The State of American Law Enforcement - The Thinning Blue Line

America is running short of cops. There aren't enough to go around. And it won't be long until a shortage becomes a full-fledged crisis.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

America is running short of cops. There aren't enough to go around. And it won't be long until a shortage becomes a full-fledged crisis.

Maybe it already has become a crisis and we don't know. No definitive national study has been conducted. However, a 10 percent average vacancy rate would be a safe and conservative estimate.

The shortage doesn't play favorites either. Some of the nation's most storied municipal departments are suffering as much as small town and rural agencies. It's also not universal. Some departments are doing just fine, while others have chiefs who are wondering who will turn out the lights when the last officer leaves.

The reasons for this crisis are many.

First and foremost, an entire generation of officers has reached retirement. And agencies are having a hard time finding replacements.

Some agencies pay their cops less than they can make at Wal-Mart. Others have poor working conditions. And still others have found it extremely difficult to find qualified candidates who want to become cops.

There are also factors outside the control of the agency or the community that it serves. Despite a few hiccups because of fuel costs and the plummeting value of the dollar, the American economy is still chugging along creating jobs. Civil service jobs such as law enforcement are less popular when the economy is strong.

It's also unknown exactly what effect the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on the ranks of law enforcement officers. A significant number of sworn officers are serving in the Sandbox with National Guard and Reserve units. More importantly, stop-loss rules have prevented military personnel who want to become law enforcement officers from leaving the service, even though their enlistments are up.

All of these factors have forced law enforcement agencies to compete for the cream of the applicant pool. They have also resulted in some agencies offering bonuses of as much as $10,000 to woo veteran officers from other departments and even signing bonuses for recruits.

"For police departments to offer a signing bonus for people to become a police officer is unprecedented," says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

Money Talks

If you wanted to devastate a once-proud police force, you couldn't think of a better scheme than what a state arbiter did to the New York City Police Department. In 2005, said arbiter froze the NYPD's entry-level salary at $25,100. That's what NYPD cadets make as they train for six months in the academy. Their graduation gift is a starting salary of $32,700 and a top pay of $59,588 for a veteran patrol officer. Adjusted for inflation, this is reportedly the lowest compensation package ever paid to New York's Finest.

There are places in this country where $32,700 is a good living. New York City and the surrounding counties is not one of them. Eugene O'Donnell, an instructor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that the salaries paid to NYPD patrol officers are so low as to be "obscene."

Last summer 165 of 1,131 NYPD recruits dropped out of the academy. The primary reason for that unhappiness in the program was the pay.

One recruit who left the program told the New York Daily News, "You get those first paychecks and suddenly you realize that protecting your city doesn't pay anything." That recruit left the academy to take a better paying job at a shoe store. That bears repeating: a shoe store.

"We are having this absurd conversation here in New York that the market economy doesn't apply to cops," says O'Donnell, who points out that the city can afford to pay its cops a living wage. "A lot of the tax stuff in this city is stupid. If you are a homeowner in New York City, then your property value has skyrocketed and you should be willing to thank the police for making the crime rate go down."

Dep. Inspector Martin Morales heads the NYPD's recruiting staff, and he admits that the salary makes his job much more difficult. It also doesn't help that the department has refused to lower its standards. In fact, the fitness and education standards have been raised in the last decade. "We have high standards, and we want to keep it that way," Morales says proudly. "We're going to hold our ground and wait 'til the salary changes. Once the salary is better, I think we're back in business."

The NYPD's union, the Police Benevolence Association, is now in salary negotiations. So Morales may get his wish for higher recruit pay.

Toxic Environment

But unfortunately for Morales and all of the other police recruiters nationwide, young people aren't just rejecting police careers because of the pay. They see what cops go through on the job and off the job, and they don't want any part of it. And their disdain for becoming a cop has very little to do with concerns about dodging bullets.

"The quality of life for a lot of cops is not acceptable to young people," says O'Donnell, who has seen interest in law enforcement wane among his students at John Jay. "Every day that passes, cops are under more of a microscope both on the job and in their private lives."

All of the scrutiny that they face from the public and the brass, and the long hours make many cops unhappy with their career choice. And that's not the kind of message that will make smart, clean-cut American kids choose to pin on badges, especially when the economy offers so many other careers.

Cordele, Ga., police chief Dwayne Orrick says that the skills that make a good cop are in high demand in other fields and that gives potential recruits a lot of options. "The skill level that we require of police officers today in conflict resolution and problem solving and both written and oral communication makes them very valuable. People with these skills can get a job doing just about anything," he says.

