If you listen carefully, you can hear the echoes of 2020 defund-the-police protesters, shouting hateful slogans like, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!” Even more recently, a Portland protester declared war on the police, stating they should “fry like a piece of burnt bacon.”

These protesters may have effected changes in policing, but not in the way they thought. A few days ago, an article reported that law enforcement agencies nationwide are struggling to recruit and retain personnel amid a surge in retirements and resignations.

While it is certain that events over the past several years have contributed to the overwhelming exodus of officers, this cannot be the only cause. We have seen this type of public discourse before—in 1969, with the police raid on New York City’s Stonewall Inn; in 1991, with the brutal attack on Rodney King; and in 1999, with the killing of Amadou Diallo. Yet even in the most contentious of times, the number of full-time sworn officers has not substantially decreased.

We must therefore look closer to determine what is now causing law enforcement officers to abandon the profession in droves, what it means for communities that are seeing substantial increases in violent crime and—most importantly—what we can do to remedy it.

Setting aside personal reasons, medical illness or physical injury, research indicates that several professional factors contribute to police voluntarily leaving the force. Among them are some issues common to many jobs: limited advancement opportunities, inadequate pay, frustration with one’s department and poor agency morale. Police also point to dissatisfaction with the justice system.

Additionally, a recent survey showed that high-profile incidents have increased police-community tensions, causing officers to perceive the job as riskier, not only due to community discontent but also because officers are concerned about the potential consequences of a life-or-death, split-second decision.

Furthermore, it would be naïve to ignore the societal and generational shifts we are experiencing in the workforce in general. Gen Z has been described as a cohort of pragmatic individuals who value direct communication and self-care—important attributes that are often lacking within police culture. More individuals from this generation have attained college degrees, and fewer stay in one job as long as older generations do.

In addition, it should come as no surprise that there is hesitancy to take on a lower-paying career in law enforcement in an unstable economy with rising college costs and decades-high inflation. What’s even more concerning is that less than 10 percent of police officers are extremely satisfied with their job, and only 7 percent would encourage new candidates to apply.

Historically, criteria to become an officer have not been exceptionally stringent, with only a small percentage of departments requiring a college-level education. As a result, an almost endless supply of candidates who met the standards signed up for their 20 years of service in exchange for a highly sought-after pension benefit. Today, many officers are getting out early, abandoning their pensions to seek new opportunities.

The answer is not to set a lower bar for law enforcement candidates, as was recently done by the NYPD and Chicago PD. That only jeopardizes the integrity of policing; it is a risk to public safety and completely counterproductive to what communities want. In fact, studies indicate that officers with college degrees and those who maintain healthy physical fitness levels are significantly less likely to use lethal force.

As society evolves, so should the profession of policing. Simply checking all the boxes may deem a candidate as qualified, but we all deserve more than that. We need police who are highly competent, reflect the values and cultures of their communities and—most importantly—possess the emotional intelligence and character traits to be effective and enhance community trust.

Those who want to “defund the police” are a minority. The American public still favors maintaining current spending levels or increasing policing budgets. And while public confidence is down slightly, community members are still increasingly concerned with crime and violence in the United States. They want successful policing and safer neighborhoods.

To combat national staffing shortages, we must balance the demands of community members with smart, effective, research-based policing. Doing so is vital to establish new recruitment strategies, create incentives to attract high-quality candidates, and promote a more positive culture within departments. The old ways aren’t working; instead, we must partner with communities to restore public trust and increase police legitimacy.

Image credit: arindambanerjee

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