Public safety agencies across America face the same problems as other employers—finding enough qualified workers. The difference is our safety is increasingly at risk.
Law enforcement leaders are working harder at recruitment, yet they are drawing fewer applicants. Big city departments are not alone. It is the same story in smaller communities such as Leesburg, Va., where the number of applicants dropped 90 percent over the past five years.
A decade ago, the Seattle Police Deptartment had 3,000 applicants for 10 openings. Now, there are 1,000 applicants for 70 positions.
Being a cop is not for everyone. It is dangerous and stressful work. Men and women must be in good physical condition, cope with continual stress, have no criminal records, display good judgement, and be willing to put their lives on the line.
Tragically, officers are killed leaving family and friends behind.
For example, in Seaside, OR, Jason Goodding, one of only three patrol sergeants, was gunned down by a wanted felon on Feb. 5. Sgt. Goodding was the tenth officer in the nation killed in 2016. Last year, there were 282 deaths line of duty deaths.
Police recruiters say they are stymied by the job’s low pay, tarnished image, increasingly tougher standards for new recruits, and limited job flexibility.
Small departments generally pay less than big city forces. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the median starting salary for a new officer is $39,000, but in smaller departments it is less than $32,000 a year.
Washington State has better pay and benefits. In Vancouver, a new officer on patrol makes $45,600 and when benefits are added, a rookie in Seattle earns total compensation of $70,000.
Portland has a police force of 950, but retirements and resignations have cut the number of officers faster than the bureau can recruit, hire and train new ones, Chief Larry O’Dea reports. The bureau had 41 officer vacancies last December with 90 officers eligible to retire by April.
Portland’s shortage is having an impact on the community. It led to across-the-board denial of requests for law enforcement to support new events in the city this year. The first was a half marathon this spring which required up to 80 officers.
Those events require police to work overtime which is costly. Portland’s overtime budget last year was $6.9 million.
“Quite honestly it’s not an overtime or money issue … it’s merely we don’t have the people,” Sgt. Pete Simpson told The Oregonian. “(Officers) are fatigued, they’re burned out.”
More critically, under staffing has an impact on law enforcement’s ability to deal with massive rioting, vandalism and looting when it occurs.
In Ferguson, MO, the shooting of Michael Brown sparked two weeks of civil unrest in 2014. The damage to merchants alone amounted to $4.6 million.
Then months later in Baltimore, Freddie Gray’s death led to another two weeks of protests and rioting. It finally ended with 20 police officers injured, at least 250 people arrested, 350 businesses damaged, 27 drugstores looted, and 150 vehicle set on fire.
There are more than 900,000 law enforcement officers now serving in the United States, which is the highest figure ever. But as our population grows and the terrorist risks elevate, the numbers cops we need to keep us safe is not keeping pace.
Police are under intense scrutiny today and criticism is more prevalent. Even the addition of patrol car and body cameras don’t always accurately show what happens during an arrest. Any apprehension resulting in the loss of life is tragic.
It is important to remember that officers are required to make instantaneous life and death decisions. They deserve the benefit of doubt.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.