Even the kids of cops and kids from multi-generational cop families are now seeking careers outside law enforcement. This break with tradition has been especially painful for big East Coast departments that once relied on a steady flow of officers from cop families.

Passing Through

All of the options available to qualified police applicants have led to an unusual phenomenon: Academy recruits who are there on a lark. In past decades, it was extremely rare for somebody to go through all of the hassle of the police hiring process if he or she didn't really want to be a cop. Now applicants can make it all the way to the academy just to check it out.

Since people just checking out their options aren't dedicated to the job, they are likely to jump off the bus at the first hardship. It's not uncommon now for departments to lose recruits on the first day of the academy when they discover that being a cop isn't like it is on TV.

Other recruits who are disillusioned with their law enforcement careers sometimes make it to the street. But they are still looking for a way out.

O'Donnell believes this practice is dangerous to the public because the officers who do it aren't dedicated to service or to a career in law enforcement. "If people are just coming in for a year or two to try it on, then that has potentially very problematic consequences regarding corruption and misconduct. A community needs a stable law enforcement work force that feels invested in the job."

Non-Traditional Applicants

In order to fill their ranks and keep their ranks filled, most municipal, county, and state law enforcement agencies are going to have to change the way they evaluate applicants.

Some already have changed their application requirements to reflect the realities of the 21st century. An increasing number of urban agencies no longer disqualify candidates for past affiliation or association with gang members. Almost all police and sheriff's department have started to accept candidates who have used illegal drugs. And others no longer disqualify candidates who have had run-ins with the law in their youth.

Opening up the ranks to less-than-desirable candidates is a cause for concern among some veteran police executives. "Those agencies that are lowering what I would call reasonable and legitimate standards are going to pay the consequences," says Orrick. And PERF's Wexler worries that agencies will suffer if they skimp on their background investigations. "It only takes one bad hire to pull down an agency," he says.

One way that some agencies have increased their qualified applicant pool is by opening the application process to people well in their 40s. Wexler is one of many experts who thinks this is a good idea. "I think you will find that the more mature someone is the better equipped he or she is to make life-and-death decisions," he says.

Advocates of letting middle-aged men and women apply to serve as cops argue that the job is not as physical as it once was. "About 80 percent of what an officer does is service related. It's problem solving and resolving conflict," Wexler says.

Matthew Scheider, assistant director of the U.S. DOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing Services believes that agencies need to change their marketing to reach the non-traditional recruits. He recommends that they emphasize service over the warrior aspects of law enforcement. "You see a lot of these recruitment videos with SWAT jumping off of buildings, officers chasing bad guys, and all that stuff. That's the traditional way that law enforcement has appealed to people, but any officer knows that those activities are only a small percentage of what they do."


No Return on Investment

Holding on to good, dedicated officers is actually a bigger problem for most agencies than a lack of recruits or coping with cops who really don't want to be cops.

A North Carolina study conducted earlier this decade revealed that the average length of time that a new officer stays on the job is 34 months. Anecdotal evidence indicates that this figure is pretty accurate for the rest of the country as well. Which means that about one-third of all young cops hitting the streets this month will move on to other agencies or leave law enforcement entirely before New Year's Day 2011.

This is devastating, especially for small town agencies. Chief Orrick fought for and won a substantial raise for his officers by explaining to the Cordele, Ga., city council the real cost to the taxpayers when cops leave.

The author of a new book titled "Retention, Recruitment, and Turnover of Law Enforcement Personnel," Orrick says that three years of service is when an officer becomes effective and it costs $80,000 to train a new officer from point of hire to the three-year mark. "If you lose five officers to lateral transfers, that's $400,000 of your money that you just gave to neighboring communities," Orrick says.

Retention issues have become such a bane for some agencies that they have explored ways to legally bind officers to service. "Some agencies have started toying with the idea of having a contract that says new officers will stay with the agency for a certain length of time," says Douglas Yearwood, director of the North Carolina Criminal Justice Analysis Center.

It's About More Than Money

Yearwood and Orrick both agree that retaining good cops is not just a matter of money. Agencies can't pay dirt and expect people to stay, but if the pay is reasonable for the living standard of the community, then cops will often stay if the agency offers opportunity for advancement and advanced training.

Orrick has transformed his 32-sworn agency into one of the most technically proficient small town forces in the country. Each patrol car has a computer and other high-tech gear, and officers are presented with many opportunities for advanced training. The result is that the exodus of personnel has slowed, and some who leave actually come back.

