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Shari DeAngelo, Flickr

Black Lives Matter and recruiting problems in the Philadelphia Police Department

Why is it so hard to find new cops?

Has Black Lives Matter taken a toll on the Philadelphia Police Department?

They’re running at an officer deficit, with approximately 200 more officers needed to plug the gap. In recent years, they haven’t been able to recruit enough. Former Commissioner Charles Ramsey has said outrage over police brutality in the last year (after widely covered police shootings and ensuing protests) has made the recruitment process more difficult, and hurts efforts to attract more officers of color.

“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 City Council last year. “That has an impact on young people.”

New Commissioner Richard Ross couldn’t say if the Black Lives Matter movement was playing a role though.

“My short answer is I don’t know,” says Ross. “It’s difficult to measure… We don’t know whether it’s recruitment qualifications, or activism or recruitment efforts. We’re looking at the whole gamut.”

The Police Department would only share recruitment numbers from the last five years, but CBS News reports that in 2008, Philadelphia Police brought in 357 new recruits. In 2015, they recruited 172.

Recruiting Unit Sergeant Robert Ryan says singular causes are hard to pinpoint locally: “It’s sort of a national trend, the challenge of finding good, qualified, diverse applicants. It’s not just to do with Philadelphia.”

While Ramsey cited other reasons for potential recruitment downturn, like competitive wages, his comments linking the numbers to mounting activism against police brutality made national news. Rob Davis, chief social scientist at the Police Foundation, finds Ramsey’s perspective interesting, but hasn’t seen any research that concurs yet. While the impact of flashpoint events like unrest in Ferguson remains unmeasured, it is important to consider that hiring crises are hardly new— police departments have struggled with recruitment for nearly a generation.

Why is it so hard to find new cops?

Many police departments now find it nearly impossible to fill all police officer positions,” William Woska wrote in the magazine Police Chief in 2006. CBS News reports that 80 percent of police agencies in the U.S. are experiencing low recruitment. Staffing shortages, research shows, can be explained by several factors. First, baby boomers are retiring, and many police departments have lower retirement age than other industries, like 50-years-old or 20 years of service. Changing attitudes and economic pressures haven’t helped to make up the difference.

“The movement toward knowledge work, currently transforming career paths, might be reshaping career expectations in law enforcement,” wrote the authors of Rand Center publication Police Recruitment and Retention for the New Millennium. “This transformation might intensify turnover in law enforcement due to unanticipated realities and unfulfilled expectations. Younger workers might also change jobs more often than older ones, especially in metropolitan areas with diverse economies, in an effort to find the work they like best.”

Police Recruitment and Retention for the New Millennium and Police Chief both observe that newer job seekers might be looking for a field with a better work-life balance. Competitive pay, as Ramsey said, is also noted: A young person who wants a job that will keep them active and allow them help others might make tens of thousands more as physical therapist.

That’s if they’re in the proper shape to pass a required physical exam— many interested candidates in this smaller pool might not be. “A high amount of people are failing the physical agility test,” says Ryan. Young recruits, according to the Rand researchers, aren’t “meet[ing] minimum qualifications, such as a clean criminal record, little to no drug use, good physical health, and financial stability” as often.

Finding a new way of doing things

What’s interesting,” Ross says, “is many jurisdictions that say they’re struggling have not changed their process.”

Ryan lists the newer approaches they’ve tried so far: Modernizing the department’s recruitment website, stepping up advertising, partnering with other law enforcement agencies to host career fairs and spreading the word about hiring opportunities at community meetings, among others. They’re also, Ryan says, trying to be more communicative during the wait period “to keep people engaged.”

Military bases and colleges in the region are places to continue to visit, says Ross. Ryan points to their LGBT and Women’s fairs. “Thirty percent of the police force is women,” says Ryan. “We want to let them know that this is a viable option.”

Ross clarifies that while they plan to adapt, they won’t rush in a panic; he reiterates that this hiring crunch brings a need for study, to “really do the homework.” “You have to be judicious about how you do that so that it’s not just a leap,” he says. “Bottom line: When you see that your deficit is a couple hundred officers, you’d be remiss if you didn’t examine the whole process.”

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