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Stretched Thin

Hiring more cops won’t just reduce crime; done right, it can also improve the quality of policing. December 23, 2021
Public safety

One night, when I was still a big-city cop, I was called to a business where a young woman, heavily intoxicated, had been caught drawing graffiti with a Sharpie. The business owner was irate because of the pervasive graffiti problem in the area, but the woman had no criminal record. The graffiti in question amounted to about $20 worth of damage. I spoke to the woman and the business owner, and we came to an arrangement. We would trade contact information, and she would return tomorrow to clean up the graffiti. If she did not, the business owner would contact me, and I would ask prosecutors to file a misdemeanor charge against her.

As far as I know, this agreement worked, and it was a win for everyone. The business owner got some justice, and his property got cleaned up. The young woman avoided an arrest and criminal record. And taxpayers didn’t have to spend thousands of dollars prosecuting a drunk, first-time offender over $20 in graffiti. I think the median criminal justice “reformer” would say that this is the kind of thing they would like police to do more often.

Here’s the catch: this “diversion agreement” (which I made up on the spot) took time. My back-up officer and I had to detain the woman, check her criminal history, and identify everyone. We had to complete a criminal investigation that would hold up in court, if necessary. We had to speak to the parties and find a mutually acceptable arrangement. We had to document everything in the appropriate required reports. And I had to take the time to follow up with the business owner, in case the woman failed to hold up her end of the agreement. Booking her into jail and forgetting about the whole thing probably would have been faster.

Time is an increasingly scarce commodity for big-city cops. They are beset with calls for service and the associated paperwork. Rarely did I have the chance to set my own agenda during my shift or take any more time to resolve a call than was absolutely necessary. I frequently spent the vast majority of my shift going from one 911 call to another and writing a report for each. This experience wasn’t uniform; it depended a lot on the day of the week, the time of my shift, and the area I was working. On Sunday afternoons, there isn’t a lot going on, but good luck getting a cop to come out for a non-emergency at 2 A.M. on Saturday or Sunday—they’re all busy racing from one bar fight to another.

I wasn’t the only cop who felt overwhelmed. In 2017, a Pew survey found that 95 percent of police officers in big-city departments believed there were too few officers to police the community. And that was before last year’s post-Floyd rioting and “defund the police” rhetoric, which triggered a mass exodus of police officers from urban police departments and made recruiting new officers even tougher.

Police reformers often begin with the presumption that hiring or deploying more cops—which even police critics admit reduces violent crime—also inevitably harms the community being policed. Given that nonwhites are disproportionately the victims of violent crime, this assumption frequently leads commentators to conclude, as one scholar recently suggested, that policymakers face a “tradeoff between crime prevention and equity.” But there is nothing inevitable about this tradeoff. Hiring more police officers isn’t just a good way to reduce crime; done right, it can also improve the overall quality of policing, leading to reductions in the use of force and preventing misconduct and mistakes. By contrast, if current trends in recruitment and retention continue, big cities will be stuck with chronically understaffed police departments made up of tired, poorly trained officers—which will increase both crime and police misconduct.

Police are human beings and thus subject to human limits, including the need to sleep. Yet when I was a police officer, it was not uncommon for an officer to work 20 hours straight. Department policy required a rest period between shifts, but commanders trying to make sure a patrol shift or special event was fully staffed never once enforced it. Police departments need bodies to meet minimum staffing requirements, and if they don’t have them, they pay officers to work overtime. If they can’t find volunteers willing to work overtime, they’ll make the overtime mandatory.

I’ll be blunt: it is irresponsible to carry a gun and drive an emergency vehicle at a high rate of speed when you’ve been awake for 20 hours straight. It’s well established that going without sleep significantly impairs reaction times and cognitive performance in a manner comparable with alcohol intoxication. Have I done it myself when working a double shift? Yes, by chugging energy drinks and rubbing my eyes. But I shouldn’t have, and my supervisors shouldn’t have allowed it.

It’s not hard to imagine how staffing your police department with exhausted, sleep-deprived officers working overtime ends badly. An irritable officer may snap at an irritating person, prompting a complaint. They might crash a patrol car driving to an emergency call. They might make a bad tactical decision, leading to unnecessary use of force. Unsurprisingly, plenty of research shows tired officers have more on-duty vehicle accidents, more instances of excessive force, and a harder time dealing with the public. In 2011, a Harvard study found that 40 percent of police officers had some kind of sleep disorder.

