By T.B. Lefever:
Throughout my youth, my father and mentor had several important discussions with me about my future like any good dad should. He was a career cop. Like most cops, he loved his job when he didn’t hate it, he was good at what he did, and he would never get rich by doing it but was always able to put a roof over our heads and food on our plates. I used to appreciate the show of respect he received from other adults who seemed to look at him as a leader and as a role model for their own kids. Although nothing major ever really happened, I can also remember the feelings of excitement while being out with him when he was off-duty and armed with his weapon. It was kind of like being with a real life superhero and anything could happen. I wanted to be just like him and a lot of the direction in my life is owed to how he represented himself as a police officer.
As I got older, the conversations became more practical and less based on my romantic view of the job. Though doing something that involved making a positive difference for others and the prospect of adrenaline soaked excitement always played a part in my decision, I began to consider other benefits of a law enforcement career. “There will always be a need for police.”, “Crime isn’t going anywhere.”, “You’ll have job security.”, “You won’t be replaced by a robot.”, “The pension must be nice.”, “It’s a brotherhood”, and “It’s a respectable living.” became drivers in my choice to embark on this profession. It’s funny how things work out. While some of the practical rationales that we came up with then appear to be timeless, others are not so much the case in today’s reality.
Along with other professions in the modern American landscape, the number of full-time sworn police officers has been on a steady decline over the past several years. While many in the service or manufacturing industry have been replaced my machines and outsourcing, others have seen their workplace go belly up due to global trade restructuring. In my field, it is not so much that the jobs are drying up. It’s that there are less qualified men and women wanting to do them. There is also the desire for police departments to maintain a healthy police to citizen ratio. In some cases, it’s not that number of police is on the decline, but rather, the applicant pool is not growing proportionally to the rest of the population. Because there is not one single reason for the decline in the number of cops on the streets. I’ll try to explain, holistically, why I believe departments all over the country are having trouble filling the ranks at the local and state level. But first, I want to get something out of the way.
I suspect that people who aren’t cops would think that the reason for a shrinking force is a perceived decline in “respect for the badge”. People say things like, “People hate cops. I wouldn’t be a cop these days.” To be honest, I don’t think respect for police is at an all-time low like some claim. I think our country is more divided now than it’s ever been in my lifetime and the two polar opposite sides here and on many other issues have become increasingly vocal and passionate about their stances. I don’t necessarily buy the notion that just because the anti-police faction has a louder voice now than in the past, society as a whole is more negative in its opinion of us. In fact, that louder anti-cop faction causes a reaction where a louder pro-cop contingent blossoms as a result. Maybe that’s the universe seeking balance or restoring order. For every cop-hating anarchist marching up the highway with an “F- the police” sign snarling traffic, there is a citizen teaching his or her kids that the police are the good guys. As there are more protestors and rioters, so are there more citizens rallying to support their local police department. Black Lives Matter was met with All Lives Matter, and then eventually Blue Lives Matter. Every so often, someone approaches me and thanks me just for doing my job. How many other jobs are there where you get to hear that at random on a pretty regular basis? It used to make me feel awkward like it was undeserved but I’ve grown to really appreciate it.
My opinion is not the only opinion, of course. If our point of view is shaped by our life experience, then try telling an officer who spends every day humping calls in a crime ridden hell hole that “respect for the badge” isn’t on the decline. During the years where I worked almost exclusively in the hood, I hardly ever heard “Thank you for your service”. Instead, I heard the complete expletive laced opposite sentiment on a daily basis. If you turn on the television or pull up your facebook news feed, it’s hard to go more than a few days without learning of a cop getting shot. The numbers don’t lie. We’re living through a significant uptick in violence against police, yet I still don’t believe that the uptick is due to a growing hatred of police across the population as much as it is due to a growing hatred of police within that portion of our population.
Now that I’ve scratched that itch, I’d like to mention that not all police or police departments around the country are created equal. Some states don’t suffer the same retention problems as others. States in the northeast have strong police unions which enable them to have decent pensions, better benefits, and higher pay. The resilient pensions and step increases in pay every few years give officers a reason to stick around for the long haul. It benefits no one to leave one department for another and throw away years worked towards a pension and longevity pay. When you hit Virginia and travel down to the Florida-Georgia line, you are in the land of the impoverished police officer where the unions are weak and there are no pensions. I’ve run into officers from some of the more rural areas of Georgia that are making $11.00 per hour during a time in our country where there is a push for fast-food employees to make $15.00. In the Southeast, most police officers are what I call “free agents”. Officers bounce around from department to department every few years to get the raise that they are not getting otherwise until eventually they accept where they’re at or land a job at one of the premier departments in their state or region. Whereas their northeastern counterparts only hire periodically, most agencies down south are constantly accepting applications and pushing people through the hiring process in hopes to inch closer towards maintaining that civilian to officer ratio.
Cities run by feckless leaders are another albatross that present repercussions that officers have to deal with. There are several high profile police departments in our nation under the microscope right now because they cannot get the size of their police force to an adequate level. Dallas PD is approximately 400 officers short of where they need to be due to low pay and an insolvent pension that is no longer paying out retirees who have made contributions their entire career. It is reported that the City of Dallas lost 99 officers in 75 days. I don’t know how the hemorrhaging of money happens in the first place, but prioritizing police officers as the first in line to suffer for it is the wrong way to go about attracting the best and brightest to serve. The revolving door that is the Atlanta Police Department maintains an almost constant deficit of 200 officers. During my years there, they did not offer a pension, step increases for longevity, or an awards program for exceptional police work. While officers in Atlanta hadn’t received a pay increase in a decade and some poor souls were taking home less per paycheck ten years into a career than they were when they first started due to increased insurance premiums and retirement benefits, City Council voted themselves a 52% pay raise. Still, the last straw moment for me when I left APD came when I saw the city’s mayor striking the “Hands up, don’t shoot” pose with rappers at a gala on the front page of the local paper. With crime on the rise in both cities, the problem of losing quality officers is compounded when departments are forced to lower hiring standards for those officers that will replace them.
I try not to be a snob about it but police officers should get into this line of work for the right reasons. When departments lower the standards again and again at the background investigations level, the academy, or anywhere else, the result is a watered down police force with police officers who just look at it as if it were any other job. With that being said, officers should also be able to make a decent living and have the incentive of reasonable raises and a pension to give them stability when they hit a point when they can work no longer. These very things will curb the mass migration of officers seeking greener pastures elsewhere.
Communities want to know their police officers. Ideally, there should be strong and mutually beneficial bonds between the two. With the kind of familiarity that only comes from people knowing each other over the course of generations comes the understanding needed to bridge the gaps that have grown between the lawman and the every man. If law enforcement continues to be treated as an industry of short term jobs rather than a profession of long term careers, our nation could one day wake up to a completely estranged police force beyond recognition and unworthy or respect.
T.B. Lefever is an OpsLens Contributor and active police officer in the Metro-Atlanta area. Throughout his career, Lefever has served as a SWAT Hostage Negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a School Resource Officer, and a Uniformed Patrol Officer. He has a BA in Criminal Justice and Sociology from Rutgers University.