In 2014, in a small town with a population under 25,000, the death of a black teenager at the hands of a white police officer sparked unrest across the entirety of the U.S. that lasted for weeks, igniting fierce debates about race and police brutality.
It also, police departments across the country eventually learned, changed the public discourse about their jobs – so much, in fact, that officer applications have declined steadily since then.
“It’s really the political climate, from our viewpoint,” said Bill Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, which represents rank-and-file groups across the U.S. “Ever since the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, there’s been a narrative out there – and it’s false – that police are racist, that they’re brutal, that they're corrupt.”
Since 2013, the number of full-time sworn officers has dropped by about 23,000 -- one of the biggest dips since the 1990s, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which conducts the study every four years. There are now roughly 700,000 officers in the U.S., down from 724,000 in 2013. The average number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 U.S. residents decreased from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17 in 2016 (down 11 percent).
“It’s real,” Johnson told FOX Business. “And it’s a matter of concern. Ultimately it’s the public that suffers.”
Ferguson isn’t the only reason for a drop-off in police officers, however. A tight labor market – unemployment has remained steady for months at 3.7 percent, the lowest number in nearly 50 years – coupled with an uptick in ambush assaults on officers has also hurt not only the number of officer applications, but retention rates as well.
That the job is dangerous is nothing new, but what seems to be deterring young recruits is also the fact that in a post-Ferguson world, no matter what officers do, no matter how much they train, they can still make a mistake. Those mistakes, he noted, are additionally brutal because of social media. Sometimes officers’ home addresses, personal identification and even their children’s school locations are blasted all over the internet as retribution.
Newer generations also tend to stay on the job for less time -- a problem, Johnson said, because it takes a “long time” to become a good cop, or a good detective. The public, he said, is losing experienced officers because of a lackluster retention rate.
Johnson, who worked as an officer in a small town in Maine before he ended up in Miami working as a prosecutor, also noted that traditionally, police work had a strong familial aspect to it; generations of families used to take up the job. But now, Johnson said, parents are telling their children: “Don’t be a cop. It’s not worth it anymore.”
“And that’s the first time we’ve ever seen that,” he said.
In hopes of building their workforces back up and filling vacancies, a number of departments across the country are offering either salary increases or better benefits. Faced with a staffing crisis, the San Diego Police Department last year offered to boost pay up to 30 percent for police officers (in 2017, the department’s number of officers plummeted to the lowest since 1989).
What’s worrisome to Johnson is that some cities are also lowering their standards for applicants, no longer disqualifying people based on their age or minor criminal activities, like drug use. While he said it was fine to do that on a case-by-case scenario for individuals, he warned that the effects of changing the entire institution’s standards can be detrimental.
For instance, in the 1980s in Miami, the city was struggling with a large uptick in crime. In response, the city hired more officers, relaxing their standards. Within a decade, Johnson said there was an increase in complaints about the use of force among officers and a number of corruption cases related to the department. The county force -- Miami-Dade -- meanwhile, did not lower its standards, and in the same period, was overall regarded as more professional and less likely to suffer from complaints of corruption.
“I would respectfully advise departments not to lower their standards to attract people, but rather to increase benefits in order to retain qualified men and women,” he said.