This summer, Josh Smith, the Goodhue Police Chief, had a hard time filling open positions in his small department. He told the town’s City Council that if pay and perks didn’t get better, it would be impossible to find new officers.
Smith gave up after seeing no improvement. His few simply surviving officers followed suit, and in late August the 1,300-person town in Minnesota decided to dissolve its police department.
America now faces a scarcity of police officers, which many in the field of law enforcement attribute to the coronavirus epidemic and the backlash against the force that culminated in George Floyd’s death at the hands of a law enforcement officer in 2020. Small communities facing a labor shortage are shuttering their police departments and handing over their police duties to the state police, county sheriffs, or police agencies in nearby municipalities, ranging from Minnesota to Maine, Ohio to Texas.
The trend has been going on for a while.
Richard T. Boylan, an instructor of economics at Rice University, found in a peer-reviewed 2022 study that at least 521 American towns and communities with 1,000–200,000 residents discontinued police between 1972 and 2017.
At least 12 small municipalities have disbanded their departments in the last two years.
The town of Goodhue has hired Goodhue County to handle law enforcement, even though Sheriff Marty Kelly is trying to fill four open positions in the department he oversees. He said that there are about 10 people who want those jobs. He said that in 2019, 35 people applied for just one open job.
Kelly knows that in order to get to full hiring, he will have to hire new detectives from other communities or counties. This will leave empty positions in other locations that will be hard to fill.
“It is scary,” said Kelly. “We’re taking from Peter to give to Paul. We’re not the only ones.”
The main trouble is that people are leaving the police force. Last year, there were 47% more officer resignations than in 2019, which was the year prior to the pandemic as well as Floyd’s death. There were also 19% more retirements. All of this comes from a poll of almost 200 police departments done by the Police Executive Research Forum, a research organization based in DC. Even though the poll only includes agencies that are part of PERF, which is only a small part of the over 18,000 law enforcement agencies located in the United States, and does not include every department, it represents one of the few attempts to look at police recruiting and retaining officers and compare it to before Floyd’s death.
Chuck Wexler, executive head of the Police Executive Research Forum, said that young people are less and less ready to go through the months of training needed to become a police officer. This makes the loss of experienced officers even worse.
Wexler said, “Fewer individuals want to be police officers, and a huge number of police officers have decided to retire or leave their jobs. All over the country, there aren’t enough police officers.”
Agencies of all kinds are having trouble finding people to fill open jobs. But the issue is especially bad in smaller towns that can’t give the same pay and perks as larger ones.