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Justice Department issues new report aimed at improving police hiring nationwide

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Washington — With police departments across the country struggling to hire and retain officers, the Justice Department issued a new report on Tuesday with strategies and takeaways aimed at helping law enforcement agencies grow their forces. 

"Recruiting and retaining qualified law enforcement officers in the 21st century requires executives and hiring professionals to modernize policing from the ground up," according to the report, titled the "Recruitment and Retention for the Modern Law Enforcement Agency." "[A]gencies must reevaluate their eligibility requirements, hiring processes, academy structures, and training to accurately reflect policing today." 

Police departments across the country are unable to hire new officers at a rate that keeps up with their staffing losses each year, which results in a continued decline in sworn officers, according to an April 2023 study from the Police Executive Research Forum. The analysis asked law enforcement agencies to report their staffing levels in January 2023 and found a steady 4.8% decline in force numbers compared to three years ago.

The problem is not just with hiring practices and attracting new recruits, but keeping officers on the job. The year 2022 saw 35% more sworn officers hired than in 2020 and 5.6% more than 2019, but staffing levels continue to decline as greater numbers of law enforcement officers resigned. Forty-seven percent more officers resigned in 2022 than in 2019, according to the police research study.

Meanwhile, the number of retirements reached its peak in 2020 and 2021. They have slightly abated since, but remain at higher rates in 2022 than 2019 and 2020.

What the Justice Department's new report found

Houston Police Cadet Class 254 take the oath of office during their graduation at the Houston Police Academy Thursday, July 7, 2022 in Houston.
Houston Police Cadet Class 254 take the oath of office during their graduation at the Houston Police Academy on Thursday, July 7, 2022. Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

The Justice Department's report released Tuesday reflects the dire situation. 

"The recruitment and retention crisis is the number one issue I hear about from our state, Tribal, and local law enforcement partners across the country," Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement. The new report attributed the staffing issues in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, a changing labor market, office safety concerns and community frustration toward police. 

To combat the decreased staffing levels, the report — commissioned by Attorney General Merrick Garland — suggests that police leaders should work to better understand the needs of the communities they serve while modernizing and streamlining hiring practices.

The report was the result of an April 2023 meeting of policing leaders from across the country, which found that the "often negative public perception of policing" has affected morale and led to higher burnout. Focusing on law enforcement's image and underscoring the virtues of the job, the group found, will likely be key to improving hiring rates. The report was prepared by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Participants in the meeting, according to the report, emphasized the need to attract candidates who possess both conventional policing know-how and nontraditional skills like emotional intelligence and conflict resolution to help them better communicate.

"Strong emotional intelligence is linked to fewer cases of excessive force and improved relationships within the community," according to the new publication. "It is essential that officers be equipped with interpersonal skills that are difficult to train — not only emotional intelligence but also empathy, relationship building, communication, and understanding of the community."

The report also advised agencies should prioritize developing diversity initiatives and removing barriers that hinder inclusive work environments. "Agencies should work with community leaders to target recruitment efforts toward diverse candidates and identify ways to reach potential recruits who might otherwise not consider law enforcement as a career," it said. 

The Justice Department report offers suggestions for new training and retention initiatives once officers are recruited to the force, like signing bonuses, pension plans and greater variety in retirement plans. 

Limitations on overtime and pension payouts can make it "unattractive" for certain officers to advance in their careers, the report found, so greater funding in those areas would likely benefit a department's retention rate.

Notably, the report highlighted concerns among police forces about work-life balance and wellness, particularly relating to child care and mental health. 

"Unfortunately, there is still a stigma among the law enforcement community toward seeking mental health support. Meeting attendees agreed that top-down change is required to allow officers to feel safe and supported in seeking help," the report said. 

In a statement, Hugh Clements — the director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing and the former police chief of Providence, Rhode Island — said the new report reflects an expressed need from law enforcement leaders across the country to combat the serious staffing problem. 

"I believe this publication is an important step in meeting the recruitment and retention challenge," Clements said. 

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