In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city of 411,000 with a violent crime rate twice the national average, police officials are struggling to fill 160 vacant officer jobs.
Having 800 officers do the work of nearly 1,000 makes public safety Tulsa’s most critical problem, Mayor G.T. Bynum said last November in his annual “State of the City” speech.
“The toxic national dialogue that demonizes police officers has made police department staffing significantly more difficult for every major city in America,” Bynum said Nov. 15, adding, “All it takes is a 30-second out-of-context clip on the internet to tarnish their reputation or even ruin their career. “
Bynum is one of dozens of city leaders, police chiefs and sheriffs around the country who have blamed police hiring woes primarily on protests and public expressions of distrust, which swelled after the May 2020 killing of George Floyd.
But in the same places where police officers are scarce, recruiters are having a hard time finding firefighters, bus drivers and other government workers, The Marshall Project found. Employment numbers show that Americans have been slowly opting out of all local government jobs over the last few years.
An analysis of two years of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Bureau data shows a steady decline in both law enforcement and local government jobs during the pandemic. From March 2020 to August 2022, the number of government workers dropped by 5%, while the number of local law enforcement employees decreased by 4%, the most recent data shows. The Census Bureau’s government payroll survey shows similar trends.
Police Jobs Continued to Decline While the U.S. Job Market Bounced Back
At the beginning of the pandemic, the number of people working in police departments remained steady, while the overall U.S. job market shrank by 8%. But police employees edged down in 2021 and 2022, as employment recovered overall.
As recently as a few months ago in Tulsa, school districts were struggling to find bus drivers. Lawmakers statewide considered moving schools to a four-day week last October to combat a shortage of teachers.
The city’s fire department only recently recovered from a deficit of more than 60 members of its squad of nearly 700. And fire department officials cross-trained a group of firefighters as paramedics in December to fix a lack of first responders.
Places like Phoenix and Philadelphia are facing similar problems, offering both police officers and firefighters signing bonuses to fill staffing shortages. Leaders in other cities that are struggling to find officers are also scrambling to hire sanitation and tech workers.
Tulsa Police Officer Mark Ohnesorge said he understands why some people believe that anti-police talk has driven officers out of the profession. But as the person in charge of recruiting for the department, he said he almost never hears those concerns from people who decide against law enforcement careers.
Instead, Ohnesorge and experts said, police departments are losing officers to jobs in the private sector, which offer both more money and more flexibility.
“It’s never been easier to start your own business,” Ohnesorge said. “You can go online right now and start an Etsy business and have the capacity to make large sums of money depending on how well you do. With jobs like policing, there’s an income ceiling that you won’t be able to get past no matter how well you do.”
People seeking jobs in the private sector and those who work remotely in Tulsa can get incentives, including cash bonuses. Tulsa Police also offers signing bonuses, Ohnesorge said, but both new recruits and seasoned officers from other departments have to go through his department’s paid 10-month process of training and supervised field observation before they can get to work.
Ohnesorge points out that Floyd’s death was not the first time a police-involved killing has sparked national outrage. But after previous incidents, he said, police agencies have struggled less to fill open jobs.
Historical employment numbers back him up. Even after 2014, when protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown, census survey numbers show police employment still rose nationally. The increase continued year after year, as other controversial police killings made national headlines and distrust of police heightened, especially in Black and other minority communities, until the pandemic reversed the employment trend.
Like Other Local Government Jobs, Police Numbers Declined in the Pandemic’s First Year
From March 2020 to March 2021, the number of people working in state and local law enforcement fell by about 1%, according to government payroll data compiled by the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the overall number of government employees dropped by 1.2%.
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It is true that there have been instances of police officers either quitting or retiring in response to how their departments dealt with protests and public criticism.
In Austin, Texas, for example, several officers resigned or retired early in the wake of the Floyd protests. The departures added more tension to a department already at odds with the community over the abrupt retirement of an assistant chief, who was alleged to have used racial slurs in reference to former President Barack Obama and others.
More officers quit or retired as a public panel reviewed department training videos that some critics said promoted racial stereotypes, contributing to a combined decline of 352 officers from the 1,600 member force in 2020 and 2021.
In Buffalo, New York, and Portland, Oregon, entire squads of crowd control and emergency response officers resigned their posts in protest over how their departments handled their interactions with protesters.
While economists believe that the social and political landscape could have contributed to burnout for police officers, they attribute the drop in police numbers largely to two other causes: COVID-19, and mass early retirements.
In both 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 was the leading cause of on-duty deaths for police officers. The pandemic made 2021 the most dangerous year to be a police officer since 1930. And like other workers across the country, many police officers chose to retire early during the pandemic.
“COVID changed our perspectives on work-life balance,” said Myriam Quispe-Agnoli, associate professor of economics at Mercer University in Atlanta. “We’ve seen this for teachers and nurses, flight attendants. And maybe there were officers who were close to retirement anyway who looked at everything and decided to leave earlier.”
The early retirements, Quispe-Agnoli and others said, only heightened a previously expected exodus from the workforce as baby boomers reach retirement age. This era, which researchers have called the “silver tsunami,” will see more than a quarter of U.S. workers reach age 55 or older by 2030.
