- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Racial justice activists are cheering the huge budget cuts to police departments across the country, though officers say the downsizing hurts one of the most effective means of changing police culture: recruiting a new generation of officers.

Police departments already were having trouble retaining and recruiting police officers before the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody, divided the nation over the role of law enforcement officers and spurred calls to defund the police.

“If you want diversity, if you want quality candidates, you have to go out and find those candidates. That costs money,” said Sgt. Matt Cobb, who oversees recruiting for the Topeka, Kansas, Police Department. “If we don’t have the money to recruit people, then how do we fix the things people have said about us?”

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) reported last year that 63% of departments nationwide saw a decrease in applications over the past five years. More than half of those departments described the decrease as significant.

Applications to join the Nashville Police Department dropped from 4,700 in 2010 to 1,900 by 2018, according to PERF. The Seattle Police Department reported a 40-50% decrease in applications during the same period, and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado said its applications have fallen by 70%.

The drop in applications comes as officers are leaving the profession faster than ever before, according to PERF. Roughly 8.5% of officers are eligible for retirement now and another 15.5% will become eligible within five years — nearly one-quarter of the force combined.

That rate is expected to increase in the aftermath of Floyd’s death on May 25 as a White Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck.

With massive anti-police protests across the country, several departments suffered mass resignations as officers walked off the job because they no longer felt they had the support of the community and/or their city’s political leaders.

“It has been a struggle for departments over the past decade because of the low unemployment,” said Sam Blonder, CEO of EPIC Recruiting, an agency that recruits on behalf of local police departments.

“There are plenty of jobs out there that required less training and less commitment,” he continued. “It has been a struggle for departments and I don’t see that changing with recent events.”

The calls to defund police found a receptive audience in city halls.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio yanked $1 billion from the NYPD and transferred it to youth and community services. As part of the cuts, he implemented a hiring freeze and canceled the next two police academy classes for a savings of about $50 million.

The city council in Rochester, New York, approved a 50% reduction in its department’s budget and slashed its recruiting class in half.

Those cuts are misguided, experts warn. They say it forces police departments to back away from diverse candidates that can forge a connection with the minority communities that fear police after several high-profile deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement.

Charles P. Wilson, chairman of the National of Black Law Enforcement Officers, said recruiting quality candidates is critical to changing what he says is a culture of systemic racism in policing.

“Part of it is who you hire, how you hire, and the way you hire,” Mr. Wilson said. “If you are not screening candidates for their conscious bias, culture diversity, attitudes towards social interaction and conflict management, things won’t change.”

“These are issues that have a direct connection towards the excessive use of force,” he continued. “You will invariably get someone who doesn’t like Black folks if you don’t screen properly for them.”

Democrat lawmakers who’ve championed the budget cuts argue that the budget cuts won’t affect recruiting. Instead, they say, changes to police practices will make the job more attractive to minority candidates.

“Once you purge the police departments, add accountability and the duty to intervene, I think you will see more people willing to take on that noble profession because it’s now regained its nobleness,” Rep. Cedric Richmond, Louisiana Democrat, said at a press conference Wednesday. “I don’t think [the cuts] will be a hindrance to hiring good police officers.”

Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the changes in policing brought on by the cuts will make the job more attractive to Black candidates.

“I think more Black people will become police officers if and when we upgrade the profession,” the California Democrat said.

Mr. Blonder compared police recruitment to advertising campaigns, saying departments’ marketing messages must connect with the type of candidate they want to attract.

“Departments that have the right messaging out there will attract quality people,” he said.

But such overtures cost money. Mr. Cobb said he’s traveled all over the country to recruit candidates, including trips to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Recruitment trip costs can add up pretty quickly, he said. Departments are paying the recruiting officers a salary and benefits along with the travel expenses such as transportation costs and hotel rooms.

“I look at it as a return on investment,” Mr. Cobb said. “A trip to a college may cost $2,000, but if I can hire five candidates ready to start the academy, that’s a pretty good return on investment.”

Mr. Cobb did not offer any suggestions on where local governments could look for cuts instead of putting recruiting on the chopping block. He said such decisions should be up to each community.

“It is hard for me to say ‘here is a list of things I think should be cut from the budget,”’ he said. “Each community is going to have to decide what they want their police force to look like.”

Recruiters said it is too soon to know if today’s political climate and anti-police media coverage have soured young people on a career in policing. The impact of the defund police movement may not be known for several months, they say.

Still, recruiters say they haven’t changed their pitch to attract new candidates.

“The stuff we are doing now had been set up before a lot of the things that have taken place in the past couple of weeks,” Mr. Cobb said. “We haven’t made any knee-jerk changes.”

Mr. Blonder said he doesn’t expect police departments to change their overtures to new candidates. He said departments were already seeking diverse hires who are open to the type of community policing politicians are calling for in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death.

“I think the restrictions to departments’ budgets will have an impact on recruiting, but it won’t change the messaging,” he said.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

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