Despite high salary, fewer people want to be San Francisco police officers

The journey to securing one of the most financially rewarding entry-level positions in U.S. law enforcement commences at a compact police academy situated on a residential street in San Francisco. However, enrollment numbers have seen a significant decline.

Last year, the academy saw the graduation of 26 officers, marking the lowest figure in at least a decade and less than a third of the total in 2019. While the current year’s cohort is expected to be larger, on a recent day, only six recruits were actively participating in training exercises involving baton practice, jiu-jitsu-like techniques, and wrestling, within a gym adorned with a prominent American flag.

This scarcity highlights a substantial issue not only for San Francisco but also for numerous cities and towns across the United States. In an attempt to address this decline, San Francisco has intensified its efforts by increasing the starting pay for inexperienced officers to $112,398 this month—a figure that stands as the highest among rookie cops in major U.S. cities, nearly double the amount in New York City, and surpassing the earnings of many U.S. Secret Service agents.

“We are bending over backwards,” remarked Patrick McCormick, the head of hiring at the San Francisco Police Department. San Francisco’s situation is somewhat unique; its exorbitant housing market means higher salaries have limited impact, and its reputation as a progressive stronghold dissuades some potential police recruits. Nevertheless, a recent shift in public sentiment regarding safety, including the recall of a liberal district attorney in 2022, has emerged, prompting local leaders to increasingly support law enforcement.

Whatever San Francisco’s idiosyncrasies, plenty of other US towns, cities and states are contending with similar challenges in finding officers. The Dallas Police Department set up recruitment billboards in Chicago. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis approved bonuses of $5,000 for police willing to relocate from other states. Ithaca, New York, has offered a $20,000 signing bonus for lateral hires.

“Twenty years ago, we would have hundreds of people knocking down our door to be police officers,” said Ted Schwartz, acting police chief in Ithaca, a city of about 32,000 that’s home to Cornell University. “That’s not true in our society anymore.”

According to a survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum, staffing at U.S. police departments experienced a nearly 5% decline over the three years leading up to January 2023. The drop is largely attributed to officers leaving the force or aging out. Resignations in 2022 surged by 47% compared to 2019, while retirements increased by 19%.

This nationwide trend to replace departing officers reflects a broader change in public attitudes towards policing, notably sparked by the 2020 killing of George Floyd, which brought attention to police brutality and eroded trust in law enforcement. Increased public scrutiny has made it challenging for police departments to attract candidates to a profession already known for its long hours and constant threat of physical danger.

While boosting personnel doesn’t always guarantee improved policing, the effectiveness of officers depends on their training and leadership decisions on priorities and resource allocation. Shrinking police forces can have detrimental effects on communities, hindering effective strategies for crime reduction.

Cities with reduced officer numbers, such as Oakland, California, have faced longer response times for urgent 911 calls. In Arcata, California, officer departures led to a reduction in policing services, prompting the offer of $50,000 bonuses to attract new hires.

The competitive landscape in high-cost-of-living areas like the San Francisco Bay Area has led to cities offering substantial salaries and bonuses to recruit officers. Alameda, near Oakland, offers a starting salary of $113,654 per year and a $75,000 signing bonus—the highest in the country.

San Francisco has implemented a recruitment campaign highlighting the city’s attractions beyond its challenges, with increased applications and recruits from states like Nevada and Alabama. However, despite these efforts, police staffing is still down 13% compared to 2020.

The shortage of police personnel has become a focal point in budget discussions, with voters considering a ballot measure in March to establish a minimum personnel level. However, the outcome is uncertain, and the city faces challenges in securing funding for recruitment without affecting other essential services.

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