Gone Cop

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.

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.

24 thoughts on “Gone Cop

  1. John Barleycorn


    So…. how does that go again regarding the po-po?

    Oh yeah, Reset and Reform with Rigor.

    Is that really gonna be a thing then????

    Make it so esteemed one, make it so!!!!

  2. B. McLeod

    The heat is unpleasant, so they’re leaving the kitchen. It’s a job, not a holy cause, and there’s easier, safer money to be had.

    As for what will happen, maybe the jurisdictions that were going to fill gaps with social workers and mental health professionals will figure out how to do that. Alternatively, maybe most of these communities will lower their standards for recruits and hire a lot of marginally fit officers. That has happened before, and corrupt, out-of-control units like the River Rats or LAPD’s Rampart division resulted. This isn’t likely to end well, but we can’t expect the super-smart defunding acolytes to accept any responsibility. Whatever happens, it will be someone else’s fault.

    1. SHG Post author

      For a very long time, cops have played the “leave us alone or go call a criminal” card to be above control and criticism. That can’t be. But it’s just as untenable to demand cops do the job but get hung out to dry right or wrong. Neither serves society well.

  3. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    About three years ago, I (over)wrote a review of Radley’s Cadaver King for this here blawg. I liked that book – it was smart, persuasive, thoroughly researched. Lots of good stuff. At what point between then and now was that Radley replaced with this one, the one who uses twitter?

    1. SHG Post author

      I am compelled to believe that the Agitator is still in there, but I’m hard-pressed to explain it.

    2. Robert Parry

      Scratch the surface of Rise of The Warrior Cop you’ll find problems. A 400-page critique about a specific, frequent, wide-spread human activity that has zero first-hand observations of that activity? By his own admission, he’s never been on so much as a ride-along with cops.

      Plus, in other forums he has smeared cops who’ve been heroic and gotten basic facts absolutely wrong (he said the officers who responded to the Virgina Tech massacre “deemed it to dangerous to go inside” which is a helluva a description of people who shot off the locks and chains the killer put on the door and then went in after him). His recitation of what happened at Columbine is similarly skewed and ignores that Columbine was a sentinel event in policing which resulted in nationwide changes to policy, tactics and protocols.

      Balko gets accolades for saying bad things about cops and basing it on library research. Some of what he says is worthy of consideration. But don’t think for a minute that he’s even remotely considered the secondary effects of his ideas on the people that have to live with them.

  4. Mike V.

    Aside from the decreased staffing from budget cuts and resignations, cops are increasingly less proactive. They see someone with a bulge in their coat; and they are more likely to not conduct a stop and frisk because if the suspect runs or worse, pulls a gun; and they’re forced to shoot, they become headline news for the next month and risk a ruined career. So they ignore it, the perp goes and shoots his drug dealing rival on the corner; and another statistic gets entered in the crime statistics. Cops should have the expectation that their local government will back them with the same zeal if they’re right, that they use to go after them if they’re wrong. In many cities, that is no longer the case.

    And “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. ” Remind me again how many civilians sit on the Bar Association Disciplinary Board? Sauce for the goose.

  5. Curtis

    For decades, police unions defended indefensible actions and opposed sensible reform. Now appropriate police actions are being vilified and idiotic reform is being proposed. It’s not a surprising outcome.

  6. Bob G

    The thing that gets me about the cop shortage is that (at least here) it’s very uneven. The metro PD is grossly understaffed and widely regarded as incompetent. The state and suburban PDs are not. And so any time anything major happens, the suburb cops get called downtown. They chase bad guys who come to visit back into the metro. The state is sending in highway patrol and using other state officers for urban crime fighting, which they never used to do. The feds are prosecuting many of the serious felonies, serving warrants, etc. For now, they’re all happy to help and the crime surge has largely been contained to the bad parts of town. But is that cooperation going to continue if the metro prosecutor starts going after other jurisdictions’ officers? They are, after all, on his turf. Not that long ago we had a (metro) alderman urge his constituents to throw bricks at the suburban cops. Really. What happens if he or someone who thinks like him gets elected DA? Things could fall apart overnight.

