Across the United States, from cities to rural counties, police departments are confronting a recruitment crisis. “Going back to 2010, we had about 4,700 online applications. That dropped down to about 1,900 last year,” said Steve Anderson, chief of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, in a Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report last year. Seattle’s police department reported a 40 percent to 50 percent drop in applications, while Jefferson County, Colorado’s applications plummeted 70 percent. In total, 86 percent of police chiefs nationwide reported a shortage of sworn officers, with nearly half stating that the shortage had worsened over the past five years.
Currently, about 18,000 police departments in the U.S. are responsible for protecting over 300 million Americans. But there just aren’t enough cops to go around. This little-noticed staffing crisis could intensify over the next decade, especially as a glut of cops hired in the 1990s ages into retirement.
The current hiring struggles reflect the slow undoing of the past quarter-century’s trend of growing American police forces. Data from the Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll (ASPEP)—which counts the national number of public employees—paint a stark picture. In the early 1990s, roughly 500,000 sworn officers worked in the U.S., equivalent to 213 per 100,000 people in the population. During this period, violent crime finally peaked after rising continuously for almost three decades, and then began a long drop. One reason for this substantial decline was a massive increase in the number of cops, not just in New York, but across the country. Substantial empirical evidence indicates that more cops on the beat means less crime on the street. Federal funding from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office helped; established by the 1994 crime bill, it increased the number of sworn officers by 150,000 over seven years. By the turn of the millennium, the number of officers per 100,000 people reached just under 240—a 12 percent increase over 1993.
For the next few years, this figure remained steady, nearing its per-capita high point again in 2008, before the Great Recession walloped state and local tax revenue. Police departments felt the pinch: a 2011 report from the COPS office found that more than 85 percent of police agencies reported cuts to their budgets. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of officers declined by nearly 20,000; from 2008 to 2018, per-capita rates fell 8 percent.
Police chiefs attribute today’s smaller pool of new applicants to a changing society. Departments are getting fewer new members from traditional sources, such as family ties and the military. The tight labor market has also made hiring more difficult. At the same time, policing has become a more technologically complex profession, one that often requires highly educated applicants.
Another factor pushing new recruits away is the psychological toll of policing, which seems to be on the rise. Officers face significant risk for job-related stress and PTSD, factors associated with suicide, now more common than dying in the line of duty. According to the Centers for Disease Control, police suicide rates run 40 percent higher than the general population.
All this means that police forces, already at early 1990s levels of staffing, will likely keep shrinking. A crisis of public safety could follow. Policymakers must make hiring officers a priority. While President Donald Trump has vocally supported police, his administration initially tried to slash the COPS budget and consolidate the office under the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs. Luckily, the administration appears to be reversing course: DOJ recently announced $500 million in new COPS grants, including for hiring and mental health. Consolidation might be a prudent way to shrink bureaucracy, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of robust federal support for police hiring.
PERF recommends that police departments improve their recruitment efforts by expanding child-care support and tuition reimbursement; relaxing some restrictions, such as those on past drug use, tattoos, and educational attainment; streamlining the recruitment process; and trying to reach more diverse candidates. The group also suggests retooling messaging to focus on “service over excitement,” emphasizing policing’s civic virtue and career-development opportunities instead of its heat-of-the-moment action. Police and policymakers should also emphasize the importance of mental health. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has spearheaded multiple bills to provide better funding for and information about police stress, depression, and suicide.
Thanks in part to more cops on the street, the U.S. made major strides in public safety over the last three decades, but this urban transformation could face a threat as police forces shrink. It’s past time to address this problem.