The Dayton Police Department saw a steep drop in applications during its latest round of recruiting, which some law enforcement groups say is part of a “national crisis” of diminishing interest in police work.
Two-thirds of police agencies in the last five years have seen fewer applications from people seeking employment in law enforcement, according to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, a police think tank in Washington, D.C.
Police work has lost some of its appeal because law enforcement agencies have been put under intense and unprecedented scrutiny as a result of some high-profile incidents, like officer-involved shootings captured on video, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said this is a difficult time to be a police officer because of the close scrutiny of police actions, increased employment opportunities in other fields and the stressful demands of the job tied to the opioid epidemic and safety threats like active-shooters and domestic terrorism.
“Clearly the complexity of the law enforcement environment today is a challenge in terms of attracting individuals to the profession, along with the fact that we have a really good economy, as far as employment,” Biehl said.
The Dayton department accepted applications from potential police recruits between Oct. 1 to Nov. 26. Although 669 applications were submitted by the deadline, that’s a 42 percent drop from the previous round of recruiting in late 2016, when the department received 1,160 applications, and a 65 percent decrease from 2013, when the department had 1,924 applications.
Biehl said the number of applications is less important than finding people who want to commit to being a police officer. In 2010, at the heart of the Great Recession, the department set a record for applications with 3,553, but many of those applied just because they needed a job, Biehl said.
Two-thirds of those who qualified through the screening process didn’t even show up for the written exam, the police chief said.
Despite the drop in applicants, Biehl expressed confidence the city will find enough qualified and committed people to fill the 2019 recruit class and possibly another one in 2020.
Next year’s class will have around 22 police recruits, he said.
Biehl called law enforcement a “fabulous” and rewarding career, but acknowledged it’s not the right fit for everyone.
Police, he said, have been on the front line of the opioid crisis and often encounter heartbreaking situations, such as child neglect or domestic abuse.
Police officers too fight a negative perception of law enforcement, Biehl said, one fueled by shootings that have been at the forefront of the nation’s debate over racial justice.
Last year, a Pew Research Center nationwide survey of police officers found that the vast majority of respondents believe high-profile incidents between black Americans and police have made their jobs harder.
Many police chiefs believe that the media — and the often unsympathetic responses on social media to police-related shootings and other incidents — paint policing issues with a broad brush, said Brandon Standley, the Chief of Police in Bellefontaine and past president of the Ohio Association of Police Chiefs.
“Instead of celebrating the millions of calls for service that are handled professionally and safely for all involved, it’s easy to point towards incidents where the police action does not sometimes reflect the best in our profession,” Standley said.
Still, Standley emphasized, there are many perks to the job, including officers knowing they saved a life, arresting a person who could cause great harm to others — a pedophile, for example — or taking a violent offender off the streets.
The Dayton police recruit screening and selection process involves submitting an application, undergoing a preliminary fitness test and then taking a written examination.
Applicants also must complete a background investigation including a polygraph test, a physical fitness assessment and a psychological test and a medical exam that includes a drug test, the police department said.
The drop in applications is cause for concern, Wexler said, because so many applicants get weeded out in the hiring process.
More may have to follow the lead of departments that have modified eligibility requirements, according to Wexler. Some no longer immediately disqualify people with tattoos or any past drug use, for example.
“I think it’s a crisis because hiring a police officer is very different than hiring any other type of employee,” Wexler said of the diminishing number of applicants. “This isn’t any position — this is a position with tremendous responsibility.”