Fewer in­ter­ested in join­ing cities’ finest

Job ap­pli­ca­tions to be po­lice of­fi­cers plum­met across the coun­try

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Tom Jack­man

WASH­ING­TON — Chuck Wexler talks to po­lice chiefs fre­quently, as head of the Po­lice Ex­ec­u­tive Re­search Fo­rum think tank in Wash­ing­ton. Re­cently, he asked a room­ful of chiefs to raise their hands if they wanted their chil­dren to fol­low them into a law en­force­ment ca­reer.

Not one hand went up, he said.

Across the coun­try, in­ter­est in be­com­ing a po­lice of­fi­cer is down dra­mat­i­cally.

In Nashville, Tenn., job ap­pli­ca­tions dropped from 4,700 in 2010 to 1,900 last year. In Seat­tle, ap­pli­ca­tions have de­clined by nearly 50 per­cent, in a depart­ment where the start­ing salary is $79,000. Even the FBI saw a sharp drop, from 21,000 ap­pli­ca­tions per year to 13,000 last year, be­fore a new mar­ket­ing cam­paign brought an up­swing.

And re­tain­ing of­fi­cers once they’ve joined is get­ting harder too.

In a PERF sur­vey of nearly 400 po­lice de­part­ments about vol­un­tary res­ig­na­tions, 29 per­cent of those who left their po­lice job vol­un­tar­ily had been on the force less than a year, and an ad­di­tional 40 per­cent had been on the job less than five years.

At a PERF gath­er­ing of po­lice chiefs and com­man­ders from across the coun­try in Wash­ing­ton last week, many at­trib­uted their de­clin­ing num­bers to a di­min­ished per­cep­tion of po­lice af­ter the 2014 shoot­ing and un­rest in Fer­gu­son, Mo., and an in­crease in pub­lic and me­dia scru­tiny of po­lice made pos­si­ble by tech­nol­ogy and so­cial me­dia.

“There’s an in­creased po­ten­tial for of­fi­cers to be criminally li­able for mak­ing a good faith mis­take,” said Terry Sult, the Hamp­ton, Va., po­lice chief.

“We’re see­ing a lot more me­dia cov­er­age of of­fi­cers be­ing pros­e­cuted, and that weighs heav­ily on a lot of of­fi­cers’ hearts . ... That’s a stres­sor on whether I want to stay in this po­si­tion or not.”

Russ Hamill, an as­sis­tant chief of the Mont­gomery County, Md., po­lice, said he would pre­fer his kids en­ter an­other pro­fes­sion — “even lawyers,” he said, to big laughs.

It wasn’t all gloom and doom in the gath­er­ing of 250 law en­force­ment ex­ec­u­tives in Wash­ing­ton.

The po­lice com­man­ders traded ideas on how to re­cruit, and re­tain, qual­ity po­lice of­fi­cers, in­clud­ing low­er­ing the re­quire­ment of a col­lege de­gree, re­lax­ing rules on prior drug use and eas­ing tat­too poli­cies.

Mak­ing de­part­ments more wel­com­ing to mi­nori­ties and women, in part by pro­vid­ing them with men­tors and phys­i­cal train­ing help, has en­abled Tempe, Ariz., to main­tain its re­cruit­ment num­bers, Chief Sylvia Moir said.

The videos of po­lice mis­con­duct, or fa­tal shoot­ings, have dam­aged the per­cep­tion of Amer­i­can po­lice of­fi­cers, but not ir­re­vo­ca­bly, said An­toinette Archer, di­rec­tor of hu­man re­la­tions for the Rich­mond, Va., po­lice.

For many peo­ple, “they’re taken aback by the bru­tal­ity, not by the pro­fes­sion,” Archer said. “If we can be in­clu­sive” of women and peo­ple of color, “those in­di­vid­u­als who can see a part of their fab­ric in the depart­ment will come for­ward . ... If the en­vi­ron­ment is not in­clu­sive, you’re go­ing to lose them.”

When Wexler asked the room if any­one had prob­lems re­cruit­ing for di­ver­sity, ev­ery hand went up.

The trend to­ward fewer po­lice of­fi­cers per capita has been steady for 20 years, ac­cord­ing to find­ings from the Bu­reau of Jus­tice Statis­tics. While the U.S. pop­u­la­tion has risen from 267 mil­lion in 1997 to 323 mil­lion in 2016, the num­ber of full-time sworn of­fi­cers per 1,000 U.S. res­i­dents has dropped from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17 of­fi­cers per 1,000 res­i­dents in 2016.

The raw num­ber of sworn of­fi­cers peaked at nearly 725,000 in 2013, and is now down to just more than 701,000. Hous­ton As­sis­tant Chief Lori Ben­der said Hous­ton should have 2,000 more of­fi­cers to ef­fi­ciently han­dle its pop­u­la­tion.

Wexler the­o­rized that some de­cline may be from the grad­ual re­tire­ments of the 100,000 of­fi­cers hired na­tion­wide as part of an ini­tia­tive by Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in the 1990s.

But what­ever the rea­son for of­fi­cers leav­ing, the process of re­plac­ing them has got­ten tougher. Nearly 66 per­cent of the nearly 400 po­lice de­part­ments sur­veyed said their num­ber of ap­pli­cants had de­creased. Hir­ing in a healthy econ­omy is one prob­lem, po­lice of­fi­cials said, be­cause pri­vate in­dus­try can of­fer bet­ter salaries.

Still, pay isn’t the main rea­son many pass polic­ing by, Deputy Seat­tle Chief Marc Garth Green said.

“Num­ber one is val­i­da­tion,” Green said. “The val­i­da­tion that they’re putting their life on the line. There’s no re­spect for that,” and he blamed the news me­dia for un­der­min­ing re­spect for po­lice au­thor­ity.

A re­cent sur­vey of 800 col­lege stu­dents ma­jor­ing in crim­i­nal jus­tice found that they didn’t have the mis­giv­ings of­ten cited by vet­eran cops, crim­i­nal jus­tice pro­fes­sor Charles Scheer of the Univer­sity of South­ern Mis­sis­sippi said.

“This gen­er­a­tion ex­pects so­cial me­dia and scru­tiny,” Scheer said. “They’re not afraid of the per­cep­tion of po­lice.”

He said African-Amer­i­can stu­dents were of­ten de­terred by fam­ily mem­bers who were “not too hot on the idea” of a rel­a­tive be­com­ing a cop and a misun­der­stand­ing of how of­ten of­fi­cer­in­volved shoot­ings oc­cur. Scheer sug­gested a col­lege foot­ball-style re­cruit­ing ap­proach where an ap­pli­cant’s whole fam­ily is wooed.

Wexler had a num­ber of new of­fi­cers present to of­fer their views. Clario Samp­son, a young of­fi­cer in Ne­wark, N.J., said he gladly donned a body cam­era ev­ery day to de­mon­strate and de­fend his polic­ing.

“For the older of­fi­cers, it’s an ad­just­ment,” Samp­son said. “I do be­lieve that be­cause of the cam­eras and how the me­dia looks at it, we have to do more train­ing.”

DREW AN­GERER/GETTY

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