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How Can Cities Fill Police Ranks Without Lowering Standards?

The San Francisco Police Department is down 600 officers, almost 30 percent of its allotment. Phoenix needs about 500 more officers. The Washington, D.C., police force is smaller than it has been in 50 years, despite troubling gun violence and carjackings, as officers leave faster than they can be replaced.

Police departments are struggling to fill their ranks, creating what many officials say is a staffing emergency that threatens public safety, the Washington Post reports.

They cite an exodus of veteran officers amid new police accountability measures after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, increased hostility from the communities they police, and laws that seek to reduce the number of people in jail.

Advocates for police reform see the moment as an opportunity to hire a new generation of officers and reimagine policing. As agencies seek fresh recruits, they are getting fewer qualified applicants,, leading some to make the risky move of lowering the bar for hiring to fill their ranks.

“We’re having to really, really work hard to fill what we have,” said Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Ill., whose department is short more than 300 officers. “And we’re still not filling at the rate that we would want.”

Cook County’s 5,000-inmate jail can’t afford to cut corners for safety reasons, so the patrol division runs understaffed. Smaller police departments in the county’s villages and towns are shorthanded also, and have asked Dart’s agency to step in.

That doesn’t bode well for policing, said Christy Lopez, a Georgetown Law professor who worked in the Justice Department's civil rights division from 2010 to 2017, helping negotiate court-approved improvement plans for departments accused of misconduct.

The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police said that as of last year, 60 percent of 239 responding Illinois , agencies said they were not fully staffed, and 19 percent said they were short more than 10 percent of what was budgeted. Almost half of all new hires in 2020 and 2021 were transfers from other agencies, a dramatic and unprecedented spike.

Last month, the Justice Department assembled more than two dozen policing minds — from department chiefs to labor bosses to nonprofit leaders — to brainstorm how the federal government can help remedy what Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta described as a “crisis.”

Any solutions, Gupta said in an interview, must go “hand-in-hand with police accountability and constitutional policing. … We are only going to be able to expand the pools of people to come into law enforcement when they see this as an aspirational, professional choice.”

To fill their police academies, cities have expanded the geographic area from which they draw recruits, offered hiring bonuses and multiyear contracts, decreased onboarding obstacles and adjusted admission requirements.


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