Officer demands for Pennsylvania Police Consortium hit lowest in 18 years
Police departments in York County and across the country are struggling to recruit the next generation of police officers.
Law enforcement officials cite a number of causes, including a mass exodus of retirees, long-standing wage disparities and the stigma of police brutality that has grown since the murder of George Floyd.
Locally, the number of people who applied to become police officers through the Metropolitan York Police Testing Consortium – a coalition of York Region departments that share administrative duties – has fallen to a low of nearly 18 years in 2021, according to the coalition’s tally.
“What we found out in January was that our numbers were very low. They were the lowest since 2003,” York City Police spokesperson Lt. Dan Lentz said.
As to why? “I don’t know,” he said. “I think it’s worth exploring.”
Everywhere, from big cities to small towns, far fewer people want to become police officers. This is forcing departments of all sizes to take a step back and rethink how they fill their ranks.
A constant decline
The consortium had job fairs every two years, but this changed for every year in 2018 as it did not receive enough applicants.
The last job fair in January saw just 185 applications, the lowest since 2003, when 104 people applied, according to the consortium.
The highlight was in 2011, when it received 749 applicants. The second highest was in 2013, when 573 people applied, and in 2015, which saw 362 applicants.
“So basically in that four-year period we’ve lost 50% of the candidates,” said York Region Regional Police Chief Tim Damon, who heads the consortium. “From there, we slowly lost more.”
Eight of York County’s 20 police departments are currently participating in the hiring consortium. York City Police separated from the consortium after the January job fair due to low turnout, Lentz said.
The consortium exists as a means of consolidating resources for both applicants and law enforcement. An applicant may pay a one-time fee to submit an application to all eight departments. Departments can then spot those who pass the entire process.
The boroughs of Hanover and West York participate in the consortium; the townships of Penn, Spring Garden, Springettsbury and West Manchester; and two regional departments – Southern Regional and York Area Regional.
The George Floyd effect
Being a police officer used to be a popular profession. But, increasingly, vacancies are staying open longer than usual as departments seek qualified candidates.
“It started long before George Floyd died,” Damon said. “This trend has been around for years. And I don’t expect it to end anytime soon.”
Today’s police recruiters are hampered by increasingly stringent standards for new hires, competition from the dot-com world, and a tarnished image from the social unrest and racial reckoning of recent years.
It’s normal for younger generations to see tech jobs as a more viable career than chasing bad guys as society changes and technology advances, Damon said.
Pay disparities – a long-standing problem – still exist, making it difficult to attract potential agents and retain newly trained recruits when a neighboring jurisdiction offers more money and perks.
Then, of those who wish to join the force, the vast majority are rejected or give up during the rigorous application process, Damon said.
Applicants must pass physical, written and psychological tests, pass a background check, have a drug-free history and more.
It shouldn’t be a numbers game because “you want to involve the right people,” Lentz said, but that’s what the consortium sees.
“So that’s where we lose a lot of people in this process,” Damon said. “The current rule is that if you want to hire someone, you will need a list of 10 candidates to find one.”
A string of high-profile cases in which black people have died at the hands of police officers in recent years has plagued the profession.
Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by a white policeman last year in Minneapolis. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of murder in June and sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison.
Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests, including in York, against police brutality.
Coverage of similar cases – including those involving Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray – had already created rhetoric and shattered trust between people and the police.
A large brush has been painted over the entire profession rather than the individuals involved, Damon said. The “bad press” discouraged people from becoming officers and also prompted some officers to leave the ship, he said.
Damon has some first-hand experience with this kind of public scrutiny. After speaking to The York Dispatch for this article, he faced a private criminal complaint regarding his department’s handling of the Vicosa sisters’ kidnapping last month. The girls were abducted by their father and later killed.
The state allows individuals to file private criminal complaints which are reviewed by local prosecutors to determine whether further action is warranted. This complaint, apparently filed by the mother of the girls, is being processed by the state attorney general’s office. Damon declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
In the year following Floyd’s death, the retirement rate in some departments rose 45% from the previous year – according to new research of nearly 200 agencies responsible for the law enforcement conducted by the Washington Police Executive Research Forum and provided to The Associated Press. At the same time, hiring has slowed by 5%, the group found.
Local and state law enforcement in the Commonwealth has pledged to enact reforms, such as ending policies that grant officers immunity for their actions while on duty.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro spoke in September after meeting with Lancaster officials to highlight the challenges police departments face with recruitment and retention.
“This is obviously a critical time for law enforcement. This noble profession is being demanded more than ever,” he said, and the pressure continues to grow.
Shapiro, who threw his hat in the ring for the governorship, said he had asked the state legislature to set aside $ 28.5 million to deal with the personnel crisis.
Police departments are also now saying they are looking for recruits who don’t fit the mold and have made a commitment to hire people who represent their communities.
Here in York County, Damon said he believes the return of community policing will help reverse the script.
“It’s the investment in community policing that is going to bring us back to having that relationship and that connection with the community,” he said.
“Law enforcement has had its challenges from the start,” added Damon. “It’s just another challenge that needs to be overcome. You take it on. You adapt, you evolve with time, and there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
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