In September 2019, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) claimed that American policing was undergoing a workforce crisis. The crisis gained attention last year, following the police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing civil unrest. Over the past 15 months, police executives across the U.S. have been vocal about an increased rate of officer retirements and voluntary resignations, with many claiming that last summer’s events worsened the problem.
Not everyone agrees. Analyzing Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2020, the Marshall Project, a journalistic nonprofit, recently concluded that such worries are “unfounded.” But as Charles Fain Lehman has noted in City Journal, that analysis itself is fundamentally flawed. The Marshall Project relied on data that don’t distinguish between sworn and civilian employees of police departments. Further, those data were incapable of differentiating between officers leaving the profession versus leaving larger metropolitan agencies for nearby, smaller agencies—perhaps because cops perceive such places as less hostile environments. Indeed, many agencies are encountering intensifying interagency competition for officers.
Our research casts added doubt on the Marshall Project’s conclusions. Earlier this year, in a paper for Criminology & Public Policy, we documented a sharp rise in officers resigning (but not retiring) from a large police agency in the western United States between June and December 2020. Our analysis provides compelling evidence that a 279 percent increase in resignations over “typical” levels was linked to the Floyd protests occurring in the city, a negative sociopolitical environment, and a perceived lack of political support. We also developed a one-year projection indicating that—absent considerable effort to address this crisis—the agency is likely to continue facing high levels of voluntary resignations.
In addition to the limitations spelled out above, the Marshall Project failed to consider that police turnover may have been elevated for only part of 2020, which is precisely what our analysis showed: resignations did not spike until after George Floyd’s murder and the accompanying protests. Comparing what happened in policing to what happened in other professions across all of 2020 likely masks differences that existed strictly in the second half of the year. Ultimately, the Marshall Project’s analysis cannot tell interested police executives or policymakers—particularly those in big cities—whether concerns about a crisis are founded. Our analysis, PERF’s report, and journalistic accounts in several major cities offer reason to believe that they are founded.
The workforce crisis carries serious risks. Policing has some suppression effect on homicides and other serious crimes. Though experts debate the size of that effect, and it undoubtedly varies across communities, no serious commentator believes that the effect of policing is nil. Accordingly, a sudden mass departure of officers from a city could have dire consequences for public safety. For example, in a retrospective study of 242 large cities over nearly 40 years, researchers at the Niskanen Center, a think tank, found that for every 11 to 18 officers added to a community, one additional homicide and 20 serious crimes were avoided. And another “natural experiment,” by Eric Piza of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Vijay Chillar of Rutgers University, is instructive. When the Newark Police Department laid off 13 percent of its officers in 2010, sudden increases in both violent and property crime resulted, increases that became progressively higher over time. However, in nearby and similarly situated Jersey City, which avoided layoffs, the researchers observed no significant changes in crime.
What can be done? Predictably, understaffed agencies have reacted to labor shortages by offering hiring bonuses and increased pay. For example, in Aurora, Illinois, city officials have proposed $20,000 hiring bonuses. Spokane County sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has taken out billboards in Portland and Denver advertising $15,000 bonuses for officers to transfer to his department. The results of these efforts remain to be seen. Meantime, we offer three additional suggestions.
First, more police departments should partner with credible researchers to assess whether a labor shortage exists in their communities or regions and, if so, why. Such assessments can clarify whether officers are leaving the profession or simply transferring to other agencies—an important distinction. Moreover, they can help identify effective courses of action.
Second, police executives and politicians must strive to improve perceptions of support among police employees. This effort will require judicious and patient responses when agencies—or the institution of policing itself—face backlash from communities. Beyond potentially inflaming community tensions and creating excessive public fear and anxiety, jumping to conclusions or poorly framing incidents may lead good police officers to consider leaving the department. Better policing will require good officers. Losing them to resignation, early retirement, or competing agencies neither improves public safety nor produces fairer treatment of residents.
Finally, as is true of the entire criminal-justice system, fragmented and closed data sources tend to work against those seeking solutions to critical problems like these and others—whether it’s police use of force, hate-crime reporting, or the recent surge in violent crime. Police departments and communities should reevaluate their local open-data practices, which are often insufficient.
Our research points to a single agency’s experience that tends to corroborate anecdotal accounts from other large agencies throughout the country. Our study cannot answer some outstanding and vital questions, however. For example, what were the demographic characteristics of the group of officers who resigned post-Floyd? How many had “troublesome” track records (for example, a history of excessive complaints)? How many left the profession, and how many laterally transferred to other agencies? We badly need more comprehensive and timely police data.
In any event, against the backdrop of an unprecedented spike in gun violence, it seems counterproductive to spend energy downplaying a real and ongoing police recruitment and retention crisis in U.S. cities. We can and should consider long-term solutions to violence, but communities need sufficiently staffed police departments to help deal with the violence happening right now.
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