my mind, that I drank the Kool Aid, that at college I overdosed on the liberal curriculum. You name it.”
The nationwide initiative encourages police departments to pledge to adopt policies with the goal of 30% female officers by the year 2030. Roman said that’s a key to redefining what policing means.
In the past 35 years, women have made up a growing percentage of the workforce in the U.S. The latest census data shows that even among many traditionally male professions, women have made significant increases. Since 1987, women have almost doubled their representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Women have not seen the same growth in law enforcement. Today, women make up about 12% of sworn officers and 3% of police leadership in the U.S., according to the 30×30 Initiative.
Roman organized the coalition with McGough, of the Policing Project at NYU.
McGough said the 30% target is based on research showing that having 30% representation is key to building consensus within a marginalized group. With fewer numbers, women tend to disparage one another to better align themselves with the majority.
Officer Melissa Ayun, a recruiter for the Tucson Police Department, said everyone has something to bring to the table.
“Females think differently than males do,” she said. “Not to say it’s better, but it’s different. And in certain situations, it may work better.”
Studies have shown women statistically use less force. They’re perceived as more trustworthy and compassionate, particularly by diverse communities and victims of sexual assault. They receive fewer complaints and lawsuits, and use their firearms less often. They tend to make fewer arrests for minor offenses and make fewer traffic stops.
“So there’s a wide array of benefits that come from increasing the representation of women in policing,” Roman said. “And when I say that people will, you know, give me stories about some horrible female cop, right? But there’s been horrible male cops throughout history.”
But getting more women to join the force isn’t an easy sell.
“A lot of times we talk about diversity, but we don’t take into consideration that maybe a lot of women don’t want to be police officers,” said Detective Chris Thomas, police spokesperson for the Miami Dade Police Department.
Miami Dade’s department is made up of 24% women, based on the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics – almost double the national average, without a recruiting effort specifically targeting women.
The same data shows that less than 10% of officers in supervisory roles nationally are women. Thomas said the lack of women in command staff positions is based on the individual decisions of women.
“That’s not because they’re not capable,” Thomas said. “It’s not because they’re not welcome, it’s because they’re mothers.”
McGough said many female officers are leaving the profession “around the time that you’d expect them to give birth to their first child.”
Ayun said family planning is a common concern for potential female recruits.
“I’ve been asked, flat out, on more than one occasion, ‘I’ve been told that if I become a police officer, I can’t have a family,’” Ayun said. “A lot of our female officers do. I’m a single mom with three kids. But people still have these ideas or concepts.”
Some of the action items addressed in the pledge are geared toward child rearing, like accommodations for nursing mothers, shift stability and part-time options for women returning to work.
One of the first departments to sign the initiative, Bellevue Police Department in Nebraska, has more than tripled the number of women officers since instituting these changes, according to a story from a local television station.
McGough said other elements of the profession may discourage women, including hyper-masculinized recruiting materials.
“It’s, you know, a guy hanging out of a helicopter with a gun strapped to his chest, even if the department doesn’t have a helicopter, right?”
Other recommendations in 30×30 Initiative include providing uniforms and personal protective equipment made to fit women, ensuring a fair and protective sexual assault reporting process and more diversity on panels used to evaluate officers’ performance for promotions. They also recommend removing subjective evaluation criteria, such as “command presence,” which can be seen as preferential to men.
“It’s not intentional, but it’s just vestiges of a male dominated industry that don’t account for women’s specific needs,” McGough said. “And they keep sending these sort of micro-signals that this is a profession that isn’t built to support you.”
Perhaps most controversial, the initiative asks departments to review job requirements. McGough stressed that 30×30 does not advocate for lowering of standards for the sake of gender diversity.
“We’re saying, like, take a beat and question whether you need it,” McGough said. “Is it actually directly linked to doing the job or not? And if it’s not, and you’re losing a bunch of people for it, get rid of it.”
There is little accountability for departments that join the initiative. The only requirement is to provide six month updates, and even that has proved challenging. The organization is chasing a number of departments for updates.
While it’s early, McGough hopes that with time, the message will spread.
“We’re at about 180 agencies,” McGough said in July. “The flip side of that is there’s 18,000 agencies in the country. You know, so we’re impacting 1% of the agencies in the country.”
Roman said having police chiefs who are willing to learn more about reforms and communicate that message to the rank and file is crucial, particularly in smaller departments that may have a more resistant culture.
“There wasn’t this willingness pre-Floyd to be as open as they are now,” Roman said of departments. “So whatever the reasons may be, they are coming to us instead of us having to go out and sell this.”
Recruiting and LGBTQ+
Jim Ritter joined Seattle police in 1983. Growing up in Bellevue, Washington, he always knew he wanted to be an officer. But he was afraid.
