The price police pay to protect Americans

There are fewer cops on the streets in our major cities today than in the 1990s, and there will be fewer still next year. Police departments have been reporting a steady decline in qualified recruits for a decade, but the demonizing of law enforcement and the drive to cut police budgets or “defund” the police the problem has morphed into a true crisis.

There are 18,000 police departments in this country and in 2019 even before last year’s riots and “progressive” demands that police be “defunded,” 86% of the nation’s police chiefs in a survey reported trouble finding qualified recruits. Seattle hadn’t collapsed by 2019, but the city police department was reporting a 40-50% drop in applicants and a year later the Colorado Springs department missed its recruitment goal by 25%. In 2010 Nashville’s department processed 4700 applicants, but in 2019 only 1900 applied and that number has fallen further since.

Veteran officers are retiring in increasing numbers and middle level experienced officers are looking increasingly to change careers. Meanwhile, young people are leery of a career choice that will subject them to disdain from the very people they are to protect and to bullying, harassment and legal vulnerability as they try to do their job.

Departments report that police morale is bad and getting worse. Many cops are putting in time but seem to have given up on taking action to prevent crime unless they absolutely must. To make matters worse, the Centers for Disease Control says suicide among cops is 40% higher than for those in other lines of work and PTSD among law enforcement officers has become a growing problem. 

This isn’t new, but it’s worse today than it was even in the 1960s and ’70s when activists of the day began calling them “pigs” or worse. Today they are regarded by many not just as pigs, but as racist psychopaths bent upon mistreating or killing those they are sworn to serve. If they are forced to draw a weapon to save an innocent’s life or to save their own their critics and the media assume they overreacted and demand they be punished. Every day as they put on their uniforms that they are putting themselves at risk and that if anyone questions their actions their superiors and the politicians to whom they report are too often tempted to abandon them.

After the riots that shook the country in the late 1960s, cities faced similar problems. Washington, D.C. burned in 1968 and when the smoke cleared the city found its police department understaffed. Officials quickly discovered that while many officers were retiring or simply leaving few qualified young people were lining up to take their places. The department’s recruiters scoured the country for qualified candidates. They were especially partial to qualified cops serving in other jurisdictions and put together compensation package they hoped would persuade them to move to the big city.

Some did, of course, but most rejected leaving comfortable jobs in communities that then still honored men and women in blue. My brother was one of them. He was a cop in our Wisconsin hometown, but for a time back then almost nibbled on the offer coming from the big city. The D.C. police offered substantially more money and benefits than a small-town Wisconsin department could afford and the idea of moving to the nation’s capital was intriguing.

But in the end, he concluded like many others that he much preferred serving men and women who appreciated his presence. He spent the rest of his thirty-year career right there and never regretted the decision. The D.C. police were eventually forced to lower the department’s standards to fill its ranks.

One wonders just what those big city cops are doing for a living these days. Some, of course, find jobs outside law enforcement, but others who signed up in the first place because they saw law enforcement as a calling rather than simply a job are moving out of New York City, Minneapolis and Seattle; finding less stressful jobs in departments run by politicians not yet cowed by the anti-cop activists.

This is good news for such jurisdictions as they are finding it easier these days to meet their recruitment goals. Nashville, Tennessee is still having problems, but the police chief in Bristol to Nashville’s east told me that this year for the first time in some years his department is at full strength. The reason: Experienced cops are finding places like Bristol, the “Birthplace of Country Music,” better places to live and work and moving in from places like New York. 

The attacks on police in the nation’s major cities are driving potential victims of the resulting spike in violent crime to move out and it turns out that the very cops who are too often handcuffed in trying to protect them are moving to the same places for the same reasons.

• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.

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