Cops are quitting. Cops are retiring. Cops are turning down assignments they perceive to put them at risk of public damnation. While “defund” or “abolish” the police has done little to change sane minds, the public perception of cops has shifted and it has taken its toll.
In the past year, city police departments across the country have reported a dramatic drop in manpower, as cops retire, resign, or leave for the suburbs. The NYPD’s headcount fell to its lowest level in ten years. In Chicago, police retirements rose 15 percent. The San Francisco Police Department is short 400 officers; over 115 officers, including an entire unit dedicated to crowd control, have left the Portland PD; and nearly 200 have left the Minneapolis PD or are on leave, rendering the department unable to engage in proactive policing. A recent survey of police departments found that hiring fell an average of 5 percent in 2020, while resignations rose 18 percent and retirements a whopping 45 percent.
Why? What does it mean for cops? What does it mean for the public? These are important questions, and like all important questions, they are ill-served by answering them with cynicism and reductive snark. Granted, one would expect as much out of the unduly passionate, as they tend not to care much for facts or logic when they have a cause to spew. But there are serious people out there who have spent a decent amount of time learning how this extremely complex system functions, and surely they will contribute to a rational understanding of what is happening and what it means.
Radley provides no link to anything that makes this argument, although it appears to relate back to the City Journal article. But for someone whose work, particularly Rise of The Warrior Cop, is so valuable to police reform, and who was once one of the most credible critics of police misconduct and abuse because he was invariably fair, thoughtful and incisive in his criticism, this was a shocking twist.
I cover policing and speak to a lot of police up and down the east coast.
Not a single officer I've spoken with thought Chauvin was treated unfairly or disagreed with the charges he was hit with.
This is a silly tweet: https://t.co/mYzBaiH6Pq
— Tom Winter (@Tom_Winter) July 19, 2021
Quote notwithstanding, the City Journal article didn’t quite say anything of the sort.
What’s behind this wave? Officers I spoke with who had left their old departments all offered the same explanation: since last year’s explosive protests, they no longer feel that they have the support of the public or of civilian officials. As one now-retired NYPD officer put it: “One day, the good guys became the bad guys and the bad guys became the good guys.”
It goes on to explain the police perception that, after the protests following the murder of George Floyd and the politicians parroting the mob and condemning police without any concern for whether the condemnation, under the facts and circumstances of any particular situation, justified it, made it untenable to do the job.
The former Minneapolis officer described the moment he decided to leave the force: when a large, mentally ill man having a psychotic episode dropped dead moments before he arrived at the scene, thereby saving the officer from having to tase the man—and therefore get blamed for his death. “If I had made a decision to use a taser, and then he fell over dead, the death certificate would say homicide, complications of police use of a conducted energy device. My name would immediately be in the national news,” he said. “And the fundamental conclusion that I reached was that following Derek Chauvin, it no longer matters if what you were doing was legal, trained, the morally right thing to do, reasonable under the circumstances, the best effort of a reasonable human being in a marginal circumstance, which is basically what cops do. None of that matters. What matters is the outcome, and if you become the next spark in a viral firestorm.”
Others agreed that the risky choices inherent in police work were no longer worth making, for fear of the costs of getting them wrong. In particular, they blamed municipal leadership for routinely taking the protesters’ side. “There’s not a single leader that steps up for the regular cop, the regular street cop,” a now-resigned Chicago officer said. “They have the power, they have the ability to get up there and say why this was justified, and then they can sit there and explain it if they want, but they don’t know how to, or they don’t want to, or they don’t care.”
This perception is certainly subject to criticism as well, as distinguishing between the justified use of force and the needless or excessive use of force has long been a battle of perceptions. It’s one of the reasons cops reject the idea that non-cops should judge their choices, as we just don’t understand what they face. That lends to their self-serving belief that they should be entitled to use force whenever they want, and if they screw up, well, tough luck for the dead guy. Stercus accidit. This facile rationalization was never good enough before, and is no better now as people see and judge for themselves.
At the same time, public perception of police has similarly gone off the rails. What was Columbus police officer Nicholas Reardon supposed to do as Ma’Khia Bryant was about to plunge a knife into another teen? He shot her, because that was the only viable option available to save a life. Yet, condemnation of him went viral and it was, to be blunt, batshit crazy.
As much as police concerns over being subject to viral criticism have driven cops to quit and retire, distinguishing between the fair and unfair criticism is what’s needed to address the moment, not disingenuous snark about how cops would rather let people die than not be allowed to kill at will.
As the cops who have walked out tell it, the manpower crisis is partially the byproduct of a sustained assault on policing by politicians and journalists looking to score points. If cops believe that one wrong step could ruin their lives forever, they will stop being cops. That’s what many are deciding to do, and the results have already proved deadly.
Whether there is a correlation between “results,” the increase in homicides presumably, and the reduction in police personnel isn’t at all clear. Correlation does not imply causation. But it’s similarly false to contend that all cops are bastards and would rather let people die than hold their colleagues accountable. They would rather be perceived as the good guys than the enemy of the people, and have with some justifiable reason come to the belief that right or wrong, they’re wrong.
Reductive snark to the applause of unduly passionate isn’t going to put cops on the beat or cause them to be better at serving the people for whom the job exists. And it’s up to the people who know this best to calm the insanity rather than feed into the worst of it if we’re to make anything better.