What kind of person would become a police officer right now? That’s a question cops across the country are asking. Some say they wouldn’t do it if they were making the choice now. Others say they’d discourage their children from following in their footsteps. But this is about more than how police are treated; it’s time to wonder what this sinking morale will mean for the communities that rely on the police for their safety and security.
The number of new applicants at police departments across the country had been plummeting for some time but might reach crisis levels as national anti-police sentiment grows, stoked by a wave of protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
A 2019 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that fewer people were becoming police officers and more officers were taking early retirement. Sixty-six percent of police departments nationwide reported a drop in recruitment numbers. The study called it a “crisis.” A year later, it threatens to become a full-blown catastrophe.
Rory, 22, lives on Long Island and has always wanted to be a police officer. He’s exactly the kind of smart, calm-under-pressure, composed young man we would want on the job. He has one year left of college before he planned to apply. But the last month has rattled him, and he’s no longer sure of his path. “Police are becoming targets, making the job more unsafe than it already is,” he told me. Police had been shot at in nearby Rockaway, Queens, the day before our mid-June conversation.
Floyd’s killing, during an unprecedented health crisis that had the country on edge, focused public anger on the men in blue. The venom wasn’t limited to just the police officers accused of his death, nor the department for which they worked. It spread quickly to police departments throughout the country.
It didn’t matter, for example, that each New York Police Department cadet class has been more diverse than the last and reflected the diversity of the city. Mayor Bill de Blasio enjoyed bragging about that during better times but did not mention it in their defense during the protests. Black officers at the NYPD don’t just walk the beat. They’re represented at every level of the force. Ten percent of NYPD captains are black, and 11.7% of positions above captain are also staffed by black officers.
The number of black patrol officers, however, has started to drop. In 2008, 18% of patrol officers were black. In 2020, that number is 15.5%.
It’s not hard to figure out why. Black officers in the streets bore the brunt of attacks from the protesters. A New York Times piece interviewed black NYPD officers about the protests. One lieutenant told the paper: “As I’m standing there with my riot helmet and being called a ‘coon,’ people have no idea that I identify with them. I understand them. I’m here for them. I’ve been trying to be here as a change agent.”
It didn’t matter. Cops were the bad guys, and the black lives that matter apparently don’t include them. The Times piece notes: “At the same time, the black and Hispanic officers say they feel unnerved by violence aimed at the police. Protesters have hit officers with rocks and bricks and have surrounded occupied police cars, throwing heavy objects at them. Some have even hurled Molotov cocktails.”
Detective Felicia Richards, president of the NYPD Guardians Association, a fraternal group of Black officers, told the city website recently that the police department “carries a stigma.”
After the officers involved in the shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta were fired, many officers called out sick. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told CNN that morale in her city’s police department is “down 10-fold.” The story seems consistent in precincts around the country.
Traditionally, many became officers because their fathers or grandfathers were on the job. That’s far rarer today. A sergeant at a suburban police department, a 15-year veteran of the force, told me there is no way he would become a police officer in today’s climate, nor would he encourage his children to become police officers.
“Before this, I thought I’d stay on the job for years,” he told me. “But now, I’m out as soon as possible. I know people in back offices, with no interaction with the public, who are talking about getting out as soon as they can.”
In Seattle, the Black police chief, Carmen Best, butted heads with the white mayor over the future of the “autonomous zone” set up in the city, which has now seen several deaths. Protesters at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone had taken over a police precinct and declared themselves separate from the United States. The mayor, when asked about how long she would allow this to go on, said, “Maybe we’ll have a Summer of Love.”
Best has had to bend, however, releasing plans for a new Seattle Police Department in an open letter last week. One point of the plan calls for aligning “the mission of the SPD to reflect humanization not criminalization,” whatever that means.
No similar plan exists for a reciprocal visualization of police officers as, yes, human.
There’s also the continuing issue that opponents of police departments don’t have a handle on what makes for good policing.
After three shootings in as many nights in the CHAZ, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant released a statement angrily declaring, “Our movement should demand and insist that the Seattle police fully investigate this attack and be held accountable to bring the killer(s) to justice.”
That the “A” in CHAZ stands for “autonomous” and signs at the CHAZ perimeter read, “You are now leaving the United States,” didn’t make the play-pretend territory any less Seattle PD’s problem. Councilwoman Sawant is a supporter of defunding police. In her version of the future, a scaled-down or nonexistent police department would still be able to investigate street murders. That’s unlikely. It’s difficult to “demand and insist” intervention from something after you’ve defunded it. If it’s still intact, it’ll probably have its hands more than full.
Opponents say we don’t need more police officers; we just need smarter policing. But that also comes at a price. The idea that we can have that smarter policing while not recruiting the best and brightest as officers is unlikely. The sergeant told me, “I cannot imagine a sane human being becoming a police officer right now. What’s the upside? You want someone who wants to help people. Right now, the only person who would become a police officer probably has no other options.”
And, anyway, larger police forces do lead to lower crime. A 2018 study out of Yale found that crime goes down as more officers are added to the department. What’s interesting is the same study found that arrests don’t necessarily go up. The presence of additional officers serves as an effective deterrent.
The president of the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, Patrick Lynch, told me, “The nationwide policing crisis will absolutely have an impact on recruitment and retention — and that’s absolutely what the anti-cop crowd wants. They are not asking how we’re going to incentivize our best recruits to take and keep this job, despite the abuse and legal hazards that come with it. Instead, they are canceling academy classes and cutting budgets. If we have no cops because nobody wants to be a cop, they will have achieved their ultimate goal.”
Or so they think. Residents of a liberal Minneapolis neighborhood vowed not to call the police in the wake of Floyd’s killing. Soon, a tent city sprung up in a residential park. “Their presence has drawn heavy car traffic into the neighborhood, some from drug dealers,” the New York Times reports. “At least two residents have overdosed in the encampment and had to be taken away in ambulances.” One resident, a longtime progressive community leader, suddenly isn’t “feeling grounded in my city at all. Anything could happen.” Her nights are growing sleepless. “I am afraid,” she told the Times, but feels obligated to leave the police out of it.
The comfortable leftists who push defunding the police also like to claim policing isn’t that dangerous a job. There might be more lethal jobs, but police work still ranks in the top 20 most dangerous jobs in the country. The other jobs don’t have to worry about intense hatred directed at them or nondeath indignities such as cursing, spitting, or, as happened often in New York last summer, buckets of water poured on them.
No one puts their bodies on the line for Black lives more than police officers. The idea that it won’t be Black people suffering in the absence of police is foolhardy.
New York City has been experiencing a serious crime spike in recent weeks, including a doubling of the murder rate. De Blasio has been all-in on what the progressive mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, called a “bourgeois liberal” solution, to cut the very police force that had made his city a livable, prosperous place. “We’re committed to seeing a shift of funding to youth services, to social services, that will happen literally in the course of the next three weeks, but I’m not going to go into detail because it is subject to negotiation, and we want to figure out what makes sense,” de Blasio said.
Social services and youth services can’t be called in to solve murders. Officials like de Blasio are searching for a solution while defunding that solution.
Karol Markowicz is a New York Post columnist and a Washington Examiner contributing writer.