Law enforcement, police unions and politicians are rallying behind demands for more officers on the streets, tying those calls to rising crime while warning of a future hiring crisis. A Bloomberg News analysis shows that even as staffing levels dropped during the pandemic police department headcounts exceed those of 15 years ago, when crime was higher. In major cities, staffing levels rose and fell over that period, with some changes reflecting economic downturns and local crises. Between 2011 and 2019, police staffing levels in more than half of the 20 largest cities grew, according to FBI data, and across the country the total number of sworn local law enforcement officers increased 15 percent from 2001 to 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The pandemic introduced new challenges to police hiring and retention. Police agencies were not immune to the labor market crunch as workers sought more flexibility, better pay and better work-life balance. Baby boomers aging out of the workforce are driving retirement turnover. Public approval of law enforcement declined after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and is again under scrutiny after the brutal beating death of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis officers. That makes the job less attractive to some would-be recruits.
These forces combined could create a snowball effect, police advocates argue, setting the stage for more staffing problems. Law enforcement agencies that responded to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum reported losing 3.48 percent of their officer headcount over 2020 and 2021. In recent months departments have dangled bonuses, brought officers back from retirement, and pushed for greater investments in coming budgets. The staffing concerns come as local governments gear up for an economic downturn and the end of federal coronavirus relief money, two looming constraints on city budgets. Political backlash to major new investments in policing mean that cities have tough decisions ahead on whether they can grow police departments, especially as they look to fund public safety infrastructure that doesn’t center police. Incidents like Nichols’s death also reignite the debate over policing, training and how it should be done.
FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics reports show total violent crime rates remain unchanged after a decade-long decline. Across the country, police employment peaked around the Great Recession and again in 2019. In some cities, those gains continued despite the pandemic.