PHILADELPHIA — Police departments across the United States are reporting an increase in their ranks for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 killing of George Floyd, which led to a historic exodus of officers, a survey shows.

More sworn officers were hired in 2023 than in any one of the previous four years, and fewer officers overall resigned or retired, according to the 214 law enforcement agencies that responded to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF.

Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers spurred nationwide protests against police brutality and heightened scrutiny of law enforcement.

As more and more officers left, many of the departments had to redeploy stretched resources by shifting officers away from investigative work or quality of life issues such as abandoned vehicles or noise violations to handle increases in crime and, in some cases, the shortages meant slower response times or limiting responses to emergencies only, police officials say.

“I just think that the past four years have been particularly challenging for American policing,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF, a nonprofit policing think tank based in Washington, D.C. “And our survey shows we’re finally starting to turn a corner.”

Individual departments are turning that corner at different rates, however, according to Wexler, who noted many are still struggling to attract and keep officers.

As a whole, the profession “isn’t out of the woods yet,” he said.

The Associated Press left phone and email messages with several unions and police departments to ask about increased hiring.

The survey shows that while small and medium departments had more sworn officers than they did in January 2020, large departments are still more than 5% below their staffing levels from that time, even with a year-over-year increase from 2022 to 2023.

The survey also showed smaller departments with fewer than 50 officers are still struggling with a higher rate of resignations and retirements.

The survey asked only for numbers, Wexler said, so it’s hard to say whether those officers are leaving for larger departments or leaving the profession altogether. He also said smaller departments, which account for 80% of agencies nationwide, were underrepresented in the responses PERF received.

Many larger departments have increased officer pay or started offering incentives such as signing bonuses for experienced officers who are willing to transfer, something smaller departments can’t really compete with. At least a dozen smaller departments have disbanded, leaving the municipalities they once served to rely on state or county help for policing.

But even some of the highest-paying large departments are still struggling to get new hires in the door.

“I don’t think it’s all about money. I think it’s about the way people perceive their job and feel they are going to be supported,” Wexler said. “You have West Coast departments that are paying six figures, but still seeing major challenges in hiring.”

In addition to pay and bonuses, many agencies are reexamining their application requirements and hiring processes.

Wexler believes some of those changes make sense, including allowing visible tattoos, reweighing the importance of past financial issues and processing applicants’ background checks faster. But he cautioned that PERF does not support lowering standards for training or for applicants.

Maria “Maki” Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says departments have been too focused on officer numbers. She worries some are lowering education requirements and other standards to bolster numbers instead of trying to find the best people to police their communities.

“Policing is a real profession that requires more skills and more education than people can understand,” she said. “It’s not about tattoos or running a mile in 15 minutes. It’s really more about emotional intelligence, maturity and making those split-second decisions that don’t use deadly force.”

Haberfeld also cautioned that any staffing gains made through incentives could easily be erased, especially as officers, including some in riot gear, have been seen breaking up protests against the Israel-Hamas war at universities across the country.

“In policing, it takes decades to move forward and a split second for the public attitude to deteriorate,” she said.

PERF’s survey showed a more than a 20% drop in resignations overall, from a high of almost 6,500 in 2022 to fewer than 5,100 in 2023. They are still up over early pandemic levels in 2020, however, when a few more than 4,000 officers resigned across all responding departments.

As with the hiring increases, the rate of decrease in retirements tended to depend on the size of the departments. There were fewer retirements in 2023 than in 2019 at large departments, slightly more retirements at medium departments and elevated retirements at small departments. The survey found a steep drop in resignations at large agencies with 250 or more officers and medium-size agencies with between 50 and 249 officers.

In addition to pay and benefit increases, the improved retention can be partly attributed to a shift in how some public officials view their public safety departments, Wexler says.

“We went from having public discourse about defunding the police just a few years ago to public officials waking up to the fact their workforce is leaving,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question that there has been a sea change among political leaders.”



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