While Police Agencies Grapple with Shrinking Force, Departments Nationwide are Experiencing a Turnaround

Stacy M. Brown | NNPA

In the nation’s capital, the Metropolitan Police Department reached a half-century low in size in 2023, with officers leaving the force faster than they could be replaced. The shrinking force pushed the department to allocate millions towards overtime while grappling with rising gun violence and carjackings.

By the end of March 2023, the force had just over 3,350 sworn officers, marking a net loss of approximately 450 over three years. This prompted Mayor Muriel Bowser to set a goal for the department to reach 4,000 officers by 2031.

New York City faces a similar plight. “We are short over 7,000 police officers from the highest peaks in the NYPD. We are losing over 200 police officers a month,” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Hendry said last month.

The PBA claims that the NYPD has had historically high attrition over the last four years, with more policemen departing and fewer joining. According to the city’s Independent Budget Office, 2,931 officers resigned or retired last year, with just 2,345 new hires. In Chicago, officials in 2023 pledged to fill 1,700 police vacancies, in part by doubling the current training capacity at the police academy.

Then-mayoral candidate Paul Vallas promised to lure back retired officers by offering to restore their pensions without penalty.

The decline in police officers is not unique to D.C., New York, or Chicago. Since the death of George Floyd in May 2020, police departments across the United States have witnessed a significant drop in rank-and-file officers.

 According to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit policing think tank based in Washington, D.C. The past four years have been particularly challenging for American policing.

Wexler noted that while there has been some improvement, the profession still faces hurdles. “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,” he said. “You have West Coast departments that are paying six figures, but still seeing major challenges in hiring.”

PERF recently surveyed its members, which are chief executives of various law enforcement agencies, including local, state, and federal entities. The survey received responses from 214 agencies across 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. The findings indicate a slight improvement in staffing numbers.

Responding agencies reported hiring more sworn officers in 2023 than in the previous four years. Agencies saw fewer resignations in 2023 compared to 2021 and 2022, although resignations remained elevated compared to pre-pandemic levels. Retirements, which had been rising in previous years, decreased in 2023.

The survey also highlighted that larger agencies continue to face staffing challenges, while small and medium agencies have seen increases in sworn officers since January 2020.

Wexler emphasized that there has been a shift in how some public officials perceive law enforcement, attributing the improved retention partly to this change. “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 stated. “I don’t think there’s any question that there has been a sea change among political leaders.”

He said while there are signs of improvement in police staffing numbers, challenges persist for law enforcement agencies nationwide. “I just think that the past four years have been particularly challenging for American policing,” he said. “And our survey shows we’re finally starting to turn a corner.”

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