This aligns with a broader narrative that started in the spring of last year, when police retirements in a sample of departments around the country were shown to have spiked by 45 percent after the nationwide George Floyd protests. Resignations were up 18 percent in the same sample. This information, compiled by an organization called the Police Executive Research Forum, was widely covered by the media, which told a story of demoralized police officers quitting in droves, in part, because of a decrease in morale following Black Lives Matter protests.
The truth is a bit more complicated. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there were 665,380 police and sheriff’s patrol officers in the United States as of May 2021, compared to 665,280 in 2019, before the Floyd protests and the coronavirus pandemic began. Last fall, an article by the Marshall Project found similar numbers: Nationwide, police have only lost about one percent of their total officers, while all other industries in this country combined have lost about 6 percent. The narrative about a great national police resignation, it turns out, might have been a bit exaggerated.
But in America’s biggest cities, like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago, the decline in police officers is real. Retirements in the N.Y.P.D. rose during the pandemic, growing from around 1,500 in 2019 to 2,600 in 2020. Overall, the department had roughly 2,500 fewer officers in 2020 than it had in 2019. The Chicago Police Department, which, like that of Los Angeles, has fallen well short of filling its budgeted allotment of officers, recently waived some of its requirements for new applicants. Other departments facing policing shortages and falling applications have turned to a variety of incentives, including an Oakland City Council member’s proposed offer of a $50,000 signing bonus for any qualified officer who joins the city’s police department.
It’s hard to understand these apparently conflicting trends — retirements spiking in various cities while national numbers of police officers hold steady. I wanted to look at one specific department to see if that might offer some explanation of why major cities were having trouble hiring and retaining enough police officers.
In 2016, two police officers in Baton Rouge, La., responded to a complaint outside of a convenience store, which resulted in the shooting and death of a Black man named Alton Sterling. This homicide, which came just one day before an officer in St. Paul, Minn., shot and killed a Black motorist named Philando Castile, led to large protests throughout East Baton Rouge Parish, which includes the City of Baton Rouge. Two weeks later, a man named Gavin Eugene Long shot six police officers in Baton Rouge, killing three. That year, a record 32 officers resigned from the Baton Rouge Police Department. The staffing numbers of the B.R.P.D. have gone down every year since, with a pronounced fall from 625 officers in 2019 to 577 in 2021.