Since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, there’s a popular refrain echoing through urban police precincts, rural sheriff’s offices and city halls everywhere in between: Officers are fleeing America’s police forces in big numbers, officials say. And the timing couldn’t be worse, amid a rise in murders and shootings. Many argue cities must hire more police, but against the backdrop of nationwide scrutiny of police killings, morale has dropped to the point that few people want to be officers, according to The Marshall Project.
According to federal data, those worries are unfounded. Last year, as the overall U.S. economy shed 6% of workers, local police departments lost just under 1% of employees after a decade of steady expansion, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s about 4,000 people out of nearly half a million employees in municipal police departments and sheriff’s offices nationwide. State and federal law enforcement departments actually saw a slight increase in the number of employees.
Local Police Employment Remained Steady During The Pandemic
From 2019 to 2020, the number of people working at local police departments and sheriff's offices decreased by less than 1%, according to monthly data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The decrease is much slower than the overall employment, or industries such as restaurants, education and healthcare. Even as many industries started to bounce back, local police hiring hasn’t picked up because it takes months, or even years, to train to become a police officer.
The push to hire more police is gaining ground. The Biden Administration recently announced that cities can use part of the $350 billion American Rescue Plan relief money to hire more officers to combat gun violence. Cities — big and small — are jumping on that offer, with claims that their police departments are running out of officers.
Many of the most worried officials have latched onto recent data from a non-scientific survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum think tank, that shows a 45% increase in the law enforcement retirement rate and other “dramatic” losses. The survey of 194 departments compares 2020 with the previous year, but 2019 came at the end of a long period of steady police job growth. Compared with the previous year, the 2020 numbers appear dramatic. Looking across the past decade, police employment in 2020 was roughly the same as in 2018.
Law enforcement’s employment numbers tend not to fluctuate dramatically. Policing is a secure job, according to Peter Moskos, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which explains the relatively small increase in retirements and resignations over 2020. Police jobs are often last on the chopping block when cities are considering budget cuts. Pensions and relatively high pay make it appealing to stay. Many of the officers who retired in 2020 were probably going to retire in a couple of years anyway, says Moskos, who suspects very few police would quit outright. Morale may be low, but, in Moskos’s view, that’s always been the case.
“They are financially locked in,” Moskos says, “If you quit, you don’t get your pension. Cops are human, too. They have a mortgage to pay. You can’t quit.”
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