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Black eye, blue mood: Anatomy of a crisis in police staffing

Second of three parts

It wasn’t just the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing national upheaval that prompted a crisis in police staffing.

Nor was it just the calls to “defund the police” or reforms enacted to curb police use of excessive force.

Nor was it just the COVID pandemic.

It was all of those things — and more — that have swept so many out of law enforcement and discouraged a new generation from filling their shoes.

In fact, it was in 2019 — nearly a year before the national unrest sparked an exodus of officers amid lagging morale and job satisfaction — that the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a report titled “The State of Recruitment: A Crisis in Law Enforcement.” The alarming report blamed the crisis on a combination of “multiple social, political and economic forces simultaneously at play.”

Among them: younger workers who value work-life balance more than older counterparts willing to work overtime, holidays, nights and weekends, historically low levels of unemployment that provide other career options, applicant restrictions on such things as tattoos and previous drug use, the long, rigorous nature of the application and training process, and the public perception of police.

And that was before 2020, when Floyd was killed at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the country was shut down during the COVID pandemic, which halted police recruitment efforts and police academy training.

Part One: Southern California law enforcement agencies still stuck in a staffing crisis

‘2020 hit us hard’

“I think 2020 hit us hard,” said Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez. “The national narrative that was out there and the sentiment toward law enforcement … it was tough telling people this is a great job. It wasn’t as enticing as it was for people years ago.”

Indeed, local law enforcement officials as well as national experts say anti-police rhetoric has given the industry a black eye that has taken a toll on keeping officers on the force and attracting new blood.

“Overall,” notes the IACP report, “a majority of police officers feel their jobs have gotten more difficult since high-profile use-of-force incidents have dominated the national conversation.”

“Scrutiny of the police, cellphone recordings of interactions between the police and public, media coverage, and popular entertainment portrayals of police have led many young people to view police differently than their parents may have,” the report said.

“Each of these factors contribute to the negative perception of policing as a career opportunity for potential recruits.”

Jim Bueermann, a national policing consultant and former Redlands police chief, attributes much of the negative portrayal of law enforcement to social media.

“The pervasive messaging on social media about police misconduct leads many people to believe that that is the standard in policing as opposed to the exception,” said Bueermann, who is also the former president of the Washington, D.C.-based law enforcement think tank Police Foundation, which was renamed the National Policing Institute in March 2022.

“I think it is understandable that potential police candidates might be disinclined to get into policing when they see those kinds of images, and just believe that is the way it is in policing when really it is just the exception,” Bueermann said.

Demonization of police

Like others in law enforcement, San Bernardino Police Chief Darren Goodman blames the media for the anti-police sentiment that has permeated national politics.

“My opinion is that it is 100% responsible. In the last three years, police have been demonized by the highest office in the land and the majority of the media,” Goodman said. “When you take three years of an industry being demonized, and taking authority away from police, it’s a tough job to do in this environment, and it’s not one that becomes appealing to those with other options.”

A San Bernardino County sheriff’s sergeant with more than 30 years on the force, speaking on condition of anonymity, said rank-and-file deputies have been leaving the department in droves amid demands for reforms and policy changes that are making their jobs more difficult and stressful.

“It’s tying street cops’ hands behind their backs, and they just don’t think it’s worth it anymore,” said the sergeant, who noted that a friend of his recently quit after 14 years on the force.

“It was just, ‘We’re leaving for Arizona tomorrow.’ His is just one of the stories as to why people are leaving. They just don’t feel supported,” the sergeant said.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, a blunt-talking, outspoken conservative who often clashes with reform-minded critics, also believes law enforcement has been unfairly smeared.

“I believe it’s an agenda. It’s almost like a perfect storm of all of these things coming together to make it where people don’t want to be cops anymore,” Bianco said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a national law enforcement research and policy nonprofit, said the narrative on policing has never been more pronounced.

“Every viral video, where the commentator says, ‘The scenes you are about to see are disturbing,’ that takes a toll on your prospective applicants and also on your current police officers,” Wexler said. “Viral video tapes have had a visceral reaction on the American people.”

Bryan Estrella, 22, of Santa Monica talks to Riverside County sheriff’s Deputy Donald Mills during a law enforcement hiring expo at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Claremont on Friday, April 7, 2023. (Photo by Joe Nelson/SCNG)

David Camacho, 24, of Covina, talks to Santa Ana Police Officer Jared Picard during a law enforrcement hiring expo at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Claremont on Friday, April 7, 2023. (Photo by Joe Nelson/SCNG)

Zari Basden, 26, of Apple Valley and a criminal justice major at Cal State San Bernardino, talks to Riverside County sheriff’s Deputy Donald Mills at the Criminal Justice Research and Career Fair on Friday, April 14, on campus. (Photo by Joe Nelson/SCNG)

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Applications dwindling

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, for example, reports that its volume of applications has been dwindling over the past four years.

In 2019, the department received 20,857 applications, followed by 10,181 when the COVID pandemic hit in 2020 and 9,270 in 2022. The Sheriff’s Department did not accept deputy applications in 2021 due to the pandemic.

At a recent police hiring expo in Claremont, a 22-year-old from Santa Monica interested in a career in law enforcement quickly noticed the obvious: “There’s not a lot of people here.” Bryan  Estrella also explained why a friend who had planned to accompany him backed out.

“He’s all, ‘I don’t want to be a police officer anymore. They hate police in L.A.,’ ” Estrella said. “He was really interested for months, but in the end he just got discouraged.”

Another potential police recruit at the Claremont hiring fair, 26-year-old Enrique Pereyra of Glendora, acknowledged all the negative noise he hears about law enforcement as a career.

While it “bothers me a little,” Pereyra said, it has not changed his mind about trying to become a cop. “I know it could be hard. I hear a lot of things in the news, but I try not to get discouraged by those things,” he said.

By all appearances, Pereyra has all the qualities law enforcement looks for in a desired candidate: physically fit, serving in the National Guard and working as a wildland firefighter for the California Military Department, which contracts with CalFire.

“I need a path to stick with, and I think law enforcement would be the most beneficial to my lifestyle,” he said.

Zari Basden, a 26-year-old Apple Valley resident, is exploring a law enforcement career because the long-established racial tensions between police and the black community hit especially close to home.

“I am black and white, mixed, and it’s a strong sentiment in my family to defund the police,” Basden said during a police career fair in April at Cal State San Bernardino. “When the George Floyd protests were going on my parents were cheering. But they’re very supportive of me. My dad doesn’t talk about it much because he’s a black man, but he’s happy I’m doing something.”

Noting that law enforcement’s relationship with the black community “has a history of not being well,” Basden said, in her own small way, she wants to help turn that around.

“I want to go into whatever department and try to fix that,” she said. “Not that I probably can, but just to start that dialogue.”

Her motivation should provide a degree of optimism for Bueermann, the national policing consultant who worries about expanding law enforcement recruitment to the next generation of police officers.

“One of the drivers of this issue, in many communities, is that the police are not perceived as the good guy,” he said. “And until we’re able to turn that around, until we’re able to return the trust and confidence deficit we see in communities, this problem will persist.”

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