In the 1970s, he said, the department asked questions about sexual orientation during the polygraph examination.
“I was worried even as a kid in high school that that would preclude me from being hired,” Ritter said.
But the question never came up, and he joined the force at age 21. He kept his identity as a gay man secret for the first decade.
He came out gradually, on his own timeline. He first told his patrol partner, then co-workers – until everyone knew.
“The police department sometimes back then was an extension of high school in many ways,” Ritter said. “You’ve got mostly males there that say things that they think are funny without really thinking about it, that can be offensive.”
Ritter said Police Chief Norm Stamper, who led the department from 1994 to 2000, contributed to his positive experience coming out.
The relationship between law enforcement and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning individuals has been historically fraught. Instances of hate crimes, prejudice and discrimination have eroded trust between police and the LGBTQ+ community.
Many departments want to rebuild that relationship, both outside and inside the department.
But evidence of progress is more difficult to track. There is no national standard to track how many officers identify as LGBTQ+ or a database of internal inclusion policies.
However, major departments across the country are creating targeted efforts to recruit LGBTQ+ people. The New York Police Department hosts recruitment drives, attends Pride events and features gay-identifying officers in advertisements. The San Francisco and Atlanta police departments show support for an inclusive culture through openly gay leadership.
The first step, experts say, is to show LGBTQ+ recruits they’re welcome at police departments and get them through the door.
“The fear of even applying, automatically thinking that they would never be considered, keeps a lot of people from doing that, especially if they don’t have any role models to look at,” Ritter said.
Cherry, the Charleston recruiter, has been policing for more than a decade. She doesn’t want to be “the token.”
“It’s not our responsibility to make up for sins of the past,” she said. “I’m not being brought into a police department to be the poster child and say, ‘Well, look, we’re doing it’ because now we have a gay woman.”
Cherry has taken the initiative to increase LGBTQ+ awareness. She established gender identity and orientation training for recruits, trained officers on hate crimes and launched the first Safe Place Program in South Carolina, which identifies local businesses where LGBTQ crime victims can stay and call police, according to a profile of Cherry.
The best recruitment comes from officers in departments, she said, and then departments need to make sure LGBTQ+ officers continue to feel valued.
“It isn’t about putting a flier out with a flag,” Cherry said. “It’s not about showing two gay people in police uniforms high-fiving each other. That’s not what it’s about.”
Cherry gave credit to Ritter for what he accomplished and “catapulting forward.”
Ritter became Seattle Police Department’s first LGBTQ+ liaison in 2014, and for years, he was the only full-time liaison in the country. This wasn’t only a way for the department to improve communication with the LGBTQ+ community, Ritter considered it a leadership opportunity for himself.
Ritter also designed the initiative Safe Place in May 2015. Since retirement, he continues to offer Safe Place training through his consulting and training company J.S. Ritter & Associates.
Nonprofits – such as Out to Protect in California and the Gay Officers Action League in New York – also offer LGBTQ+ officers and departments support. They award funds to support enrollment in the police academy, provide training programs to build liaison positions and lead recruiting efforts in the gay community.
Advocates said they will continue to address challenges in recruiting LGBTQ+ officers.
Departments can no longer legally ask officers whether they’re gay. However, Ritter objects to some of the mental health and substance abuse questions often asked during screening. Research suggests LGBTQIA+ people are predisposed to self-harming habits to cope with pressures of social nonconformity.
Trust between police and the community continues to be questioned.
The first Pride march was held June 28, 1970, in New York City to commemorate the third anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, ignited when police raided a gay club and detained patrons.
Half a century later, on May 15, 2021, Pride organizers in New York banned law enforcement from attending until 2025 to “create safer spaces” for attendees, according to the Associated Press. Officers nationally spoke out against this decision. Since then, this prohibition has caught on in several other major cities across the country.
Ritter said he doesn’t believe the decision represents community sentiment as a whole. He has worn his uniform at Pride for years, and he said can only recount a few instances where participants were unwelcoming.
“The problem with a lot of the activists that I’ve worked with, even in the LGBT community, is that they don’t want to take the time to learn about us,” Ritter said. “They want us to learn about them. It has to be a healthy relationship. Both sides have to want to make it work together.”
Recruiting & people of color
Cherry said she hears it all the time. Potential candidates come to her and say their family doesn’t want them to be a cop – especially in minority communities.
“You have families telling African American men and women not to do policing,” she said. “So how are you expecting to change policing if everyone keeps telling everyone not to do policing?”
It’s frustrating to recruit when you have parts of society telling people not to join the force, Cherry said.
“It’s not just the responsibility of police departments to diversify police departments,” she said. “It’s also the responsibility of the community at some point to say, ‘Hey, if we want to see change, we have to also kind of encourage and usher people into those roles.’”
