WNIN’s Steve Burger investigated why hiring and retention has become so difficult for police.
Our investigation was prompted by a routine funds transfer at last week’s Evansville City Council meeting. Responding to a question from the council, EPD Deputy Chief Stephanie Cox said they need to pay for gear and training supplies for more than two dozen new officers that they didn’t anticipate hiring this year. That’s nearly ten percent of the total number of sworn officers on the department.
“We’re losing quite a few more than anticipated and as Mr. Lloyd said, it’s crazy hard to recruit right now," Cox said, "We used to kinda’ know year to year how many people we’d be losing, and now every week we get more people coming in and leaving unexpectedly, for all the obvious reasons.”
I sent deputy chief Cox an email asking what she meant by, “obvious reasons” that officers are leaving the department. (Full response is below)
Her response said, in part, “Right now there seems to be an ever increasing perception of police as heavy handed and racist. We are forced to make split second life or death decisions and know with almost certainty that those decisions will be scrutinized immediately often by those with very little factual information. There is a general decline in public perception of the police and this makes being an officer much less satisfying and infinitely more stressful.”
With the help of EPD public information officer Nick Winsett, I contacted Tim Bickel, one of those unexpected retirees. Bickel left the department last fall after nearly twenty six years to take a job with a private security company. What was intended to be a short interview turned into a wide-ranging discussion that lasted over forty five minutes. Audio of the uncut interview is available at the beginning of this story.
Here is EPD Deputy Chief Stephanie Cox's response to our inquiry about hiring and retention:
The Evansville Police Department has been experiencing a higher than average number of retirements in recent months and a much lower number of new applicants. There are many reasons for this, but the prevailing ones at the moment involve the national trends in both public perception of officers as well as the new laws being discussed that remove some of the critical safety nets that officers rely on to do their jobs effectively.
Right now there seems to be an ever increasing perception of police as heavy handed and racist. For the vast vast majority of officers, this is not the case. Almost all officers go into this career with altruistic motivations. We want to help and protect our communities and make the world a safer place to live. We are forced to make split second life or death decisions and know with almost certainty that those decisions will be scrutinized immediately often by those with very little factual information. There is a general decline in public perception of the police and this makes being an officer much less satisfying and infinitely more stressful.
Many of the new laws being discussed are not an issue. Our agency is always open to new and progressive training (de-escalation for example) and our agency has already had in place many of the “changes” being discussed (no “choke holds” for example).
There are a few major changes being discussed, however, that stand to make many established officers consider retirement and many new candidates forgo the career. The primary one is the abolishment of qualified immunity. I am sure you are familiar with this so I don’t need to go into great detail, but the thought that an officer can be sued personally even when action taken was unavoidable and necessary is a non-starter for many. Without protections, the career becomes entirely too risky to consider.
The job of an officer is stressful, it is often unpleasant and can involve having to make a decision to use deadly force in the defense of self or others. Without the basic protections of those we put as guardians of our community, the departments cannot maintain adequate qualified staffing. Police officers are an intricate, critical and essential part of any law-abiding community. The ramifications of not being able to attract and maintain a professional and qualified department will result in a decline in a safe and peaceful society but this is exactly what will happen if we don’t reverse our course.
We are fine with additional training, working with community partners and consistently working to improve our workforce. We want the best people professionally and personally. What we need is for community backing, support of our officers and their profession and most importantly, not taking away the basic safeguards that make being an officer worthwhile.
We understand as an agency that there are very real challenges across the nation regarding law enforcement. As a progressive agency, we continually strive to improve our training practices. As an accredited agency, we continually update our protocols and we consistently strive to work hand in hand with our community partners. A career in law enforcement needs to be a calling for individuals. It is not simply a job, it is an honorable career. We are hopeful that good quality candidates with high moral character will accept the challenge and ensure our city progresses in a positive direction.
Deputy Chief Stephanie Cox
Evansville Police Department