A closely related problem is officer burnout. Among cops, Kevin Gilmartin, a clinical psychologist, is a widely discussed expert on the subject, and his description of the issue resonates strongly with my own personal experience. Gilmartin’s book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, focuses on the physiological effects of hypervigilance—the state of heightened awareness that police officers enter when on-duty. Though hypervigilance is a normal physiological reaction to threatening situations, it creates a sort of adrenaline rush for new officers which is hard to let go of, and can last for about 12 hours after the end of a shift. New officers tend to enjoy the adrenaline kick of policing and emotionally overinvest in their careers in law enforcement, sacrificing family, friends, hobbies, and physical fitness in the process.

Gilmartin, once a cop himself, points out that those who overinvest in a career in policing will inevitably end up feeling burned. A commander will make a dumb decision, a promotion will be denied, a citizen complaint will be unfairly sustained, or a prosecutor will let a bad guy off easy. The disappointed officer, who by now has nothing left outside of policing, responds by adopting a devil-may-care attitude, which in turn lends itself to misconduct. Once you come to see yourself as a victim of the system and start counting the days to retirement, why bother following department policy?

Gilmartin’s book, which was given to me when I was a police recruit, focuses mostly on how individual officers can avoid the pitfalls that lead to burnout. He encourages officers to focus on family, maintain friendships with non-cops, and exercise regularly. But these good habits are much easier to maintain when a police department provides a shift schedule that gives officers longer periods of time off, minimizes disruptions to family life, limits overtime work, and allows officers to maintain a social life outside of work. To take just one example, having officers work four ten-hour shifts instead of five eight-hour shifts has been shown to decrease department overtime spending, increase officers’ sleep, and improve self-reported quality of life.

Why have departments allowed these issues to fester for so long? Bureaucratic inertia is a problem, but true change also requires a significant increase in police staffing. Whenever we asked our administration about moving to a four-ten shift schedule, we were told it was impossible because of staffing issues. Police departments know overtime is cheaper than hiring new officers, and commanders know that enforcing limits on overtime would lead to undermanned shifts and a spike in 911 response times. Rank-and-file officers like working overtime because it is lucrative, and police salaries in many places are not commensurate with the demands of the job. But the true cost of overtime is exhaustion, burnout, and misconduct. A better solution is to hire more cops, limit the use of overtime, and give officers more time off.

Police training is frequently a subject of conversation among those who seek to “reform” police, but the focus tends to be on new training in “implicit bias” or “de-escalation” techniques. The training that police really need most is physical: defensive-tactics training, firearms training, and regular exercise. Providing police with the physical and tactical training necessary to do the job in the manner the public expects would mean sending cops to many, many more hours of in-service training than they currently receive. But taking police off the street for regular training means paying out overtime to other officers (leading to all of the problems just discussed) or hiring more cops.

For police, using physical force—especially deadly force—is an ultra-high-consequence, ultra-low-frequency event. In 2017, Pew’s survey of cops found only about a third of officers had been involved in a physical confrontation within the last month. Television shows lead the public to believe that policing involves a lot of gunfights, but most cops will never have to fire their weapon in the line of duty. The training implications are significant. Officers must always be prepared to use force, but without incorrectly perceiving a threat where none exists. Outside of training, they will only rarely use the skills needed to use force properly. If police are going to identify threats consistently and use force properly, regular training is a must.

However, police departments are failing to provide that training. Pew’s survey found that less than a third of big-city cops believed their department had trained them adequately. When Pew asked about specific types of training, the results were even more alarming. Just under half of officers surveyed had spent four hours or less in firearms training that included “shoot/no shoot” scenarios over the past year, and 15 percent had received no such training at all. The results were similar with respect to defensive tactics: half of cops had received four hours or less of such training in the past year, and almost one-fifth had received none at all. If you called police for help with a dangerous situation, would you want an officer responding whose last training on the proper identification of deadly threats was a four-hour class he took 11 months ago?

This woefully inadequate training is one reason why there are so many police shootings that, whether lawful or not, could have been prevented with better training. Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed after he fought off two Atlanta police officers, wrestled a Taser away from one, and fired it at an officer pursuing him. Daunte Wright escaped from an officer’s attempts to handcuff him before being shot and killed by an officer who drew and fired her gun after mistaking it for her Taser. If the officers making these arrests had stronger defensive-tactics skills or greater proficiency with using firearms under stress, these encounters might instead have ended with Brooks and Wright alive and in handcuffs.

Better physical training for police has already shown promising results. The police department in Marietta, Georgia, offers new recruits and current officers up to three hours of compensatory time a week to attend Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) defensive-tactics training in a local gym. The program is voluntary, but Marietta has already seen a significant reduction in injuries to suspects, officers, and overall use of force. It’s not exactly a randomized-controlled trial, but Marietta says that after 75 percent of the department’s night shift joined the BJJ program, use of force declined by 18 percent.

