A sculpture by artist Donald Lipski made of 1,400 Philadelphia police badges in the lobby of police HQ in the Philadelphia Public Safety Building, called “Let Love Endure.” (Erin Blewett for Billy Penn)

The Philadelphia Police Department is finally seeing an uptick in new recruits following a concerted campaign to attract new members. The turnaround is thanks to enhanced recruitment strategies that target a wider applicant pool, officials say, plus a boost in funding.

The 93 recruits inducted to the police academy last week is the largest single class since May 2018. 

It includes newcomers and “lateral transfers” (officers coming from one agency to another), and marks a triple-fold increase compared to January 2020, when the recruiting class was down to only 21 inductees, with notably no Black members

This past summer’s recruitment campaign — which was shared across Philadelphia, the Pa. suburbs, and parts of Delaware and New Jersey — was the first to be funded by City Council, bringing a coordinated strategy between the Police Department, the Managing Director’s Office, and the Department of Human Resources.

This meant $1 million allotted for stronger digital strategies and a campaign that outlasted the typical six weeks.

“The Philadelphia Police Department’s previous budget didn’t allow them to invest advertising dollars in new digital strategies,” Council President Darrell Clarke said in a release announcing the results of the new funding. “So we in Council wanted to support and get behind their recruitment efforts.”

The recruitment campaign targeted five zip codes in the Philadelphia region: 19121, 19122, 19133, 19134, and 19140. These were deemed key areas for potential Black and Latino candidates, a demographic the police department is especially trying to reach. 

Strategies to reach that audience involved new social media tactics and greater digital out-of-home advertising, like on outdoor signage and billboards.

Ads could be found in places you probably pass by or occupy in your day-to-day life, such as gas stations, retail stores, and ride-share vehicles, as well as in newspapers and on SEPTA. Radio ads were a specific tactic used to reach Black and Latino audiences, running on popular local stations such as iHeartMedia and Urban One.

It resulted in nearly 2,175 applications submitted to the police academy, per City Council, a 42% increase versus preceding recruitment periods (there were 1,210 in December 2022, and 1,260 in March 2023).

The efforts made to engage members in communities of color appeared to be effective. Among the pool of applicants, about 35% did not reveal their racial or ethnic identity. But for those who did, 80% identified as nonwhite, a 6% increase from March 2023.  

The size and diversity of the class has fostered hope in the department’s mission for a more community-focused, trust-based policing approach.

“We are thrilled to see such a large and diverse group of recruits entering our police academy,” said PPD Acting Police Commissioner John M. Stanford. “This is a significant moment for our department, and we are hopeful that this class will pave the way for a brighter future.”

Combating a nationwide staffing shortage

In the months following the start of the COVID pandemic, recruitment came to a standstill. March of 2020 marked the last of PPD recruits who began training pre-pandemic. The department did not resume training for aspiring officers until July 2021. 

During that time the PPD, like other police departments nationwide, experienced a significant increase in retirements and resignations, and has been plagued with staffing shortages since 2020. 

In a nationwide context, Philly’s recent success in garnering more recruits is part of a hiring rebound for law enforcement. Last year, departments and agencies across the country hired nearly 35% more sworn officers than in 2020, and 6% more than in 2019, per a report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been enough to outweigh the overall decline in staffing. There were nearly 50% more resignations in 2022 than in 2019, as found in the same PERF survey. Retirements dropped in 2022, but were still 20% greater than pre-pandemic. Overall, sworn staffing dropped almost 5% in the past three years.

In Philadelphia, despite the positive news of increased recruitment, the PPD reports it still fails to meet budgeted staff requirements, lacking over a thousand officers for a full force. 

The investment in recruiting is scheduled to increase, as City Council has allotted $3 million in this year’s budget for recruitment and $10 million for hiring bonuses, according to Council President Clarke. 

In addition, the PPD is leading listening sessions to gather feedback on what exactly motivates people to serve on the force. Hosting these sessions, creating a new campaign theme, and updating ads are all part of planning for the upcoming fall recruitment campaign.