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Police Departments on the Brink

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Police Departments on the Brink

Across America, cops are quitting. November 11, 2020
Public safety

Colwyn, Pennsylvania, is down to just one police officer per shift. Its acting police chief says that the borough council seems to want his department gone. As many as 14 officers moved to leave the Norman, Oklahoma police force after the city council voted to defund their department. A majority of officers left the force in Knightstown, Indiana, including the chief, because “there is no support for the department, no town council backbone for us,” one former officer said.

These aren’t isolated incidents, but part of a wave that has swept the country following nationwide anti-police protests in recent months. Renewed public hostility to cops appears to have worsened a long decline in their numbers, stretching back to the Great Recession. That’s bad news for both public safety and police-community relations: fewer cops likely means both more crime and more police misconduct.

The attrition is not limited to small towns. A survey of news stories indicates that across America’s 50 largest cities, at least 23 have seen chiefs or line officers resign, retire, or take disability this year. Nearly 3,700 beat cops have left, a large proportion from the NYPD (down 7 percent of its officers) but with big drops in Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and elsewhere, too. The Major Cities Chiefs Association told the Wall Street Journal that 18 of its 69 member executives had retired, resigned, or been fired over the past year.

Cities are struggling to replace these departing officers. In Colorado Springs, Colorado, the department has fallen 25 percent short of its recruitment goal amid what chief Vince Niski called “social unrest.” And potential executives are refusing the job, Houston P.D. chief and president of the MCCA Art Acevedo told the Wall Street Journal: “There’s a lot of folks that are hesitant when they see chiefs are getting beat up and getting thrown under the bus by their bosses.”

Some of these departures represent normal turnover, like the retirement of Virginia Beach chief Jim Cervera, who hit the city’s mandatory retirement age this year. Others likely represent instances of underperforming chiefs being replaced. But many are clearly casualties of the current moment, like Portland’s Jami Resch, forced out because her command staff was all white.

In city after city, departing officers cite a hostile climate, including the rioting that recently left 30 officers injured in Philadelphia. In Seattle, those who left (over 100 this year) cited fears for their personal safety and the agenda of the “socialist” city council as their reason for quitting. In San Francisco, nearly 30 officers have left because of the attitudes of everyone from homeowners to the homeless: “It’s . . . nice working at a place where everyone isn’t mad at you,” one former SFPD officer, now in Texas, said.

It’s plain that the protests, which have seen participants assault officers, set fire to precincts, and abuse cops verbally, have made the job worse. Even if one believes that all these departures are individually good—that the retiring cops were incompetent, say, and the resigning chiefs corrupt—it’s hard to dispute the harmful cumulative effect.

The size of a police force and the crime rate are strongly linked. Research consistently finds that increasing the number of officers on the streets cuts crime, with one analysis suggesting that from a cost-benefit perspective, America’s streets are likely under-policed. When cops get pulled off the beat, crime goes up. One study of Dallas P.D. data linked a 10 percent drop in presence to a 7 percent increase in crime.

Fewer cops likely also means more police misconduct. After all, the remaining officers must work longer and more stressful hours, and tend to grow more sympathetic to using force compared with less-stressed colleagues. Research has found that fatigue predicts an rise in public complaints against cops: a 13-hour rather than 10-hour shift significantly boosts their prevalence, while back-to-back shifts quadruple their odds.

These realities are particularly alarming given the current shrinking of police forces, which predates 2020. Data from state and local governments collected by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate fewer police officers per capita in 2019 than at any point since 1994, when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act surged thousands of officers on to the streets, helping to end the two-decade crime wave.

Since 2008, the number of cops per capita has retreated from the post-crime-wave peak, thanks both to state and local austerity and to growing agitation against policing. That has likely contributed to the “plateauing“ of the crime decline, a phenomenon that costs millions of dollars and thousands of lives every year.

The mass departures of the past year can only hasten this trend, probably leading to higher crime and greater police misconduct—and, in turn, making police work less appealing to high-quality candidates.

Policymakers must take these realities into consideration. From New York City to Norman, Oklahoma, lawmakers who move to “defund” the police, or “reform” them by slashing payrolls, are playing a destructive game.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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