In the past year, city police departments across the country have reported a dramatic drop in manpower, as cops retire, resign, or leave for the suburbs. The NYPD’s headcount fell to its lowest level in ten years. In Chicago, police retirements rose 15 percent. The San Francisco Police Department is short 400 officers; over 115 officers, including an entire unit dedicated to crowd control, have left the Portland PD; and nearly 200 have left the Minneapolis PD or are on leave, rendering the department unable to engage in proactive policing. A recent survey of police departments found that hiring fell an average of 5 percent in 2020, while resignations rose 18 percent and retirements a whopping 45 percent.
What’s behind this wave? Officers I spoke with who had left their old departments all offered the same explanation: since last year’s explosive protests, they no longer feel that they have the support of the public or of civilian officials. As one now-retired NYPD officer put it: “One day, the good guys became the bad guys and the bad guys became the good guys.”
That moment, the officers to whom I spoke agreed, came last June, when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of major cities, calling for the “defunding” of police departments in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Analysis of an unnamed midsize, midwestern city estimated that resignations nearly quintupled specifically in the months following the Floyd protests, supporting the claims of officers on the ground.
The officers grew worried by the ferocity of some protesters, particularly those who came to perpetrate violence after the peaceful majority had gone home for the night. Seattle has a proud history of protest—and riot, one former officer who left the SPD for a suburb told me. But this time was different: “It was people blowing up police cars. It was people throwing gasoline on to police headquarters and seeing if they could light the headquarters. It was people cementing my coworkers into a precinct and seeing if they could light the precinct on fire.”
“[The Floyd] protests were very violent, very anti-police,” another now-retired NYPD cop said. “Some of these protests, I had officers in my command who were assaulted while they policed some of these protests. One of my lieutenants had a brick thrown on top of his helmet.”
This disorder put police in harm’s way. A survey of Major City Chiefs Association members reported over 2,000 injuries between May and July alone, even as criminal gun-carrying soared. “Police work is kind of a lottery, and every time you answer a call or make a stop, you’re rolling the dice,” one former Minneapolis PD officer, now working in a suburb, said. “Those confrontations became much more frequent and much more violent during the riots as well. And there’s just so many of them.”
All of this was, in some sense, part of the job. What was new, and what lay at the root of the officers’ complaints, was the sense that they could now be villainized for doing that job.
The former Minneapolis officer described the moment he decided to leave the force: when a large, mentally ill man having a psychotic episode dropped dead moments before he arrived at the scene, thereby saving the officer from having to tase the man—and therefore get blamed for his death. “If I had made a decision to use a taser, and then he fell over dead, the death certificate would say homicide, complications of police use of a conducted energy device. My name would immediately be in the national news,” he said. “And the fundamental conclusion that I reached was that following Derek Chauvin, it no longer matters if what you were doing was legal, trained, the morally right thing to do, reasonable under the circumstances, the best effort of a reasonable human being in a marginal circumstance, which is basically what cops do. None of that matters. What matters is the outcome, and if you become the next spark in a viral firestorm.”*
Others agreed that the risky choices inherent in police work were no longer worth making, for fear of the costs of getting them wrong. In particular, they blamed municipal leadership for routinely taking the protesters’ side. “There’s not a single leader that steps up for the regular cop, the regular street cop,” a now-resigned Chicago officer said. “They have the power, they have the ability to get up there and say why this was justified, and then they can sit there and explain it if they want, but they don’t know how to, or they don’t want to, or they don’t care.”
One of the retired NYPD officers said of new restrictions on police: “To me, it felt like it was no longer about police reform. It was about punishment. It was about punishing police officers for the killing of George Floyd.”
Cops have felt discouraged and demoralized for years, a reality reflected both in polling and in the long-term shrinkage of departments. But the officers to whom I spoke agree that the hostility—from the media, public, and municipal leaders—hit a new high last summer, and has persisted since, explaining why some departments are struggling to hire new officers even amid a persistently high unemployment rate.
These shortages likely contribute to what I and others have called the “Minneapolis effect”: the linkage between last summer’s protests and the dramatic surge in violence and homicide that has followed. Police manpower helps keep crime down by deterring would-be offenders and making arrest more certain; its depletion leaves departments powerless to do much more than answer 911 calls.
As the cops who have walked out tell it, the manpower crisis is partially the byproduct of a sustained assault on policing by politicians and journalists looking to score points. If cops believe that one wrong step could ruin their lives forever, they will stop being cops. That’s what many are deciding to do, and the results have already proved deadly.
* The officer subsequently clarified that he did not support Chauvin’s actions, but was speaking about the resulting fallout.
Photo by JEFF DEAN/AFP via Getty Images