Commentary

Take no shortcuts in boosting police agencies to full strength  

December 8, 2022 12:01 am
A parking lot outside a UVA dorm was filled with hundreds of state police cruisers on Wednesday afternoon. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Aug. 8, 2018)

Police cars in Charlottesville. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

Consider all the ways police departments around Virginia are working to fill vacancies in their ranks: 

Offering signing bonuses. Boosting salaries. Attending military, community and college career fairs. Making it simpler for service members to transition from their military branch to patrol cars. Hyping careers in law enforcement on social media platforms. Recruiting outside their immediate metropolitan areas.  

And so on, according to department officials who I interviewed this week. 

Yawning gaps persist, however, for many agencies – especially the larger ones.  

A Norfolk Police Department spokesman told me the agency has 205 openings among its 733 authorized sworn officer positions – or 28% of the force. Fairfax County has roughly 190 vacancies for a force of 1,600, nearly 12%. Richmond reported more than 150 police vacancies in October; I couldn’t get an update this week. 

Recruitment of minority officers has been challenging for years, as I’ve previously written.  

Shortfalls among officers of all races existed even before the pandemic began in early 2020 and the videotaped police killing of George Floyd happened that spring. Both of those factors, though, contributed to the current crisis. 

Police officers also face unprecedented scrutiny since the advent of cellphone cameras, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Wrongdoing has come to light because of videotaped footage from citizens

The Washington Post reported Fairfax County police leaders are hoping a public safety cadet program will, eventually, help stem shortfalls there. The program provides leadership and career training for high school students and other young adults ages 14 to 21 who are interested in law enforcement.   

Such policing shortages pose threats for cities and counties. They reduce the ability of officers to patrol neighborhoods and respond quickly to robberies, shootings and other serious crimes. They make it tougher to investigate incidents and do proactive community policing.  

“This is a nationwide problem,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank, told me Wednesday.  

For example, Seattle police lost 180 officers in 2020 and dozens more by mid-2021. The department reported a 30-year low in the number of officers in 2022, partly because of retirements and resignations. 

“The No. 1 issue in policing right now is staffing,” Wexler said, adding that departments compete with each other for a limited number of candidates. 

In the quest to fill vacancies, though, departments shouldn’t skimp on completing background checks and psychological tests of applicants. There can be no shortcuts. Police officers wield tremendous power over citizens, and they should pass the requisite evaluations of fitness and judgment before hitting the streets. 

They also must uphold the law while not exhibiting bias toward people simply because of their race, sexual orientation or the neighborhood they live in.  

Nor should they risk sedition or treason because they believe – falsely – an election went to the wrong guy.  

One of the more alarming developments following the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, was the involvement of police officers and military personnel in the mob. Some of those officers hailed from the commonwealth; at least two were convicted for their actions that day. 

NPR, which tracks criminal cases related to the Capitol attack, says more than 900 people have been charged so far. It reports that at least 14% of those charged appear “to have ties to the military or to law enforcement.”  

An American Civil Liberties Union official noted extremism among people who carry a gun and a badge threatens police agencies and residents. Rachel Grinspan, director of law enforcement policy and civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League, wrote this year: “It is critical to ensure that law enforcement officers are prepared and willing to serve and protect everyone in their communities.” 

“The actions of one individual can erode community trust and tarnish the reputation of an entire department,” Grinspan said in Police Chief magazine. 

The overwhelming majority of police officers want to serve their citizens and lock up the bad guys. They make life-and-death decisions. They want to get home safely at night. They know they’re under a microscope, from politicians and residents alike.  

All of those factors make it difficult for departments to recruit nowadays. No question. 

Rushing the process, though, would make a tough situation even worse. The people on patrol must want to be there, uphold the law and treat residents with respect.  

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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