Advancement, training, and opportunities for specialization are also some of the ways that big city agencies lure new applicants and lateral transfers.

The NYPD does not accept lateral transfers. But one of its big selling points to new recruits is the availability of assignments in one of 200 special units.

A similar marketing strategy is also in use 3,000 miles away at the Los Angeles Police Department. "Our biggest draw is the availability of promotion opportunities as well as the different jobs that we offer such as motor duty, dog duty, helicopter duty," says Lt. John Hone, an LAPD recruiter.

Unfortunately for Hone, sometimes recruits and laterals are seeking a specific LAPD job that isn't available. For example, Marine snipers that he tries to recruit at Camp Pendleton want to join the LAPD as SWAT snipers right out of the academy, and he has to explain to them that it doesn't work that way.

Burning Out

The shortage of police officers is not just an administrative headache for chiefs and recruiters. Fewer cops on the force means more sacrifice for an agency's officers.

During the recent Thanksgiving holiday, some veteran officers in certain big cities received an unwelcome holiday bonus. They were called in to work overtime and parade duty at the last minute. The result was dashed holiday plans, angry spouses, and plainclothes officers frantically trying to find a uniform.

Some officers dearly love overtime pay. But being forced to work overtime to make up for personnel shortages can have an adverse effect on the body and the mind that money can't cure.

Police psychologists say that overwork can lead to depression, an increase of on-the-job accidents, a hair trigger temper, and just plain old burnout. Even the best cops are not immune to these effects, so overworking its officers can cause a lot of problems for an agency.

It can also devastate the emotional lives of the officers. "In my experience what starts to happen is that they are spending so much time at work that when they come home they are exhausted," says Jana Price-Sharps, chief psychologist for the Fresno Police Department. "When they come home, the family wants their needs met, but the officer just wants to rest. So they start developing marital problems and problems with their kids."

Overwork due to personnel shortages also has a major impact on morale. And the same is true when officers depart for greener pastures after just a few years on the force. When an agency has a revolving door of new recruits and very few veterans, it can be hard for cops to build the confidence they need to have in their backup and their partners.

Getting Leaner

Unless America experiences a major economic downturn, sacrificial public service jobs like law enforcement will be a hard sell to young citizens. And many cops are unhappy, so turnover will continue to plague their employers. Which means there will be fewer cops available per agency into the foreseeable future.

With cops in high demand, each agency is going to have to find a way to make its cops feel appreciated and satisfied on the job, or they will find work elsewhere. It's also likely that most agencies will also have to find ways to accomplish their mission with fewer officers.

Technologies such as speed cameras and red light cameras may free some officers from traffic patrol. Other solutions may include bringing retirees back to do such tasks as recruiting and background investigations.

In addition, certain jobs may need to be farmed out to civilians. Some agencies use sworn personnel as crime scene investigators; experts say this mission could be accomplished by non-sworn personnel.

Retired Reno, Nev., officer and recruitment consultant Jeff Church says that agencies may have to rethink the qualifications for some jobs. "Do you need a sworn detective investigating fraud?" asks Church, a veteran police recruiter who teaches recruiting strategies as president of DRS Law Enforcement Consulting. "I don't think so. Maybe you would be better off hiring some kid with a master's degree in computer science to do that job."

The good news is that even though some agencies will have to serve their communities with fewer cops, there will always be people who want to serve as police officers.

That's a fact that remains foremost in the mind of George Cassella, vice president of the Bernard Hodes Group, an advertising agency hired by the NYPD to produce recruitment ads.

"When we were approached by the NYPD to do their recruitment ads, one of the ads that we used to pitch the account was, 'How Many Kids Want to Be Advertising Executives for Halloween?'" says Cassella.

There are numerous chiefs and sheriffs nationwide hoping that those kids playing cops on Halloween grow up real soon and still want to pin on badges.


In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.

Chapter 2: The Blue Mosaic.  Policies meant to diversify law enforcement agencies have changed police demographics and will continue to do so in the future.

Chapter 3: Teaching to the Test.  Does law enforcement training focus too much on qualifying and not enough on skills that can help you win fights?

Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship.  Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.

Chapter 5: Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization?  The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.

Chapter 6: Women Warriors.  Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.

Chapter 7: Working on the Front Lines.  The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.

Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold.  Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?

Chapter 9: Stopping the Next 9/11.  Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.

Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?

Chapter 11: Gangster Nation.  Big city street gangs have taken root in small town  America, bringing mayhem to Main Street.

Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't.  When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.

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