Survey reveals increase in police officer recruitment in the US in 2023 following a period of decline

According to a recent survey, police departments in the United States are experiencing a rise in their numbers. This marks the first increase since the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd incident in 2020, which caused a significant loss of officers.

In 2023, there was a notable increase in the number of sworn officers hired compared to the past four years. This information comes from a survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), which gathered responses from 214 law enforcement agencies. Additionally, the survey revealed a decrease in the overall number of officers resigning or retiring during this period.

The tragic death of Floyd, caused by Minneapolis police officers, ignited widespread protests across the nation against police brutality and brought increased attention to the actions of law enforcement.

With the increasing departure of officers, numerous departments found themselves compelled to reallocate limited resources by reassigning officers from investigative tasks and addressing quality of life concerns, such as abandoned vehicles or noise violations, to address the surge in crime. As a result, response times were delayed, and in certain instances, responses were limited to emergency situations only, according to police officials.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF, a nonprofit policing think tank based in Washington, D.C., expressed his view on the past four years of American policing. He acknowledged that this period has been particularly challenging for law enforcement. However, he also pointed out that the results of a recent survey indicate a positive shift in the right direction. Wexler believes that American policing is finally starting to turn a corner.

Wexler noted that individual departments are making progress at different rates in addressing the issue of attracting and retaining officers. However, many departments are still facing challenges in this area.

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According to him, the profession still has a long way to go before it can consider itself out of the woods.

Several unions and police departments were contacted by The Associated Press via phone and email to inquire about the increase in hiring.

According to the survey findings, smaller and medium-sized departments have seen an increase in the number of sworn officers compared to January 2020. However, larger departments continue to operate with staffing levels that are more than 5% below their pre-pandemic levels. Despite a year-over-year increase in staffing from 2022 to 2023, large departments have not fully recovered their previous staffing levels.

Smaller departments with fewer than 50 officers continue to grapple with a higher rate of resignations and retirements, as highlighted by the survey.

According to Wexler, the survey specifically requested numerical data, making it difficult to determine whether these officers are joining larger departments or leaving the profession altogether. Additionally, Wexler noted that the responses received by PERF were not representative of smaller departments, which make up 80% of agencies across the country.

Several smaller departments have been forced to disband, leaving the municipalities they once served dependent on state or county assistance for law enforcement. This is due in part to larger departments being able to offer higher officer salaries and attractive incentives like signing bonuses for experienced officers willing to transfer. As a result, smaller departments are unable to compete in terms of compensation and are left with no choice but to dissolve.

Even the highest-paying large departments are facing challenges in attracting new hires.

According to Wexler, it’s not solely about the money when it comes to job satisfaction. It’s also about how individuals perceive their job and the level of support they can expect. Even departments on the West Coast, which offer six-figure salaries, are facing difficulties in recruiting new employees.

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Many agencies are currently reviewing their application requirements and hiring processes, in addition to considering pay and bonuses.

According to Wexler, there are certain changes that seem reasonable, such as permitting visible tattoos, reassessing the significance of previous financial problems, and expediting the background check process for applicants. However, he emphasized that PERF does not endorse any lowering of standards, whether it be in terms of training or the qualifications of potential candidates.

Maria “Maki” Haberfeld, the chair of the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, expresses concern about the excessive emphasis on officer numbers within police departments. According to Haberfeld, some departments are compromising on education requirements and other standards in order to increase their numbers, rather than seeking out the most qualified individuals to serve and protect their communities.

According to the expert, policing is a highly skilled profession that demands more education and skills than what most people realize. It is not merely about physical attributes like tattoos or physical endurance. Instead, it primarily relies on emotional intelligence, maturity, and the ability to make quick decisions without resorting to deadly force.

Haberfeld also warned that the staffing gains achieved through incentives could be quickly undone, particularly because there have been instances of officers, including those in riot gear, intervening in protests against the Israel-Hamas war at universities nationwide.

She emphasized the slow progress in the field of policing, stating that it takes years to make advancements, but it only takes a moment for the public opinion to decline.

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According to PERF’s survey, there has been a significant decrease in resignations, with a drop of over 20% overall. In 2022, the number of resignations reached almost 6,500, but in 2023, it decreased to fewer than 5,100. It is worth noting that despite this decrease, the current numbers are still higher than the levels seen in the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, when just over 4,000 officers resigned across all the departments surveyed.

The size of the departments played a role in determining the rate of retirements in contrast to the increase in hiring. Large departments experienced a decrease in retirements from 2019 to 2023, while medium departments saw a slight increase. On the other hand, small departments had a higher rate of retirements. Interestingly, the survey revealed a significant decline in resignations at large agencies with 250 or more officers, as well as medium-sized agencies with 50 to 249 officers.

Wexler attributes the improved retention of public officials in their public safety departments to a shift in how some officials view these departments. This shift, coupled with pay and benefit increases, has contributed to the positive outcome.

According to him, there has been a significant shift in the mindset of political leaders. He pointed out that just a few years ago, there were discussions about defunding the police in the public sphere. However, now public officials are starting to realize that their workforce is dwindling. This realization indicates a change in perspective among political leaders.

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