May 19, 2021 - News
Police recruiting suffers as morale hits new lows
Illustration of a collage featuring police officers, a megaphone, and torn pieces of legal documents.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Police departments across the country are struggling to attract applicants after a year of racial justice protests against police use of excessive force and calls for police reform dampened morale within the profession.

Why it matters: Recruiting deficits add strain to existing forces and could increase costs through overtime or employee burnout, per the International Association of Chiefs of Police. And if Americans want better police forces, city officials say, this isn't the way to get them.

  • The trend comes as activists in some cities suggest there could be another "long, hot summer" of unrest in the name of ending police brutality and racial inequity.

By the numbers:

  • Charlotte: Applications were down 26% during the first four months of 2021 compared to the same period last year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department spokesperson Rob Tufano tells Axios.
  • Des Moines: The police department got about 300 applicants last month for its newest class of recruits, roughly 50% fewer than a year ago, according to Sgt. Paul Parizek, a spokesperson for the DMPD.
  • Northwest Arkansas: One recent group who passed initial testing for the Fayetteville Police Department had only 10 applicants qualify for interviews compared to what is typically about 40, due to a smaller applicant pool, according to the department's public information officer Sgt. Anthony Murphy.

It's not just an issue of getting new talent in the door, but of keeping existing forces intact. In Minneapolis, the epicenter of calls to defund and dismantle the police in the wake of George Floyd's murder, police morale is at an all-time low.

  • Last year, 105 officers left the department, twice as many as normal, per MPR News.
  • Meanwhile, in Denver, a pandemic-battered budget forced the city to hire 97 fewer officers than expected in 2020. And some of the 81 officers who were injured in last summer's unrest still have not returned to full duty.

What they're saying: "Too many people have thrown the police under the bus. The police in Minnesota, many are very demoralized because of the lack of appreciation for the work that they do," said state Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.

Yes, but: Not all communities have fared poorly.

Amid calls to defund the police, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who was police chief for Florida's third-largest city from 2009 to 2015, wouldn't touch the police budget.

  • A Bloomberg report on police budget spending in American cities since Floyd's death shows that Tampa had the largest police budget increase among all 50 cities in the study.
  • "We're one of the safest cities in the U.S. for our size, and that's because our police department and our community work hand-in-hand to make their neighborhoods safe," Castor told Axios.
  • Of note: Data show that higher police spending doesn't necessarily equal less crime. And violent crime is up in almost every big city during the COVID pandemic, including Tampa.

What's next: Law enforcement agencies are looking for ways to entice people to join their ranks.

  • In Des Moines, the Polk County sheriff's office has discussed sign-on bonuses but has not formalized any proposals, which would need approval from county supervisors, Lt. Ryan Evans told Axios.

The bottom line: "We have to find a way to hold police departments accountable, to hold them to a high standard of integrity and professionalism without demeaning them and without going to war with words," Major Mike Campagna, who retired this spring after nearly three decades with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, tells Axios.

  • Campagna says the harder it gets to recruit officers, the worse off the community could be for it. 
  • "When you begin appealing only to people who need a job or people who are only looking for money, you're seeking the wrong people," he says.

This story includes reporting by Axios Charlotte's Michael Graff and Katie Peralta Soloff, Axios Denver's Alayna Alvarez, Axios Des Moines' Jason Clayworth, Axios Northwest Arkansas' Worth Sparkman, Axios Tampa Bay's Ben Montgomery, and Axios Twin Cities' Nick Halter and Torey Van Oot.

Go deeper:

Crime jumps after court-ordered police changes

The slow moves to improve police training

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