Police agencies across the country are experiencing alarming levels of officer turnover.
The George Floyd protests that erupted in May 2020 not only ignited a nationwide debate about police reform but also sent shockwaves through the ranks of law enforcement. Experienced officers have reportedly fled large urban departments for the relative calm of smaller, suburban departments. While this exodus has garnered some attention, the conversation has largely overlooked the long-term consequences of elevated police turnover, especially for the nation’s largest metropolitan departments. This trend poses a significant challenge to American policing at a time when many cities are grappling with rising violent crime rates and budgetary constraints.
Take Memphis. A March 2023 Washington Post article highlighted how the city’s police department, faced with a devastating loss of personnel over the past decade, resorted to lowering its hiring standards. This shift in policy, which essentially equates to hiring less qualified officers with lower levels of education, may have contributed to the tragic killing of Tyre Nichols by five relatively inexperienced Memphis officers. Indeed, we have previously made this connection.
Nor is Memphis an isolated case. Police departments across the country are experiencing unprecedented levels of turnover in the post-Floyd era. From Seattle to Austin to Salt Lake City to Omaha, city forces are struggling to retain and recruit officers. The Police Executive Research Foundation (PERF) surveyed 194 departments and found an average 18 percent rise in resignations and a 45 percent increase in retirements between 2020 and 2021, while hiring activity fell by approximately 5 percent.
Our recent study—which builds on our previous work and examines a diverse sample of 14 large departments (more than 100 sworn officers) across the U.S.—paints a troubling picture. Eleven departments reported higher rates of resignations and retirements than what would be expected based on pre-2020 observations. Austin, Chicago, Denver, and Seattle have all reported significant increases in both resignations and retirements. Salt Lake City and Seattle saw the highest levels of disruption, with between 6.7 percent and 16 percent higher losses of sworn personnel than expected from pre-2020 observations. Across all the departments, an extra 1,429 officers were lost over what normal turnover would predict, equating to a loss of authorized strength 5.4 percent higher than expected. And this is a conservative estimate, as no department in our study was operating at full authorized strength.
It’s crucial to understand that the losses we report here are in addition to “normal” attrition or the levels of resignations and retirements that would have been expected based on pre-2020 observations. In other words, the excess rate we calculate across all 14 departments nearly doubles the underlying turnover rate among all departments in 2016.
|Agency||Excess Resignations||Excess Retirements||Real Loss||Authorized Strength 2020||Proportion Lost/Gained|
|Salt Lake City||+55||n.s.||55||565||-9.7%|
The implications of this silent crisis are profound. As experienced officers leave the force and less qualified recruits take their place, we risk jeopardizing the quality of policing in America. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that it takes roughly 18 months to transform an inexperienced recruit into a rookie officer capable of answering 911 calls. In one metropolitan city, for example, an acute resignation crisis led to a near doubling of call-response times. As resignations and retirements keep mounting, the effects of this crisis could extend decades, destabilizing workforce cohorts and undermining public safety, as well as public confidence in the ability of the system to provide that safety.
The financial burden of high police turnover is also severe. As departments struggle to fill the void left by departing officers, they incur significant expenses in hiring and training recruits. The costs associated with recruitment, background checks, academy training, and field training can be substantial, placing added strain on already-stretched budgets. Furthermore, this phenomenon creates a competitive atmosphere among departments, with many trying to lure already-trained officers from other agencies by offering higher salaries and better incentives. Seattle and New Orleans, among others, have offered $30,000 bonuses to lure trained officers away from their current agencies.
This inter-departmental competition worsens the problem of high turnover and raises questions about the long-term sustainability of these practices. The cost of hiring and training a brand-new officer is estimated to cost between one and five times that officer’s salary. This high cost, versus the relatively low cost of a lateral transfer bonus, makes it likely that these bonuses will continue to inflate. (Recent reports suggest that the Alameda Police Department in California is offering $75,000 hiring bonuses for officers.) Policymakers would do well to explore cost-effective strategies to retain experienced officers and stabilize the workforce.
Our research shows that this crisis is nationwide. Thus, solving it will require more than an agency-by-agency approach. We must first improve data collection and reporting on police turnover so researchers can more accurately assess the problem and its effects. Policymakers should also consider implementing targeted initiatives to retain experienced officers and attract qualified recruits, including offering competitive salaries, benefits, and career-development opportunities. At the national level, we should consider the relative success of then-Senator Joe Biden’s 1994 Crime Bill, which provided financial support for the hiring of an extra 100,000 officers between 1996 and 2000. The officers who rode in on that wave of hiring are now leaving in a wave of retirements, placing further pressure on police departments. It is time to consider federal funding to reverse that trend by providing federal grants to help cities bring in a new generation of officers.
The safety and security of our communities depend on our ability to resolve the challenges posed by the alarming surge in police turnover.
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