Law enforcement officers are leaving in droves. Morale has suffered, first through the Black Lives Matter protests, then the pandemic. Cops feel disrespected, overworked, underpaid and they are leaving.

So say many in the profession, including San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos.

In an unusual press release earlier this month, Bolanos said bluntly, “The staffing situation today is the worst I have experienced in my entire 40-plus years of law enforcement.” He wrote that he was down about 100 deputies due to unfilled vacancies, disability and other kinds of leave. The resulting situation included poor morale and was untenable, and amounted to a public safety emergency, he wrote.

“It leaves me very concerned, not only for the safety of my personnel, but for public safety in general,” he said.

Given the situation — he says he loses two to three deputies for every new hire he is able to make — it’s not surprising the sheriff has asked for more money. That is in addition to a pilot program passed in March that includes a $30,000 hiring bonus for promotion from correctional officer at the jail to deputy sheriff and a $15,000 bonus for trainees who are welcomed onto the force. (The bonuses are spread out over three years to aid with retention.)

Has interest in a career in law enforcement waned?

It’s true that a 2020 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington policy institute, reports that retirements were up 45 percent and resignations up 18 percent across 200 departments from April 2020 to April 2021. But federal data paints a somewhat different story as the Marshall Project reported last year.

While the U.S. economy at large shed 6 percent of its workforce in 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that local police departments lost only 1 percent of their employees. The bureau reports a slight increase in employees for state and federal law enforcement departments that year. The Marshall Project says the Police Executive Research Forum survey was not scientific and failed to note that 2020 ended a period of sustained job growth in local law enforcement. It says the country had roughly the same number of police officers in 2020 that it had in 2018.

There is no question that more is expected of deputies on the street now than in years past. Their previously unquestioned devotion to the public interest is now regularly questioned. Their own body cameras often make plain mistakes that can have deadly consequences. They are asked to respond to dangerous domestic disputes one minute, help a child find her parents the next, and perhaps end their shift as a mental health counselor. It is sometimes dangerous work, and the prestige that used to come with the uniform was a perk of the job. Now that prestige is sometimes missing. That may be why some are rethinking their commitment to law enforcement.

Our new relationship to the men and women who enforce our laws is a work in progress. As anyone with a job knows, job satisfaction is not perfectly correlated with pay. (Ask, say, an NBA star who seems less pleased with his workplace than you might expect given his multimillion-dollar salary.) It starts with respect, which is a two-way street. That means an end to profiling, pretext traffic stops and the militaristic bravado you sometimes see on the streets.

We’re all in this together. We need to attract the best candidates into law enforcement. That means a culture shift, both inside and outside police departments.

Clay Lambert

Clay Lambert is the editorial director for Coastside News Group. After years working at regional daily newspapers, he began as editor of the Half Moon Bay Review in 2004.

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