SACRAMENTO – Police officials are trying to pin the blame for the nationwide crisis in police recruiting on the civil unrest following the police-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Police spokespeople and high-profile sheriffs and chiefs complain they can’t recruit enough officers largely because the public has grown hostile to officers. They point to efforts to “defund the police.” That’s partially true, but not the entire story.

A recent Orange County Register article quotes San Bernardino Police Chief Darren Goodman blaming the media: “In the last three years, police have been demonized by the highest office in the land and the majority of the media. When you take three years of an industry being demonized, and taking authority away from police … and it’s not one that becomes appealing to those with other options.”

Yet the article also refers to an “alarming” International Association of Chiefs of Police study from 2019 – well before the Floyd incident – that detailed far-more mundane reasons that many young people don’t want to be cops. These include the desire for more flexible work hours and the long and difficult application and training process. Such issues have been the subject of police conferences for years.

During the 1990s, in the midst of a nationwide crime wave, state and local governments went on a police hiring spree backed by federal grants. Many of those officers now are retiring. California’s pension benefits are so generous for officers – allowing them to retire in many departments at age 50 with 90 percent of their final pay – that there’s no incentive to stick around.

The dramatic union-promoted pension boosts beginning in the late 1990s assured that agencies would face a wave of openings around now. Thanks to the end of Bush-era wars, police forces have lost one of their main recruiting sources: returning military. Many analyses about the shortfalls make reference to low pay, but that’s simply not the case in California. In Orange County, for instance, deputy sheriffs were making around $150,000 a year as early as 2008.

It’s worth debunking a few of the other common police-union myths. For starters, police agencies were not defunded. ABC News analyzed police budgets in 109 agencies across the country and found they mostly have increased, with 91 having upped their budgets by at least 2 percent. In 49 agencies, police funding has soared by 10 percent or more. Police spending is soaring.

Next, police staffing and spending are not directly tied to crime rates. Try reading some easily available literature about crime rates from serious criminologists and you’ll find much head-scratching about why crime goes up and down. Politicians – and police officials, of course – always assume that more police spending will lead to lower crime rates. Policing is one part of the equation, but myriad demographic factors arguably play a more significant role.

Radley Balko, author of a 2014 book about the militarization of police forces, noted that, “despite significant staffing shortages … if trends continue, 2023 will have the largest percentage drop in homicides in U.S. history. … (S)uch a drop would come after a two-year surge, but the fact that it would also occur after a significant reduction in law enforcement personnel suggests the surge may have been due more to the pandemic and its effect than de-policing.”

I’ve covered troubling police use-of-force incidents and found that union protections and circle-the-wagons attitude often thwart accountability. Americans have every right to demand that officers with life-and-death powers are held to the highest standards. Unfortunately, union protections make it difficult to rid departments of overly aggressive officers. Chiefs and sheriffs ought to blame themselves for having insufficiently rooted out the few bad apples in their midst. That’s the real source of public mistrust.

Community-oriented policing strategies might help departments lure more workers. This is also from that chiefs’ study: “Fast-paced images of officers making forced entries into buildings, rappelling down walls, firing high-powered weapons on the range … were common in recruiting materials. … (T)hose images do not resonate with wide swaths of the population entering the labor market. They said that agencies will be more successful in attracting candidates if they emphasize the service aspect of policing.”

My R Street colleague, retired New York Police Department officer Jillian Snider, notes that “even in the most contentious of times, the number of full-time sworn officers has not substantially decreased.” She points to the need to “balance the demands of community members with smart, effective, research-based policing” and to “establish new recruitment strategies, create incentives to attract high-quality candidates, and promote a more positive culture within departments.”

Perhaps we can have two important things at once: Greater public trust of police officers and more people willing to take police jobs. Instead of complaining about a public that doesn’t appreciate them, police officials ought to spend more time assuring their departments always are worthy of the appreciation.