STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There's a quiet crisis in American policing - a shortage of officers. Departments across this country are struggling to find enough qualified applicants for the jobs available. And the total number of sworn officers is dropping even as the American population grows. NPR's criminal justice team has been looking at this phenomenon, and Martin Kaste joins us now. Hey there, Martin.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How much is this drop?
KASTE: Well, we have some new numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. They look at this every few years, and about 700,000 full-time sworn officers are working right now in this country. And that's a drop of 23,000 officers since 2013. So that's the first big dip since the '90s. And as you say, the population's growing. So what we get is a change in the number of officers per capita. It used to be about 2.42 officers for every thousand residents. That was 20 years ago. Now it's closer to two, 2.1.
INSKEEP: I guess that makes police departments like everybody else at a time when there's almost full employment.
KASTE: The hot job market is a big factor here, but there are other things going on. I think a lot of younger people are more skeptical about going into police work. Certainly the chiefs are telling me that. Since Ferguson, a lot of people wonder, well, if I'm going to become a cop, is something I do wrong going to end up on video and becoming a big scandal? So a lot of people aren't even considering going into law enforcement when they would've 10 years ago.
INSKEEP: So you have openings. You don't have cops to fill them. How is police work different when there are just fewer cops?
KASTE: Well, it means a lot more overtime for the cops who are still on the job. It means triage. In some places, they're simply not doing some routine things they used to do. One sheriff's department I visited aren't doing their annual visits to the addresses of registered sex offenders anymore. They just don't have the time. And what really is suffering in some places is this idea of proactive policing - of looking for problems before they become a call to the police. We have at NPR a criminal justice collaborative with some of our station reporters. And Lori Mack of Connecticut Public Radio is part of that, and she did a really interesting ride along with an officer in New Haven, Conn. Give a quick listen to this, and we'll talk afterwards.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Eight-two-eight-one.
CHRISTIAN BRUCKHART: Eight-two.
LORI MACK, BYLINE: It's Monday morning - usually, one of the slower shifts for a cop. And yet, officer Christian Bruckhart is already on his third call today. Normally, there would be six officers patrolling the densely populated area, but today there's only three. And one of those officers is working overtime.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Take him to jail now. Take him to jail.
MACK: A mother's upset after her 18-year-old son purposely damaged her car. Officer Bruckhart is trying to find a solution short of arresting him.
BRUCKHART: We're between a rock and a hard place here, right? So I'm trying to mediate the issue. I have two options. I can either take him to jail because he damaged your property. Or I can leave, but then come back when you guys are going to call because we both know you're going to call me back, right?
MACK: Back in his car, officer Bruckhart says this kind of community policing in which he tries to find solutions for people rather than just locking them up takes time. But in a department that's short more than 100 officers, time is something he doesn't have.
BRUCKHART: It's 11 o'clock, and I've - I'm backed up. I got to write my report for the punched car. Now I've got to write a report for this lady who's getting harassed via Facebook. Now I got to write a report for this other individual who had her stuff stolen. And days are generally less busy than evenings.
MACK: Bruckhart struggles. He wants to be more proactive, which would mean doing more stops based on suspicion, looking for problems before they're called in. But the staff shortage means that's just not realistic.
BRUCKHART: So, for instance, if - you know, if I want to stop a car, someone's going to have to come back me up. And then if something were to happen in Fair Haven, which is the busiest district in New Haven, now someone else from another district has to come in and cover that.
MACK: Police departments around the country are having trouble retaining the officers they've budgeted for. But in cash-strapped cities like New Haven, it's not just a shortage of officers. They're also dealing with aging equipment, radio gear, police cruisers. Bruckhart says he's even seen squad cars with holes in the floorboards, patched with old license plates. New Haven slashed benefits, including pensions. And its salaries are lagging behind the pay in the nearby richer suburbs. Bruckhart a lot of his fellow New Haven cops are looking for better options.
BRUCKHART: It doesn't make sense to stay here.
MACK: He says they've lost more than 20 officers in the last couple of years. And by the end of this year, 50 people in the New Haven Police Department will be eligible to retire.
BRUCKHART: Within five years, this department's going to look entirely different.
MACK: Does that scare you?
BRUCKHART: I think it should scare the community (laughter) more than anybody 'cause, I mean, you go to some of these evening shifts and it's like - you know, when you have brand new officers out there who are, like, asking each other what to do on some of these calls, you're like - there's no veteran leadership.
MACK: Bruckhart's been a cop for 10 years - five in New Haven. He says he stays mostly because he enjoys the work, but he's not sure for how much longer.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Eight-zero-eight-one, we have a 2612.
BRUCKHART: Oh, God.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The caller is a mother at 266 Peck Street - says her daughter jumped into a vehicle.
BRUCKHART: Oh, no. So she got into a car and says she's going to kill herself.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: They said she was last seen on Peck towards Ferry.
BRUCKHART: Peck towards Ferry.
MACK: Is that your district?
BRUCKHART: Yeah. Of course it is.
MACK: Bruckhart joins the search. The woman is eventually found safe. He's lost count how many calls this is for him now - six, he thinks, maybe seven.
INSKEEP: That was Connecticut Public Radio reporter Lori Mack in New Haven, Conn. Martin Kaste is still with us. And Martin, it is troubling to think about a life-or-death situation and somebody doesn't quite have time to deal with it. But at the same time, there are surely a lot of people listening whose businesses have learned to do more with less. Can police just do more with less?
KASTE: Well, they certainly are trying, especially if they have the money. A lot of departments have the budget lines that aren't even being used for people they can't find to hire. So they're using some of that money for technology. There's a lot of interest in this predictive policing stuff, you know, where you use forms of AI to predict where you need the officers the most to try to assign them in a more sort of rational manner. One department was toying with sort of using facial recognition technology in the field to speed up identifying people who don't have drivers licenses on them. But if you're a police chief or a sheriff and you simply don't have enough people to do the job the way you used to do it, you look for ways to do it faster. And that's what they're looking for. And there is this bigger question about whether we need as many police as we've had in the last couple of decades. Some people, especially since Ferguson, have said that no; maybe we need less patrol. That then raises the big question of which neighborhoods will get the policing. You know, will neighborhoods with a lot of crime get neglected or not? Basically, we're going to go through a laboratory experiment as a country in the next few years here seeing if we can maintain lower crime levels with fewer police.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Martin Kaste. And we'll have more this afternoon on All Things Considered, asking what departments are doing to attract new human officers. Martin, thanks.
KASTE: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAASKAT'S "BITTERSWEET")
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