Violent Crime Is Up as Cities Lose Police Officers. What Now?

For the second time in three years, the United States enters the summer amid a storm of anger at the police. The reports and videos suggesting a delayed and chaotic police response to the Uvalde shooting and the conflicting statements made by law enforcement leadership have rightfully bewildered and enraged millions of people across the country.

Perhaps no stretch of time in recent memory will be scrutinized more carefully than the hour the police stood outside of a locked classroom door. Investigations will likely come, reports will be released, but unless they provide a very good reason for why the supposed good guys with guns waited for so long to confront the shooter — or at the very least, a better one than “they could’ve been shot” — Uvalde will serve not only as an act of terror and senseless, unimaginable violence but also as yet another moment that further ruptured the public’s relationship with the police.

What happened in Uvalde is especially bad for the reputation of the police because it dispels the machismo and heroism that are so often trotted out when law enforcement does something wrong, including killing someone who is unarmed. The public is routinely asked to excuse officers on the basis that they are making split-second decisions in dangerous situations. We are asked to accept that a police officer has to drive up to a 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a park in Cleveland and shoot him immediately because the officer is trying to negate a threat to the public and himself. What Uvalde has shown is that sometimes heavily armed police will stand around for an hour as a heavily armed murderer slaughters children on the other side of a door.

What will all this anger at the police mean for the future of the profession? Last week, I wrote about Rick Caruso, who is running for mayor of Los Angeles on a platform that promises to expand significantly a police department that has struggled to fill even its current allotment of officers. Enrollment in the city’s police academies is also down. Caruso, who says he wants to “clean up” Los Angeles, is banking on the logic that more police officers will lead to a reduction in violent crime.

This aligns with a broader narrative that started in the spring of last year, when police retirements in a sample of departments around the country were shown to have spiked by 45 percent after the nationwide George Floyd protests. Resignations were up 18 percent in the same sample. This information, compiled by an organization called the Police Executive Research Forum, was widely covered by the media, which told a story of demoralized police officers quitting in droves, in part, because of a decrease in morale following Black Lives Matter protests.

The truth is a bit more complicated. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there were 665,380 police and sheriff’s patrol officers in the United States as of May 2021, compared to 665,280 in 2019, before the Floyd protests and the coronavirus pandemic began. Last fall, an article by the Marshall Project found similar numbers: Nationwide, police have only lost about one percent of their total officers, while all other industries in this country combined have lost about 6 percent. The narrative about a great national police resignation, it turns out, might have been a bit exaggerated.

But in America’s biggest cities, like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago, the decline in police officers is real. Retirements in the N.Y.P.D. rose during the pandemic, growing from around 1,500 in 2019 to 2,600 in 2020. Overall, the department had roughly 2,500 fewer officers in 2020 than it had in 2019. The Chicago Police Department, which, like that of Los Angeles, has fallen well short of filling its budgeted allotment of officers, recently waived some of its requirements for new applicants. Other departments facing policing shortages and falling applications have turned to a variety of incentives, including an Oakland City Council member’s proposed offer of a $50,000 signing bonus for any qualified officer who joins the city’s police department.

It’s hard to understand these apparently conflicting trends — retirements spiking in various cities while national numbers of police officers hold steady. I wanted to look at one specific department to see if that might offer some explanation of why major cities were having trouble hiring and retaining enough police officers.

In 2016, two police officers inBaton Rouge, La., responded to a complaint outside of a convenience store, which resulted in the shooting and death of a Black man named Alton Sterling. This homicide, which came just one day before an officer in St. Paul, Minn., shot and killed a Black motorist named Philando Castile, led to large protests throughout East Baton Rouge Parish, which includes the City of Baton Rouge. Two weeks later, a man named Gavin Eugene Long shot six police officers in Baton Rouge, killing three. That year, a record 32 officers resigned from the Baton Rouge Police Department. The staffing numbers of the B.R.P.D. have gone down every year since, with a pronounced fall from 625 officers in 2019 to 577 in 2021.