But real change may take time.
In a 2020 survey, nearly half of the Black Americans who responded said they had very little or no confidence that police officers treat people of different skin colors equally, according to a PBS NewsHour-NPR-Marist poll of about 1,000 U.S. adults.
Experts have long stressed that one way to build trust is for police departments to better reflect the communities they serve.
Brandon Kooi, professor and director of the criminal justice program at Aurora University in Illinois, said many departments want more minorities on their forces.
“When you’re having a recruitment crisis, it’s going to be from all walks of life, including minorities,” Kooi said. “Even before the crisis, there were many departments that were saying that.”
Despite an effort by many police forces to hire more people of color, a New York Times analysis of federal data showed that from 2007 to 2016, larger police departments had become whiter relative to the communities they serve.
Still, some departments have made efforts.
In Minnesota, several police departments launched a program called Pathways to Policing that removes some of the barriers to becoming a police officer, including paying candidates to attend a condensed training program. About a year after the program launched, the police chief in Bloomington told a local television station 67% of the department’s new recruits were racially diverse.
The program was so successful, U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., wants to implement it on a national scale. He co-introduced the Pathways to Policing Act, which would provide $50 million for states to create programs similar to Minnesota’s. It also would provide $50 million to the Department of Justice for a national recruitment campaign.
Dropped college credit requirements is another tact.
Kooi said departments that started requiring college education for recruits also hurt diversity efforts.
“This became problematic, especially for minority candidates,” he said. “You know, minorities are less likely to have a college degree than the white majority.”
And for those who earned their degrees, they might look elsewhere for a career where that degree is respected and recognized.
“They’re going to want to go to places where they’re going to get paid well,” Kooi said, suggesting that departments offer signing bonuses to recruits with degrees.
“We need to reconsider how we think about rewarding candidates based on the preparation that they’ve brought to the field of policing.”
Colleges and universities also have played a role in exposing their diverse students to law enforcement jobs through internships and associations.
Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Jefferson City, Missouri, created a police academy that graduated six recruits in its first class. Chief Gary Hill, the co-founder and principal instructor of the program, told ABC’s Nightline he hopes the academy’s success will inspire other HBCUs.
In Arizona, Ayun said Police Chief Chad Kasmar, a Tucson native, is invested in creating a partnership with the community.
Hiring more local officers can reduce fear and increase communication, particularly with the Spanish-speaking population, Tucson police spokesperson Francisco Magos said. About 27% of the population in Tucson speaks Spanish, and about 46% self identify as Hispanic, according to Census data.
Lluvia Niño, who attended the recent Tucson community event that included police recruiters, said watching the police make the effort to get closer to families at events helps those who feel distanced from law enforcement.
“We need to be united,” she said in Spanish. “The kids love to see this. They’re glad. It’s good while they’re growing up that they see this.”
For some officers, the decision to join the police department is a personal one.
Bryant Mosley said he became a police officer for a simple reason: service.
Growing up, he said, his mother instilled in him the importance of serving his community.
“When the George Floyd tragedy happened,” Mosley said, “I felt like it was necessary to be the change I wanted to see and start implementing things by showing an action and being part of the solution.”
He said he joined the police department in LaGrange, Georgia, because he had heard about the progressive chief there. As a young Black man, he understands what he represents when he puts on his uniform – and he doesn’t take his responsibilities lightly.
“It’s not lost on me,” Mosley said.
'Progress & policy'
Ritter said recruiting has become a challenge because there’s so much anti-police rhetoric.
“A lot of people who would make great police officers may not want to apply to be police officers because of the negative attention being put on the profession,” he said.
Sgt. Anthony Gibson, who works closely with Cherry as supervisor of recruitment and retention at the Charleston Police Department, said the nation should rethink its recruitment standards and definition of progress.
“Progress doesn’t have to be, ‘We hired X amount of this demographic,’” he said. “Progress is gender-nonspecific bathrooms. It’s, ‘I’m not comfortable in the locker room. What’s your alternative?’ It’s lactation rooms. So, progress and policy, progress and practice, progress and strategy.”
Cherry said looser restrictions on tattoos and facial hair are the tip of the iceberg for progressive recruitment.
“At some point, you have to stop trying to shove triangles into boxes that they don’t fit in,” she said.
She rejected the idea that policing should be a box at all, and she challenged other departments to alter their thought process around the selection process.
“Policing has been so much about exclusivity,” she said. “Recruiting should be about inclusivity. We recruit to attract people. We want people.”
News21 reporter Arrthy Thayaparan contributed to this article. This report is part of “In Pursuit,” an investigation into police reform and accountability in America, produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program. For more stories, visit inpursuit.news21.com.