Hiring the Best Police is Hard, Very Hard

How hard is it to hire and keep good police officers? Who is good? How much money is available? What choices do we have?

Exactly Who Are the Best of the Best?

Choosing who is good has vexed police chiefs forever, but, even when we agree on criteria, how to apply the criteria still needs more thought.

Many of us, probably most of us, probably all of us, have vital fears. One way many of us, maybe most of us, deal with a persistent fear is to plunge right into whatever we fear. If we’re afraid of deep water, maybe we dive in. Before and during World War II, many Americans were afraid of Nazis taking over and joined the military to cope with their fear by beating the Nazis. Military parachutists in training, and who have learned how to do it and are properly equipped, are reportedly sometimes kicked out of the plane, literally kicked out by someone behind them, for their first jump. One young person of Italian-American heritage watched his father be hassled by the Mafia and, when he grew up, became an FBI agent who, he wrote, let non-Mafia cases gather dust. (He wrote a book about it.)

If a white person fears black men as criminals, maybe the way they overcome their fear is by learning how to deal with what they fear: black men’s crimes. Policing is one way. So, police jobs may attract candidates who want to deal with a fear that, whether empirically valid in their personal lives or not, comes, directly or indirectly, from racism.

This kind of attractant collects candidates both good and bad. Filtering out the bad ones is necessary but, especially for important but subtle issues, difficult. It often fails, because problematic candidates are found practicing and a few of them kill with racist leanings. More of them are discriminatory even without killing. But the problem is made more difficult by the demands of those above them, including chiefs and commissioners, mayors and legislators, and a recent President, all reflecting the attitudes of constituencies.

Getting Better Candidates Likely Costs More

The job is deadly. Cops get shot. Most cops risk getting shot almost every day. Their families are at risk.

Few college graduates want to become police officers. Only high school graduation may be required, and there are not many respected and well-paying jobs for high school grads without college. So, many of the people who meet published qualifications have few other choices. Those who decide to apply may be more likely to fudge and lie about their qualifications, a phenomenon known to many employers for many kinds of jobs, including the military, and increasing the demand on systems for screening applicants. History says that a percentage of people who should be screened out are not, so that underqualified applicants become some of the officers on duty. Where qualifications are subjective and hiring is hard but necessary, being underqualified is even more likely.

To attract college graduates into the profession, enlarge the pool of applicants, and raise employment standards, compensation and benefits have to be competitive with those of other job offers. Public-sector jobs tend to offer less pay than do similar private-sector jobs. Taxpayers often object to pay raises and elected officials like getting re-elected and so they tend to limit pay scales. When the pay is less, competitiveness requires that public-sector jobs offer higher benefits than do similar private-sector jobs.

So, while the public blames union contracts for offering too-cushy benefits packages, especially difficulty with firing an officer, maybe it’s the governments that welcome, not just concede, these benefits. Maybe the governments see both union representation and the contract with the benefits as recruitment advantages. Maybe the governments gain and hold more officers because of those advantages.

A competing government agency can hire officers without those advantages, but doing so without union representation and a union contract would likely require higher pay and generally better benefits than would come with a union. That would allow flexibility in terminating officers’ employment but would otherwise cost more in a budget for each officer. In many places, that would be politically unreachable. The main exceptions may be affluent suburbs with their own police departments and residents who largely believe that higher compensation, including benefits, gets and retains better candidates, because the residents built their own careers largely on that philosophy. But those exceptional communities don’t have as many officer positions as do states and major cities.

The same principle applies to hiring and retaining police executives. They may or may not be in unions; governments do recognize some unions of supervisors, while private-sector employers don’t, because Federal labor law does not protect such unions and private-sector employers don’t want them.

Is defunding even possible? If the budget per officer has to go up, defunding can only work mathematically if there are to be fewer officers. That is a political decision that would require reducing the workload on the police departments.

That would require deciding not to send the police on certain kinds of calls. The only reductions I know to have been proposed are those due to reductions in responses to mental health issues, although many of those are conflated with threats to life or safety requiring police response; in laws to be enforced, mainly on marijuana, generally requiring legislation; in heavy enforcement for remuneration, such as in traffic stops in politically weaker communities but not politically stronger ones without a difference in violations; in civil seizures of property of nonresidents driving through under claims of enforcing laws against money laundering but generating revenues for local police or local governments; and in versions of broken-windows enforcement, which has been said not to work but which seems to be widely working (affluent suburbs often enforce for violations so minor they are either ignored or not unlawful in larger cities) except for how it is abused to target some low-income communities and people of color, targeted on the claim that those are high-crime communities with higher concentrations of criminals, sometimes true.

Most of those kinds of reductions don’t seem to be any closer to obtaining in the wake of calls to defund. While the argument that defunding has been applied to education while criminal enforcement has gotten funding and the need is to increase school funding and perhaps that can come from police funding has some validity, a more sound argument would be for an increase in school funding or for better management of education, such as by opening charter schools under strong charter school laws, so that community-level educational outcomes are improved enough that crime is reduced and then police costs can be reduced. That latter argument is expensive or controversial to implement, because education funding would be increased or a more controversial path would be followed (charter schools are controverted by noncharter public schools) and, either way, taxpayers are likely to object.

Pulling Out Our Hair

Difficulty is not a call for the status quo ante. It is a call to think harder about the problem and try to craft a solution that will pass political scrutiny.