Police shortages threaten big cities and small towns

Finding a hero has never been more difficult. Police departments across the country are struggling to fill their ranks, with officers overworking, worrying residents, and frustrating city and state officials.

Big cities don’t have enough police walking around the neighborhood. Baltimore, for example, has lost more than 100 agents since last year. That’s despite ending 2016 with the second-highest murder total in the city’s history. In Seattle, city officials have seen a 90 percent drop in applicants over the past decade.

Small towns are not doing better. Reno, Nevada, is getting half as many applicants as it was 20 years ago. Overall, more than 85 percent of police officers agree that their departments are understaffed, according to a Pew Center survey.

More jobs, fewer cops

Some factors have driven this police shortage in recent years. The most important is the continued success of the job market in general. Since the recovery began in June 2009, and employers began adding jobs regularly in February 2010, the economy has regained more than 16 million jobs during 85 months of continuous growth. Last year was particularly strong. Employers added 2.24 million jobs and, as of last month, the unemployment rate returned to a 10-year low of 4.5 percent.

And it’s stretches of sustained economic growth like this that have historically been detrimental to police departments across the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that the category of law enforcement jobs has grown “slower than average,” limping at nearly half the growth rate of other professions.

Economists acknowledge that whenever the job market improves, police departments suffer, increasing the risk of officers being injured on the job due to a lack of support. More career options tend to draw recruits into the more lucrative private sector. At the same time, departments in general have been adjusting their rules to become officers, either through higher education requirements or longer training periods.

Perception of societies

It doesn’t help in recruiting efforts when the job you’re trying to fill is becoming increasingly unpopular. On the one hand, you have a distrustful public that makes the police officer’s job difficult. On the other hand, there are municipal and state budget hawks trying to cut benefits and freeze the size of departments. Whether due to the latest police shooting or viral cell phone video, trust in the police force fell to a low of 22 years in 2015, according to a Gallup investigation. It recovered slightly in the 2016 survey.

“It’s a thankless job, and it’s gotten newer,” Michigan Police Chief James Berlin told NBC News Roseville. “You will be criticized and degraded, and a lot of people think ‘who wants to do that’?”

Colorado Springs endured that after August. On November 9, 2014, when a Ferguson, Missouri police shooting sparked weeks of protests across the country. The Colorado Springs Police Department saw a 50 percent increase in its attrition rate. After a couple of mass shootings last year in Colorado, the department saw 54 officers walk out the door.

“Many spouses are putting the same pressure on officers,” Mike Singels, president of the Colorado Springs Police Protection Association, told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “(Officers) are considering the risk and deciding, ‘This is not a job for me.’

Riskier than ever

The concern is valid. According to the National Fund in Memory of Law Enforcement Officers, 135 officers died in the line of duty in 2016, the highest total in five years. More than 20 of those deaths were the result of ambush-type attacks, a maximum of 20 years. Nearly 40 percent of officers told Pew investigators that they almost always or frequently had serious concerns about their physical safety when on the job. Another 42 percent admitted that they sometimes have these concerns.

Potential candidates seem to be looking for safer, better paid lines of work with better hours. Or as Seattle police recruiter Jim Ritter told ABC News, “You can get shot for $ 40,000 or be home with your family for $ 60,000.”

But that is not to say that officers are not essential or that they are not supported. There are resources to support police officers and their families despite these arguments. We fully support our law enforcement men and women. In support of a much-needed police force, Colorado workers’ compensation attorney and department head Nick Fogel, along with his father Marshall Fogel, launched a scholarship competition for the Denver Police Officers Foundation.

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