Daniel Linskey: Our safety threatened because too few people want to be cops – Here’s how to solve the problem

Leaders and citizens across America are debating the role of police officers and departments in our cities. This is a good thing.

Both residents and police stand to benefit from improved standards, better training and more engagement between officers and the communities they serve.

To be successful, this discussion and any subsequent reforms must also address a recent decline in police officer applications and recruitment. Many departments are already struggling to maintain the minimum staffing levels needed to safeguard communities.

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In 1986, the year I joined the Boston Police Department, more than 15,000 people took the Massachusetts Municipal and MBTA Transit Police Officer Exam. The BPD sorted through more than 2,000 applicants for 180 openings. The department had to turn away many applicants with perfect exam scores.

At that time, police jobs were in high demand for obvious reasons. Cops earned a solid salary and had job security. And, after 32 years on the job, they earned a guaranteed pension.

There were families who had members who served over two or three generations. Fathers and mothers worked hard to get their children to follow in their footsteps. Tenured firefighters would leave a 10-year career to join the police academy for its perceived financial benefits.

Few jobs could compete with that. But times have changed.

Today, about two-thirds of police departments throughout the country have seen declines in officer applications. The total number of sworn full-time officers serving in the U.S. decreased by more than 23,000 between 2013 and 2016. As a result, more departments face serious personnel shortfalls, just as a larger number of current officers retire.

What has changed? Why do fewer people want to become cops?

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Part of the answer is the economy. Many cities had to slow down or freeze police hiring during the Great Recession and they're having a hard time competing in today’s booming job market.

Today, about two-thirds of police departments throughout the country have seen declines in officer applications. The total number of sworn full-time officers serving in the U.S. decreased by more than 23,000 between 2013 and 2016.

On top of that, the nature of the broader workforce has changed. Incentives like long-term job security and exceptional retirement benefits are not as compelling today. Working flex hours, sometimes from home with weekends off, sounds better than being ordered to work your fourth double in a row on Saturday night.

Another factor is the unprecedented amount of scrutiny placed on officers.

To be clear, accountability for cops is essential. No reasonable person wants bad conduct to go unreported or unnoticed. But, any teacher, banker, plumber, accountant or doctor would be hesitant to start a career knowing they’ll have strangers’ cellphone cameras pointed at them throughout their workday.

Police departments deal with the practical impact of unfilled positions in different ways. Some have started requiring current officers to work more overtime. Some have relaxed previously stringent rules, like residency requirements or bans on tattoos and prior marijuana use. Others now advertise department openings in markets on the other side of the country.

None of these solutions are sustainable. At best, they are Band-Aids. What’s needed is a paradigm shift: We need to change much of what it means to be a police officer in America.

Today, many police departments have begun rebranding themselves. As part of that effort, they should make clear that they are looking for different types of officers.

This is about more than hiring cops from different backgrounds, though diversity is an important consideration. Departments should tell the public that they’re not only looking to find the toughest or most physically strong applicants. After all, being a good cop is about more than breaking down doors. Instead, they need people who can engage their communities and earn the trust of the people they serve.

As with any complicated problem, there is no silver bullet. But one thing is certain: the old approach isn’t working. Cops matter and enticing new entries into the ranks is essential to sustain safety and address concerns that have undermined community trust.

In places where it’s workable, police departments could start offering short-term contracts. If police service could be seen as one chapter among many in someone’s professional life, it would expand candidate pools and give more people an opportunity to serve their neighborhoods. And, it would better reflect the 21st century job market.

Thinking more creatively, city governments with budget challenges might also consider combining police, firefighting and emergency medical services.

A one-stop shop for responders, where employees can answer the call in any situation, likely wouldn’t work in Boston or New York. But it could help address both budget and staffing concerns in small towns and rural communities.

As with any complicated problem, there is no silver bullet. But one thing is certain: the old approach isn’t working.

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Cops matter and enticing new entries into the ranks is essential to sustain safety and address concerns that have undermined community trust.

Leaders need to change their thinking and agree that tomorrow’s police departments won’t look like the ones we had yesterday. That’s both a challenge and an amazing opportunity.