Why doesn’t every police department adopt similar programs? I suspect staffing is a major obstacle. Compensatory time is paid time off for officers who earn it, and 95 officers joined the Marietta BJJ program. If each officer earned and used all three hours of the weekly compensatory time to which they are entitled, the department would need to backfill 15,820 hours of patrol time every year. By my rough estimate, this would be the equivalent of losing seven full-time officers, which is about 5 percent of the Marietta police department’s total manpower. It’s possible that such a program could end up paying for itself in fewer lawsuits or fewer injured officers out on medical leave, but the initial upfront investment in terms of staffing is clearly significant.

It’s worth noting that many big-city departments already operate their own police-training facilities and have a dedicated training staff. My department did, and it also had gyms and firearms ranges available for officers to use on their own time. But without an increase in police staffing, taking cops off the road for three hours of weekly training means a significant increase in 911 response times—something police chiefs and political leaders are largely unwilling to tolerate.

One of my favorite things to do as a beat cop was to get out of my patrol car and walk around. I’d wander into stores and talk to business owners. I’d have conversations with local buskers and transients. If I saw someone engaging in suspicious conduct, I was often able to walk right up to them without being noticed despite being in full uniform. Criminals these days have grown used to looking out for cops in cars, not on foot.

Community members seemed to like foot patrols, too. Sometimes people would stop and tell me, totally unprompted, that it was nice to see a cop out walking the beat. Tourists would want to take a photo, or kids would ask for a sticker. Some of the business owners I talked to regularly became my friends, and some of them shared information about criminal activity that I never would have learned if I stayed in my car.

The problem was that whenever I wanted to conduct a foot patrol, my patrol car weighed me down like an anchor. Our precinct had long ago stopped assigning officers to work designated foot beats, apparently because of low staffing. I was assigned to cover all calls in a designated patrol zone far too large for me to cover on foot. I had to be close to my car so I could respond to any 911 calls that might come in. And the call would always come, usually fairly quickly after beginning a foot patrol.

I’ve heard criminologists debate the merits of foot patrol as a tool for crime-prevention. All I know is that I would have missed a lot if I could only see my beat through the windshield of my car. I wasn’t surprised to learn of evidence suggesting that foot patrol improves community-police relations. Citizens report feeling safer, while officers report having a more positive view of the citizens who live in their beat. Professor Jerry Ratcliffe, the architect of two foot-patrol studies in Philadelphia, explained the effect in a way that perfectly captured my own experience: “[Foot patrol] really reinforced for some [officers] the humanity of the people who they often don’t see. . . . It’s really easy, when you spend your time rushing from call to call to call, to feel that everybody in the neighborhood that you police is a victim or an offender.”

When police moved to motorized patrol in the middle of the twentieth century, advocates argued that it would improve “efficiency.” As with overtime shifts, I suspect the hidden, long-term costs outweigh the short-term efficiency gains. The officer who simply bounces from call-to-call in his patrol car becomes hardened and cynical. The citizen who only sees his local police when they are writing a traffic ticket or responding to a 911 call comes to view the officer as an outsider. The cost of losing these relationships is hard to quantify, but my personal experience has led me to believe it is significant.

A boost to police staffing would make it possible for big-city departments to bring back foot patrol. There is no getting around the fact that an officer on foot can cover only a fraction of the area covered by an officer in a patrol car. In critically understaffed police departments, foot patrol will always be one of the first things to go as 911 response times begin to lengthen. As a beat cop, I used to curse the radio and fantasize about how much I could do if I was able to work just one shift each week on foot. But until departments have enough officers to make regular foot patrols a reality, this will remain a fantasy, and relationships between officers and the communities they serve will suffer as a result.

Advocates for defunding police will doubtlessly contend that the problem isn’t the number of police officers so much as the jobs police have been asked to do. They think civilians should take on many police functions, particularly in the realm of mental health—a contention I strongly dispute. But even if police stopped responding to mental-health calls, policing would still be more complex and more demanding than it has ever been. The internet, smartphones, and digital evidence mean criminal investigations are more complex. The modern cop must navigate a web of constitutional restrictions that his predecessors could never have imagined. And the administrative workload continues to grow as police are required to collect more and more data: everything must be filmed on a body camera and documented in an appropriate report.

The choice facing America’s big cities is a simple one, and if they don’t make it, it will be made for them. They can push hard to hire more police officers, giving police chiefs the resources they need to fight crime while also improving police training, bettering police relationships with the community, and reducing officer fatigue and misconduct. Or they can do nothing, and they will quickly discover that a chronically understaffed, exhausted, and poorly trained police department leads to both more violent crime and more police misconduct. To me, it seems like an easy choice.

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

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