Police Officer Recruitment Down: Is It Worth It To Be Good?

Considering the general tension between Americans and police officers, it is hardly surprising to see more news stories of incidents caught on tape or protests occurring. Those in the audience, regardless of the “side” they’re on, should not be quick to jump to conclusions. Not every citizen stopped by police is a criminal threat, and police officers who apprehend someone, perhaps forcefully, are not automatically in violation. Still, the strained relationship between both groups remains.

It’s no wonder, then, that fewer people are looking to join law enforcement and become an officer. As reported by CNN:

Post-Ferguson, the New York Police Department, the country’s biggest police force, says applications are down 18%. LAPD saw a 16% drop in applications since 2013. In Philadelphia, where police have had a decades-long problem of trying to attract new hires, police recruit numbers dropped 47% in 2014 from 2008. Even the small police force in Leesburg, Virginia, says while it hasn’t seen a drop in applications, far fewer qualified candidates are applying, affecting their ability to hire good cops.

The so-called “Ferguson Effect”, credited with bringing about a rise in crime, seems to have also resulted in a decrease in those willing to lawfully confront that crime. And why wouldn’t it? I’ve run across people who believe that cops are instantly in the wrong because they wear a badge and dare to question someone. I’ve also seen others express that cops are always in the right, and we should never question their behavior. These opinions share a common thread: both are asinine.

The idea of “policing” is a negative, and that effect is widespread. This is noted in the CityLab piece “Who Wants to Be a Police Officer?” earlier this year, quoting Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey:

“In the current environment we’re in, policing is not all that positive. Not a day goes by you don’t see something negative,” Ramsey told the Philadelphia City Council during a budget hearing. “That has an impact on young people.”

The quest to diversify police ranks has gained a huge sense of urgency. But Ramsey, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, suggested that the department’s percentage of African American recruits has actually declined. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, says that departments nationwide are facing recruiting problems that can hinder attracting new officers of any race.

A familiar response to the question of how to establish the truth of a situation between officers and the public is the use of police body cameras. Recording an incident will clarify the event and center public reaction around the truth, instead of just opinion, right? As we’re well aware, this is often not the case. You do not need to look far to find that the opposite is true. The recent encounter between a white deputy and black student at a school in South Carolina, captured on cell phone by possibly three classmates, is one example. Another is the death of Eric Garner whose encounter with NYPD officers, and death following a chokehold, was caught on video in 2014. With high-tech body cameras, the outcome of an incident might be no less muddied, however. As reported this past week by NPR, the numerous features of some brands of body cameras, such as buffer (no sound), a monitor (which allows review of tape before writing official report), or one that reads license plates and faces, creates more contention within a subject already lacking clarity.

It is not a shocking thing that officer applications have been dwindling recent years. Given public sentiment, which is not wholly without merit, and lack of a clear solution to address current tension, choosing a career as a police officer is seemingly more stressful than ever before. Society needs the brave men and women on police forces nationwide who risk their lives daily for our well-being. Also, the public needs to feel safe from threatening individuals, whether they are a private citizens. or a rare member of law enforcement who is drunk with power. Claiming innocence all the time, no matter which “side” you represent, is not only false, but dangerous to the whole. Policing is a necessary good. This must be reaffirmed by word and deed, and will benefit both citizens and officers alike.

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