As moderate Democratic politicians try to unshackle themselves from their party’s “defund the police” wing, police officers around the country—and especially in New York City—are retiring and resigning in record numbers. If the trend continues, the defund movement will achieve its aims by default.
New York has seen record departures by police for each of the past three years, and the trend started even earlier. Already in 2019, the year before the George Floyd protests and riots, about 3,000 officers left the department. In 2022, about 3,700 departed (an increase of 32 percent over the previous year), and fewer than 2,000 were hired. And it wasn’t only uniformed officers exiting. According to the Detectives Endowment Association, in June 2022 alone, more than 100 detectives left the job.
Based on the first two months of 2023, the NYPD is likely to continue bleeding blue. In January and February, 239 officers left—almost 40 percent more than in the same period in 2022, and a 117 percent jump over 2021. If the pace keeps up, the department could lose more than 5,000 officers this year, which would make 2023’s exodus the largest since at least 2002, when more than 3,800 cops left after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
New York has been unable to offset these losses. The Patrolman’s Benevolent Association tweeted on January 17 that the department needs at least 1,200 recruits to reach its budgeted headcount and 2,500 new recruits to return to 2019 staffing levels. Only 543 recruits had enrolled in the academy on the date of the tweet.
Though police departments around the country offer signing bonuses, unhappy NYPD cops are finding jobs closer to home that pay better, offer comparable benefits, and don’t involve relocating. In February, for instance, 21 joined the Metropolitan Transportation Authority police, whose officers work in the city’s transportation hubs and in New York State and Connecticut counties where the MTA provides rail service. Officers enjoy a range of residence options in New York, Connecticut, or New Jersey. When I was a captain with the Metro-North Police (now part of the MTA police), it was our officers who moved on to other jobs—including to the NYPD, then considered a plum assignment.
What’s changed? One answer lies in a video of a recent arrest by two NYPD officers of a six-foot, 180-pound young man at 2 a.m. on the Lower East Side. A crowd of onlookers jeers the officers and cheers when the arrestee wrestles them to the ground and breaks free (he was eventually caught by other cops). Such incidents have been captured on video for years now. In July 2019, for example, a crowd also jeered officers making an arrest. In that video, viewed 118,000 times, bystanders in Harlem doused the officers with buckets of water, and one officer was hit by a bucket.
Public contempt for police officers is only one problem. PBA president Patrick Lynch has listed several others: base pay of about $42,000 that reaches a maximum of $86,000 after 5.5 years, both figures lower than those of a number of area departments; budget cuts; cuts to plainclothes units; and the loss of qualified immunity, which protects officers and other government employees from civil suits when they perform their duties reasonably.
Many urban police departments face similar issues and are also losing officers faster than they can replace them. In Denver, where crime has increased downtown and in the refurbished historic Union Station, the city’s new police chief sees as his major challenges the city’s high crime rate, the lack of community trust in the police, and the shortage of officers. Philadelphia’s police department is about 1,000 officers below authorized strength, with vacancies likely to increase. According to the mayor’s office, as of January, more than 750 officers were in the deferred retirement program. The Fraternal Order of Police called it embarrassing when the police commissioner, Danielle Outlaw, announced that four academy classes in 2023 would include only about 150 new officers.
With 700 vacancies and 600 departures expected in 2023, the Los Angeles Police Department is considering allowing up to 200 retirees to return for a year. In the past, L.A. has used the “bounce program” to bring back individuals with hard-to-replace skills, not to fill vacancies. During her successful 2022 mayoral campaign, Karen Bass pledged to rebuild the department to 9,700 sworn officers from its current size of about 9,225. As part of her plan to increase the number of black officers, she is considering lowering standards for recruits. She also hopes to recruit social workers, teachers, and nurses to become cops.
San Francisco is also confronting shortfalls. According to Tracy McCray, who heads the police union, about 50 officers of a department of fewer than 2,000 have left for smaller, suburban departments. She is concerned that the ranks of exiles include new cops, many with roots in the city, including black and Latino cops, who “just up and left.”
And in Chicago, where Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her primary bid for reelection, one of the two candidates in the April runoff is Paul Vallas, who challenged the mayor’s response to crime and has promised to fill 1,600 police vacancies. He is also pledging to add hundreds of new transit officers to the Chicago Transit Authority and to take the “handcuffs” off a demoralized police force.
Officials in each of these cities seem concerned about police shortages, but in New York, Mayor Eric Adams doesn’t seem to be. Though he frequently lauds the NYPD and defends officers against criticism from the activist Left, last year he said that he viewed the exodus as an opportunity to “diversify” the department’s ranks. Fewer than half (42 percent) of the department’s police officers are white; it’s hard to believe that white officers are the only ones leaving.
Like many police departments, the NYPD relied for decades on a steady stream of young (mostly) men who dreamed of becoming cops. They were willing to remain on civil service lists for years and clear various hurdles, including a background investigation, a credit and driving-record check, and interviews of friends and neighbors. Relatives in law enforcement assured them that the job was worth the wait.
Less than a year ago, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund criticized President Joe Biden’s Safety America Plan, which included funding for the hiring of 100,000 more police officers. Few anticipated then that the money might go unspent because there aren’t enough police recruits to hire and train.
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