Professions like policing and education have experienced unique challenges in this regard because fewer people are applying to replace retiring workers.
Because of this, the International Association of Police Chiefs warned in 2019 about shortages — not only of police officers, but also of other skilled workers in nursing, education and construction work.
In 2021, the Marshall Project reported that while police employment had dropped by just 1% through the start of the pandemic, jobs across the economy had fallen more than 6% in the same timeframe. Layoffs in the private sector accounted for most of the overall decline. But while jobs overall rebounded, rising 2% since 2020, police and government jobs are still declining, according to the latest available data.
Government jobs, including police positions, are usually less volatile than the private sector, said Nicholas Hill, a labor economist. Hill, a professor and dean of the School of Business at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He listed the explosion of tech jobs during the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s and subsequent layoffs as an example of the boom-and-bust job cycle. During the height of the pandemic, restaurants and other businesses shut down, leaving millions suddenly unemployed. And in the past few months, big companies have announced massive layoffs, an early sign of a possible recession.
Despite this, Hill said, most people who have left the workforce or switched jobs over the past several years have done so voluntarily. In 2022 especially, Hill said, resignations spiked to 3% of all workers, compared to 1% in 2021.
The Marshall Project’s analysis of the Census Bureau’s government payroll data found that from March 2020 to March 2021, nearly 80% of cities saw a decrease in both the number of overall government workers and the number of sworn officers. But in the vast majority of these cities, the changes in both these sectors were slight, leaving experts like Hill to say the overall trends fall far short of critical labor shortages.
The problems may seem more severe because the sharpest declines have been in cities with more than 1 million residents, such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where the number of sworn officers dropped twice as fast as the national average.
“What we saw was people moving away overall from jobs where they had to interact with the public,” Hill said. “And in bigger cities, the potential level of public interaction would be higher.”
The government job trends also fit the COVID-influenced migration of the entire U.S. workforce away from expensive, densely populated urban areas to smaller cities where people could work remotely and enjoy a better cost of living.
Sheriff Kieran Donahue, in his second term as the top lawman in rural Canyon County, Idaho, has spent hours talking to fellow sheriffs and police chiefs about how to recruit and keep officers. In the past three years, 33 road patrol and corrections officers from his 170-member force have left. Almost half went to better paying departments, he said. The rest went to higher paying jobs in the private sector.
Donahue said he thinks often about the two deputies currently working for him who are living in campers because they can’t afford to rent or buy a home.
“Pay is a big thing,” Donahue said. “These people are trying to find the revenue to take care of their families.”
Work flexibility might be just as important. Elmon Dean Todd lasted a decade as a police officer in Florida’s panhandle before he quit in 2021 to work full-time on his passion of writing fantasy fiction novels and developing video games. He had already published several books while working for the Pensacola Police Department in road patrol and at the airport. He spent his last 18 months in law enforcement as a school resource officer for the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s office.
Unlike the Idaho officers who left Donahue’s department, Todd said in an interview that he had no struggles with the pay in law enforcement. But that was because he ran an e-commerce business in his spare time that made him much more money than the $46,000 average annual salary he received.
He soured on policing because he said he felt restricted by increasing demands to work long shifts and inability to take time off when he needed it.
“I was a police officer because that was truly what I enjoyed doing,” Todd said in an interview earlier this month. “But I didn’t like how I was chained to the agency.”
Now, he’s able to travel the world, work remotely, spend more time with his children and devote himself to developing a video game based on his series of books.
To appeal to workers tempted by better opportunities, law enforcement leaders are trying to meet prospective officers where they are, with an emphasis on diversity.
Taylor Reeves, the officer in charge of recruiting for the police department in Tacoma, Washington, sets up an information booth at events around the city, including the recent Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival, to encourage people who haven't thought about a career in law enforcement to give it a try.
Even in cities without police shortages, law enforcement leaders are trying to stave off future shortages by amping up their college recruitment. In Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City Police Lt. David Williams doubles as an instructor at Lincoln University’s Law Enforcement Training Academy, which, in 2021, became the nation’s first police academy at a historically Black college or university.
Williams said his department has held steady at 90 people until last year, when it hired an additional officer to help manage the agency’s move to using bodycams. He was surprised that government jobs fell at the same rate as police jobs between 2020 and 2021, but he attributed the government exodus to COVID.
Fewer people are becoming cops because fewer people than ever see it as a calling, Williams said: “I hope with all my heart that it gets better, but I think it’s going to get more difficult for a while before it gets better.”
Ohnesorge is more optimistic, at least in the short term. With growing predictions that the economy may be headed into a recession, he is banking on historical trends of people flocking to government jobs for stability during harsher economic times.
Long term, however, he’s cautious. “People aren’t looking as much for a 30-year career in the same place,” he said. “They’re looking for a place where they can work 3 to 5 years and then move to something else.”
The number of workers in law enforcement, including officers and civilian employees, fell by 4% between March 2020 and August 2022, according to federal labor data. A previous version of this article described the decline as affecting only officers.