U.S. Police Face Severe Shortage of Recruits

Police Academy

With the number of applicants down more than 90 percent in some cities, police departments may soon be posting more signs that say “Help Wanted” instead of “Most Wanted.”

From the nation’s largest police force in New York City to tiny departments with only five officers, far fewer people are looking to join the force than in years past, and departments of all sizes are being forced to rethink how they fill their ranks.

While public safety departments face some of the same problems other employers do with U.S. unemployment at a 30-year low, police recruiters are additionally stymied by the job’s low pay, tarnished image, increasingly tougher standards for new recruits and limited job flexibility.

“You don’t move up in a police department the way you would in a dot-com,” admits Chicago Police Department recruiter Patrick Camden.

And most importantly, few jobs are more dangerous.

“You can get shot at for $40,000, or be home with your family for $60,000,” says Seattle police recruiter Jim Ritter.

Trouble From Gotham to Mayberry

Police departments in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago are all working harder at recruitment and drawing fewer applicants. But it is also the same story in smaller cities such as Leesburg, Va., where the number of applicants to the police department has dropped 90 percent over the past five years, and Reno, Nev., which reports a decline of 50 percent since 1997.

A decade ago, there were 3,000 applicants for 10 openings with the Seattle police, the department says. Now there are 1,000 applicants for 70 positions — a drop of more than 90 percent.

In Springfield, Miss., only 75 people applied for the police academy this month. But four years ago, they had 300, reports Elaine Deck, a researcher who has been studying the problem for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

In rural towns in the South, the number of people showing up to take the written police exam has often dropped 80 percent, she says.

In Fairfax County, Va., an entrance exam advertisement would draw 4,000 people five years ago. Now, it brings in 300.

Toughest in Small Cities The dearth of new officers is affecting most departments, but in many ways small forces are having the toughest time. Large departments have a greater variety of duties and shifts, which many recruits find more appealing.

In addition to offering patrol work, there may be community policing details, bike officers, school officers and other specialty positions. A small force typically has less diversification and less opportunity for advancement, Deck says.

Small departments also generally pay considerably less than big city forces. According to the IACP, the median starting salary for a new officer is $39,000; in smaller departments it is just $30,000 to $32,000.

“The officers equate pay with respect,” says Gilbert Gallegos, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, a national association of rank-and-file officers. Many are reluctant to accept a lower salary they feel is less prestigious.

Rick Baily, the city recruiter in Reno, Nev., where a new cop earns $34,000 a year, says he emphasizes the lower cost of living and less stressful work to prospective recruits, but he admits it can be difficult to convince them.