Facing officer shortages that have exacerbated the nationwide crime problem, police departments around the country are offering increasingly large incentives as they fight for badly needed recruits.
City leaders are setting aside millions of dollars in their police budgets to fund sweeteners such as generous hiring bonuses and housing stipends.
It’s a major shift from calls, in some of the same cities now struggling with recruitment, to slash police budgets just two years ago.
“This is a self-created injury,” retired Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith, spokeswoman for the National Police Association, told the Washington Examiner. “This goes back to the vilification of law enforcement and then the ‘defund the police’ movement.”
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A survey from the Police Executive Research Forum found police officer resignations increased 42.7% between 2019 and 2021, contributing to a dip nationally in the number of officers available to respond in departments across the country.
Many officers have cited burnout and a lack of trust from the communities they serve as reasons for departing their forces over the past two years.
Politically, the calculus for criticizing police officers has shifted dramatically since 2020.
City leaders in Washington, D.C., moved over the summer to offer $20,000 hiring bonuses to recruit new officers amid staffing struggles.
Applicants would receive $10,000 before attending even one day of training at the police academy; they would receive the other half of the bonus after completing the training.
Washington’s police department offers other generous staffing incentives on top of the bonus, including $6,000 in rental assistance and a pledge to put any officer moving from more than 50 miles away in a hotel for up to two weeks while he or she finds housing.
Lt. Patrick Loftus, director of strategic engagement with the Metro Police Department in Washington, said the department has received a higher volume of applications since announcing the bonus program.
“Since then, we have seen an increase in applications,” Loftus told the Washington Examiner.
While Loftus said the full extent of the incentive’s effects on staffing levels is not yet known because applicants have to go through a lengthy vetting process, he noted that “initially, things do look like it has made a positive impact.”
“I think it definitely was more challenging in 2020 to get people interested in law enforcement, especially the families, too,” Loftus said. “Maybe they wouldn’t want their family member to go into law enforcement.”
Loftus, who works with new and prospective recruits, said some of that hesitation has disappeared.
“Public sentiment has kind of shifted a little more positively toward law enforcement,” he added. “People are more excited to enter law enforcement.”
The New Orleans Police Department fell as much as 500 officers short of what the city budgeted for by June of this year, with projections that the force size would fall further.
Earlier this month, New Orleans officials approved a plan that would offer new recruits $30,000 in bonuses over their first three years on the job.
The force has also reportedly pursued more creative ways to fill its staffing gaps — including by hiring civilians to do jobs like issue traffic citations and by loosening its screening process for new hires with the elimination of questions about marijuana usage or credit score checks.
In Chicago, with hundreds of police officers fleeing the force this year, city leaders approved an increase to the 2023 police budget of $64 million earlier this month. But some city council leaders complained it didn’t do enough to stop the exodus of officers; one city lawmaker proposed offering bonuses and help with recruits’ down payments or mortgages.
Portland, Oregon, has grappled with the dueling effects of liberal criminal justice policies and a dwindling police force with which to enforce what penalties remain.
The police bureau was more than 300 officers short of the 1,100 officers its chief said the force required as of this summer.
In order to attract experienced officers, the city began offering $25,000 bonuses this year to police officers who’ve worked in other departments and smaller ones to rookie officers.
Even so, Portland has had trouble finding qualified applicants. A recent report showed that last year, the police bureau conducted 568 background checks on applicants but hired just 27 of them.
Beyond attracting new officers, many forces have struggled with keeping their current ones.
Over the summer, Atlanta offered its existing police officers up to $4,000 in bonuses to stay on the force.
The city used pandemic relief funds from the American Rescue Plan to cover the costs; Atlanta leaders later approved an increase to the police department’s budget to help with hiring new officers.
Loftus from the MPD in Washington, D.C, said the city offered current officers a pay raise over the summer that will boost current employees’ paychecks over time.
Brantner Smith said officer retention is a major problem.
“There’s a limited pool of people who want to be police officers to begin with,” she said. “And then, now, since June of 2020, that pool is shrinking. You have record retirements; you have people just leaving the profession before they can retire.”