PORTLAND, Ore. — What happens if there’s not enough people who want to go into law enforcement? That’s a question many departments are currently dealing with and something at least one agency has referred to as a kind of a crisis.
The number of people applying is down for many agencies and the number of people qualified to do the job is even lower. Last year, roughly 85% percent of people who applied to be Portland police officers didn’t pass the background checks.
“It’s hard everywhere to hire police officers these days, it’s a nationwide problem,” said Chris Davis, the Portland Police Bureau’s assistant chief of the services branch.
Davis said there are currently 120 sworn police officer positions that aren’t filled.
“We're authorized 1,001 sworn police officers, so 120 vacancies is about 12% of our sworn staffing, so that's a really big problem,” Davis said.
A really big problem when you consider what that means for officers already on the force.
“I think it's frustrating for them. It definitely takes a toll for anybody who has to work that hard and who is that busy,” Davis said.
Officers end up working more overtime and in many cases, Davis said, they find themselves going from call to call just to meet demand.
“What we're seeing is call response times across the board have gone up,” Davis said.
In an emergency situation, the goal is to get there in five minutes. However, right now, that doesn't always happen.
“What worries us is that sometimes they're coming from farther away because they've been dispatched out of their district to take another call and now they have to come back, or they've been dispatched to a district across the precinct because the district officers there are tied up,” Davis said.
And in non-emergency situations, officers often hear from people frustrated with how long it took to respond.
“We hear from our officers all the time that they have to spend the first five minutes of the call explaining to that caller why it took them so long to get there because the caller is frustrated,” Davis said.
So, why not just hire more people? It's not that easy.
The pool of qualified applicants is shrinking. Out of the 1,075 people who applied to be Portland police officers last year, 817 met minimum requirements. From there, only 303 people were sent to background checks, and that's where the pool of eligible candidates got even smaller.
Roughly 85% of people didn't pass the background check, leaving only 43 that got hired. Out of that group, five didn't make it through the probationary period. So from the original 1,075 people who applied, only 38 people are still employed with the bureau.
On top of all that, fewer people are applying to be police officers.
“You know we do hear feedback that the job is less attractive to people these days,” Davis said.
At the beginning of April, Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, released a statement saying, "The reason the Police Bureau is experiencing catastrophic staffing shortages, drastically declining recruiting success, and the inability to retain officers is due to one core issue: the intense anti-police sentiment in our city that City Council seems to share."
Portland has had its share of anti-police demonstrations.
“Portland is a unique environment in which to do this work, and you know we struggle a lot with the narrative that we hear about our organization,” Davis said.
Davis said he has heard anti-police sentiment his entire career and sometimes those voices are the loudest. But, not everyone feels that way.
“I would push back on the idea that the Portland community doesn't trust its police bureau or that it doesn't value the work that we do if for no other reason than I hear from people in this community every day how much they value the service of our men and women,” Davis said.
The good economy and low unemployment rate is also working against police departments. Mayor Ted Wheeler addressed that issue while talking about his new budget proposal.
“If you're a young person looking at a career path, you can say, 'Well, I can go over here and develop apps and get paid really well and go home at 5:01 p.m. and have my weekends and nobody breathing down my back,, or I can go over here and be in policing and deal with a lot of public scrutiny,” Wheeler explained.
So, what's the solution? How do you get more people to go into law enforcement?
“We need to get back to the nobility of the profession of policing because it really is rewarding work and I feel like I know what I'm talking about because I've been doing it for a while and I wouldn't trade it for the world,” Davis said.
Officers retiring before there are new people to replace them is also a big issue. Another large group is set to retire in August 2020 and even if they were to find enough people to hire right now, it takes 18 months to train a new officer, so they wouldn't be ready in time.
Other departments are facing the same issues. Vancouver Police, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office said they are also seeing fewer qualified applicants. Vancouver and Washington County have open positions right now, though much fewer than Portland. Clackamas County, however, said all their positions are filled.