    So far our local prosecutor only seems to have a taste for going after city cops. I don’t know the details, but the most recent case was apparently so weak the judge directed a verdict for the officers. No wonder no one wants to work there. Local prosecutors matter. It’s a shame that no one but George Soros seems to have figured this out.

  7. mrshl

    I think we’ll look back at Floyd’s death on TV, and the awful, widely televised behavior of police during the protests afterwards, as a mudslide in what had been a gradual erosion of the the police’s moral authority. I think that’s bad, and I think it will have long lasting effects both for the police and for society.

    No, the police aren’t a monolith, but neither is it true there are only a “few bad apples.” After Floyd’s death, it wasn’t just protestors who were protesting. It was the police. For the first time they were facing a public that was questioning whether there was a systemic problem in policing and it made police and their unions mad as hell. They were not subtle in their response. T. Gregg Doucette has compiled a ton of video evidence of police behavior during the protests. [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

    For the first time, the police in those post-Floyd videos weren’t reticent about being filmed. It almost seemed like they hoped they were being filmed. Yes, the nation’s reaction to Floyd’s killing might have been powerful and confusing for officers, but I think the nation was also responding to the aftermath where they saw cops beating protestors, firing rubber bullets at journalists, and generally being pissed off at having their authority questioned. Perhaps upset at becoming the bad guys, it’s also true that, for a moment, they showed us what it would mean for us if they really were.

    And now, I think, for both civilians and police we’ve started living with this new, more ambiguous reality where the line between good guys and bad guys is not so obvious. When the police defend their actions in the Breonna Taylor and Floyd cases, they say they are thin blue line and the people buying and dealing drugs are hardened violent criminals. And the police have to make split second decisions to defend us from a war zone.

    Meanwhile activists perceive an implicit ultimatum from police and their unions: either we get an ultra-violent paramilitary force that’s utterly unaccountable to civilian oversight or we get no police at all.

    If the police aren’t as bad as their detractors suggest, we’re also wondering “are the criminals as bad as the cops suggest they are?” Everyone wants to point at rising violent crime and say the answer is yes. But, as you suggest, the answer is probably more complex than that. Across the country we’re decriminalizing marijuana and questioning whether the war on drugs is one worth fighting. Whether it’s worth it to ruin peoples lives for the stuff we find in their pockets? For cops who have spent their entire career deeply invested in the war on drugs, this shift has to be part of what feels so destabilizing.

    There are few jobs that pay better or offer better benefits relative to the required education. One reason you’re seeing retirements increase is that police across the board have better retirement benefits than most folks. For the same reason, I think you’ll have plenty of folks signing up to replace them. But the job is changing, and the expectations are changing. I hope that’s a good thing for us and for police. I guess we’ll see.

          1. Miles

            I thought you were a bit harsh. Even though the comment was too long, too shallow and off-topic, it was a well-written sophomore essay. You need to stop crushing the dreams of young people with your slavish devotion to reason over ideology.

    1. Drew Conlin

      Hardly the 1st time police citizens questioned “systemic” racism in police dept. The 1967 Algiers motel incident in Detroit for example.

      1. SHG Post author

        There is a curious phenomenon where narcissists believe if it’s new to them, it’s new. It never occurs to them that there was an actual real world before they showed up, and there’s an actual real world beyond the limits of what they see.

        1. mrshl

          Hey, there’s the snark we were missing! If it’s all happened before, maybe let’s not worry too much about the cops. The new cops will show up for their well-paying jobs and early retirements. One of the only public sector unions both parties still support.

  8. Keith

    In our town, we had so many cops retire at once recently, we took an interest free loan from the state to pay out their OT/Sick time.

    Why? Because between 1990-2000, cops were increasing numbers everywhere and they eventually retire when the odometer rolls past a certain point.

    In cities with more than 1M people, there were 422 cops / 100k people in 1990 and 470 per 100k in 2000.

    Guess who retires after 20 years in.

    Is it (not) as likely to want to become a cop today as it was 20 years ago? Sure, perhaps – check your crystal ball.

    Can the unduly passionate use current events to spin the reason for retirements to serve the cause? No doubt. .

    But for anyone that knows a cop, the reason for retirements is, was and generally always will be the same: I put in my time.

    Sometimes it’s just math. There’s no need to make everything about your cause.

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