Baton Rouge has not been spared from a national rise in violent crime. Its decline in police officers was preceded by several high-profile killings, but the parish’s homicides have spiked over the same period that the city lost police officers, with 170 homicides in 2021, compared to 97 in 2019. It is tempting to draw a connection between the emptying out of police departments in major cities such as Baton Rouge and an increase in violent crime. Did one lead to the other?

In 2018, Baton Rouge welcomed a new police chief, Murphy Paul. He came in as a reformer who wanted to “build bridges” in a community that had just been through the trauma of the Sterling shooting and the deaths of three officers.

Paul has tried to tackle his current officer shortage problem with a mix of social media marketing, recruiting blitzes and a focus on diversity of all kinds — economic, political, racial and educational. He has used a variety of recruitment pathways, including pursuing a college football approach: early contact with kids in high school and sustained follow-up.

Paul spoke to me in “glass half full” declarations, but he admitted that his efforts to recruit new officers hadn’t fully replenished those who had resigned or retired. He said that while the police shooting of Sterling, the subsequent protests and the deaths of three officers certainly hurt morale, he believes that the decline in his force has more to do with the pandemic and larger factors in the economy.

“There’s this narrative you hear people say, nobody wants to be a police officer anymore,” Paul told me. “Well, I disagree with that. I think that we are experiencing the great resignation in this country. It’s not unique to law enforcement. You hear about it in nursing, you hear about it in trucking, you hear about it in so many industries.”

Nor does he believe that a shortage of officers is what is leading to the spike in homicides in his city. He blames the lockdowns and the interruption of the use of some public spaces and services, whether it’s after-school programs, playgrounds, support for domestic abuse victims or drug courts that mandated testing. He also cites the “collective trauma” of the past two years. This, he argues, did harm the morale of police officers and their ability to do their jobs, and as a result, many did leave the profession.

I agree with much of Paul’s analysis — in American cities, a downturn in police staffing and an increase in violent crime during a pandemic could both be effects of such a world-changing event.

But while I don’t think it’s particularly fair or accurate to blame rising violent crime on what, in some cases, has become a de facto defunding of the police, it’s also hard to imagine that the appeal of becoming a police officer hasn’t been diminished by years of high profile shootings and protests and the further reputational hit made by the inaction of the Uvalde police.

Paul knows the people of Baton Rouge will not just compartmentalize Uvalde as a local Texas failure, just as the murder of George Floyd wasn’t seen as being only about Derek Chauvin or the Minneapolis Police Department. “It doesn’t matter that it happened in Minnesota,” Paul said of Floyd’s murder. “He made his way to my front door and every chief of police’s front door in America.”

This conflation, I believe, is justified because Floyd and Sterling did stand in for every Black person in America who has been harassed, unfairly incarcerated or harmed by a police officer. A national problem deserved a national outcry. Uvalde presents an even more pressing question: If the good guys with guns can’t stop the bad guys with guns, why should we give the former such a wide berth and the benefit of every doubt?

In early May, the president of the International Union of Police Associations wrote an open letter in which he said that crime was “completely out of control” in Baton Rouge and pointed out the fact that the city’s police department was understaffed by 115 officers. He also wrote that if Paul was “unwilling or unable” to address this deficit, then he should step down.

It’s hard to know what Paul could have done differently to stop the decline in the number of officers in his department. As he pointed out, the pandemic wrought such chaos in every sector that it’s become almost impossible to level blame on anything, really. But if it’s true that police in cities with rising violent crime rates are leaving their posts, those cities may reach a dangerous impasse. America’s only real answer to crime is more policing. The George Floyd protests and the calls to defund the police did not meaningfully expand the range of possibilities. In cities like Baton Rouge, more crime will still be met with more policing unless there aren’t enough police to meet the call.

What happens then?

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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