Why is there a police officer shortage, and what are the solutions?
If you want to fill the ranks, you better think outside the box.
That's the message from a law enforcement think tank's new report that examines the staffing crisis afflicting police departments across the country and offers suggestions on how to fix it.
"Police agencies face no greater challenge today than recruiting and retaining enough qualified officers to meet rising demands to provide services and address violent crime," Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, writes in the introduction to Responding to the Staffing Crisis: Innovations in Recruitment and Retention.
"Many younger officers are resigning and older officers are retiring, even as applications plummet," he adds. "Departments are competing for existing officers, making one department's solution another department's problem."
The numbers are daunting. According to a PERF survey of departments across the country, 65% saw an increase in retirements and 66% saw an increase in resignations between 2020 and 2022. Applications for full-time officer jobs plunged 69% over that same period, while overall staffing levels dropped nearly 5%.
In 2017, 21% of department leaders surveyed said they were having trouble filling all their open positions. Last year, that figure was 78%.
Why and how to fix it
The report describes a pair of vicious cycles that have led to the crisis.
In one, increased public scrutiny and weakened community support in the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer have led to fewer young people interested in law enforcement careers, along with more existing officers leaving. That causes a reduction in police services, leading to more public scrutiny and declining community support.
In the other, reduced staffing means more mandatory overtime and job-related strain for officers. That leads officers to abandon the profession, creating more overtime and stress for those who remain.
How can police leaders break those cycles? Get creative and get them while they're young, the report says. That means using social media such as TikTok and Instagram to reach a younger, more diverse audience, offering internships to college students, and providing unconventional incentives to new hires -- such as child care support and housing assistance.
The report also suggests departments remove some road blocks to the profession, such as the traditionally long hiring process -- up to eight months in some places -- and bans on candidates who had used drugs in the past.
"Prior drug use is no longer an automatic disqualifier given all of the recent changes in law, specifically surrounding marijuana," Virginia Beach Lt. James Gordon states in the report.
To keep officers on the job, departments should invest more in their mental and physical well-being, work to increase community support for the rank-and-file, and shift low-priority tasks -- like responding to crashes involving property damage only -- to civilian staff.
While our Steve Zalusky reported last month about how suburban departments are filling vacancies by recruiting officers from other towns, the PERF report discourages the practice known as "lateral hiring." For one, it creates costly competition between departments.
"An officer leaving one agency for another will bring the previous agency's culture with them, which might clash with the culture of their new agency," the report adds.
We reached out to several suburban law enforcement agencies to see how they're managing staffing challenges.
The Lake County Sheriff's Office has open positions throughout, including a shortage of 50 correctional officers and 24 deputies, Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli said via email.
"Those deficiencies, unfortunately, are currently taking a toll on our staff, as they frequently are forced to work additional hours, immediately preceding or following their shifts," he said.
Exit interviews with those who've left indicate they're often taking jobs with higher-paying municipal departments.
To attract recruits, Covelli said the office highlights what sets it apart from most police departments -- its variety of specialty units, from a special investigations group and a warrants division, to a marine unit and tactical response team.
"On a personal note, I came from a small Lake County municipal police department, and while I earned a higher salary working there, I decided to transfer to the sheriff's office to experience more in law enforcement," Covelli told us. "I experienced more at the sheriff's office in one year than I would have had in my entire career with the agency I left, which is exactly why I came here."
In Bloomingdale, there's been a noticeable decline in interest, said Director of Public Safety Frank Giammarese.
"Right now it is hard to find people that have that drive to be a police officer," he said. But after 35 years of being one, Giammarese said, "it's still the greatest job out there."
On the flip side, the Arlington Heights Police Department has just one of its 109 sworn officer positions unfilled, Chief Nicholas Pecora said. He credits it to an organizational structure that offers officers opportunities to experience different facets of police work and also opportunities to advance professionally.
"Without seeming too overconfident, I have always viewed AHPD as a destination police department," he added.
And in Aurora, after years of difficulty, the department has been able to fill all vacancies this year, Lt. Joseph Howe said.
"The department has dedicated resources toward recruitment at various events, schools and other locations, which has sparked a great deal of interest from people who otherwise would not have known about our department," he said.
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Conviction upheld in crash that killed pregnant mom:
Rejecting arguments that a crash that killed a pregnant mother of four was "unavoidable," a state appeals court this week upheld the drunken driving conviction and nine-year prison sentence handed to the Schaumburg man blamed for the deadly collision.
Hinigo Olvera, 71, was convicted of aggravated DUI in connection with the October 2018 crash that killed Aries Cobian, a 29-year-old Hanover Park woman and the mother of children between the ages of 10 years and 5 months at the time of her death.
Authorities said Cobian and her cousin were pushing her broken-down car along East Lake Street in Streamwood when Olvera's pickup truck struck her, crushing her between his vehicle and her car. Olvera failed three sobriety tests at the crash scene and had a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit when tested five hours later, prosecutors said.
In his appeal, Olvera argued that even a sober driver couldn't have avoided the crash, blaming it on Cobian and her cousin for pushing their car in heavy traffic along a busy road after dark. He also argued that his high blood-alcohol level five hours later didn't prove he was drunk when the crash happened.
A unanimous appellate court dismissed both claims.
"By all accounts, there were numerous cars on this stretch of Lake Street; defendant himself emphasizes the 'busy conditions' and 'heavy traffic,'" Justice David Ellis wrote in the court's opinion. "And the more cars that safely passed Cobian's, the harder it is to believe that this crash was truly unavoidable."
As for Olvera possibly being sober when the crash occurred, but intoxicated five hours later ...
"We would find it hard to believe that a perfectly sober defendant decided to get drunk at the scene of a serious traffic accident while waiting for the police to arrive," Ellis wrote.
Olvera is eligible for parole in May 2026.
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