The movement to defund the police is succeeding in ways that its advocates could not have envisioned initially. Defunding has always really been about abolition, despite the unpopularity of that concept. And while defunding has not always resulted in laying off or firing police officers, the toxic environment it has created has made it hard to hire and keep good men and women in uniform.
Seattle Police Department lost 20% of its officers over the last year and a half, a staggering number. Combine these losses, seen around the country to a somewhat lesser degree, with a shortage of good applicants to replace the officers, along with rising crime rates, and we have a recipe for disaster.
Do we really need to ask why this is happening, why good men and women are retiring early, finding other jobs, or just outright quitting the profession? The reasons seem obvious, and indeed they are obvious to anyone who has ever worn a badge. But maybe they need to be clearly stated.
Policing is dangerous and is becoming increasingly more so. There are jobs where employees are more frequently killed, but none where the cause of death is murder. No other job, outside the military, exposes the employee to unlawful interpersonal human aggression as part of the working conditions. Yet this danger is not a reason why police officers would leave or why recruits would not apply. That part of policing is understood by everyone called to the profession; it is baked into their considerations and does not deter most of them from taking their oath. If it isn’t the danger that deters good people from this profession, then what could it be?
Imagine you apply for a job and are invited to an interview where you meet the head of the company and the greeting goes something like this: “We are happy you applied for this position that we really wish didn’t exist, and we will replace you with someone unqualified to do your job from another part of the company if we are able to, but welcome—for now. Keep in mind, we have lots of rules that we have made but following some of them will get you fired. If you make a mistake, or if you do the right thing but it is politically unpopular, we will publicly shame you, fire you, and charge you criminally before we even complete an investigation into the matter. Still want the job, racist?”
How many of us would stick around for that interview? The toxic environment swirling around the “defund the police” movement is the real reason that recruiting and retention is suffering. The political officials the police work for in many cities are often antagonistic, sometimes outright hostile, to their police departments. The media is giddy about fostering the perfect climate for more riots, willingly providing false narratives about police shootings to further their political agenda. Police officers are willing to risk their physical safety, even their own lives, in the protection of their communities. But they are much less willing to risk their families’ security or their own imprisonment to do so.
When Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot claimed it was “a badge of honor” to receive a vote of no confidence from her police department, what kind of message did that send? The condescension in her figurative “badge” is appalling. The real badges are earned through sweat and tears and pinned to the chests of officers after they swear an oath. They are found on the chests of officers on her personal protective detail, and the ones sent to guard her home during the worst of the rioting, and the ones who risk their lives to safeguard her city every day. Her “badge” is no more real than the emperor’s new clothes, and equally revealing.
It is politicians who make laws for the police to enforce, but it is the police who take the blame when enforcing their unpopular or inexplicable laws go horribly wrong. The police are pawns in a political game, and are sometimes sacrificed for political expediency after being tried in the court of public opinion.
This is what needs to change in order to keep the police we have and attract the best and brightest among us into the profession. We must recognize the historic nobility of the badge, its place in our civil society, and tamp down the unreasonable anti-police rhetoric at every level. Only this will change the environment we find ourselves in and allow police officers to do their part in reducing the crime rates that are skyrocketing across the country. There is other work to be done, but we need to start here.