Massachusetts Police Departments See ‘Pretty Depressing’ Decline In Potential New Recruits

SPRINGFIELD — Looking to find college graduates with an interest in law enforcement, the Springfield Police Department recently set up a booth at a Westfield State University career fair.

The university offers both undergraduate and master’s degrees in criminal justice — so it seemed like a good bet, said Police Commissioner Cheryl C. Clapprood.

“We got one person that came to our booth to talk to us,” she said in an interview. “And he found out he was at the wrong booth.”

The story serves as a ready example of the difficulties the department is having in finding new recruits, she said.

Policing was seen by previous generations as a promising and exciting career, offering steady work, public service, good pay and a pension. But according to some police officials, today’s generation of young people are saying, “no thanks.”

Clapprood says it isn’t just a Springfield problem, but a nationwide issue that will only grow as more veteran cops retire without enough new recruits in the pipeline.

Black Lives Matter activism that has helped shine a spotlight on police misconduct, the COVID-19 pandemic, controversy and an increasingly cynical public are combining to drive down recruiting numbers in Springfield, across Massachusetts and nationwide, officials say.

With a new Massachusetts Civil Service examination for entry-level police officers and state troopers on the horizon, Clapprood and others are sounding the alarm that fresh interest just isn’t there.

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, also president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association, said his impressions of the recruiting picture mirror Clapprood’s. And, he’s hearing the same from other chiefs.

“It seems like this is the early phase, and certainly if two years ago was any indication, the numbers are down,” said Kyes, whose association represents the state’s 40 largest police departments. “Springfield, Worcester, Boston are down significantly — over 50%.”

Chelsea, a department with 112 sworn officers, has noticed a decline in interest over the last few years, he said.

“There was a time when we would have well over 300 people take the exam,” he said. “Now if we get 50, that’s a lot.”

In previous years, the state exam would attract 500 or more applications in Springfield, Clapprood said. So far, with just six weeks to go before the April 20 registration deadline for the June 12 exam, the department had fewer than 100 as of last week.

The Springfield Police Department employs just under 500 officers and supervisors. An average 30 each year retire due to age or injury, resign for other work, or are fired.

For Clapprood, it’s a problem of basic math. If 30 people leave, 30 more have to sign on to keep staffing levels steady.

“It’s important to me that I try to maintain staffing levels by having an academy class of between 30 and 35 every year,” the commissioner said.

Early next month, 34 recruits will graduate from the Springfield Police Academy and be sworn in as city officers. But Clapprood is thinking ahead to the next class.

For every recruit who completes the academy, three to four applicants are weeded out along the way — either by the Civil Service test scores, physical fitness and psychological testing or background checks.

“On average, it takes 130 to 140 applicants to get to 30 to 35 recruits,” Clapprood said.

There is also the matter of tight finances amid a pandemic. As of Thursday, 61 city residents were signed up to take the state exam. Of those, only 29 have paid the $100 exam fee.

Running down the numbers, Clapprood sighed. “You know, it’s pretty depressing,” she said.

Kathleen A. Daly, spokeswoman for the Worcester Police Department, said interest in that city also reflects a downturn.

“Currently, we only have 85 individuals signed up to take the next exam. This is a sharp decline in comparison to previous years,” she said — though she noted there is still time for the numbers to improve ahead of the April 20 deadline.

“During our recruitment efforts we have seen less interest in the profession of policing, which appears to be partially due to the challenges facing law enforcement,” she said.

A 2019 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit devoted to policing issues, found that staffing issues nationwide are becoming a critical problem for police departments.

The report, titled “The Workforce Crisis, and what Police Agencies are Doing about It,” points to what it calls “a triple threat” affecting staffing.

First, fewer people are applying to work as police officers, with 63% of departments surveyed reporting declines in the number of job applicants over the previous five years.

The second factor: more current cops are taking “voluntary resignations” than in years past. Often, officers are leaving to take jobs outside law enforcement. Most occur within the first five years on the job.

Finally, an estimated 8.5% of working police officers are already eligible to retire, with up to 15.5% becoming eligible within five years. Officers hired in the 1990s, when federal funding helped communities hire more cops, are now rapidly approaching retirement.

“This triple threat — fewer applicants, more resignations, and a looming retirement bubble — comes at a time when many agencies are already short staffed,” the report said. And traditional sources of new police officers such as military and legacy hires are drying up.

Across the county, police departments are seeing more officers retiring at the first opportunity.

A 2019 survey by the Research Forum found 41% of police departments reporting a shortage of available officers. And the same poll showed 63% of departments reporting a decline in the number of applications over the previous five years — with 36% saying applications have “decreased significantly.”

Meanwhile, a 2018 U.S. Department of Justice survey found that between 2013 and 2016, the number of police officers in the U.S. dropped by 3.3%, from 725,000 to 701,000. The decline came after a period of steady increases that began in 1997.

The report recommends police departments change with the times in terms of how, and who, they recruit. It suggests looking for people who are fluent in technology and who have the temperament for dealing with the public, while relaxing rules regarding tattoos and facial hair. It also recommends easing the hiring process, emphasizing police work as community service, and putting more emphasis on nontraditional forms of recruiting.

In addition to being a police chief, Kyes teaches criminal justice classes at colleges in his area.

At the start of each semester he asks for a show of hands for those interested in police work.

“There was a time when all the hands would go up,” he said. “Now I don’t see those numbers. I’ll see three or four, maybe five hands go up out of a class of 20 to 25.”

Clapprood, who joined the force in 1981, said the profession has been hit so hard in the wake of protests, legislative police reform and frustration with the judicial system that many veteran cops are frustrated, and discouraging their children and younger siblings from following in their footsteps.

“I have a friend who is a state trooper. He said his son was thinking about joining and my friend said, ‘Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, I’m getting out early,’” she recounted.

Clapprood and Kyes each said that over the past 10 years, the perception of policing has changed in large part because of the fallout over a number of unarmed civilian deaths at the hands of police, beginning in 2014 with Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It continued last year with protests over the death of George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis by a police officer who kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Floyd’s death, which was recorded on video by a bystander, triggered Black Lives Matter protests across the county — including a showing of more than 3,000 people in Springfield.

Clapprood said the reputation of the Springfield police has been marred by incidents and protests in other cities.

“We have no control or say or influence on those cases you mentioned. They happened far away from us,” she said. “It’s a profession where if one does it, you’re all grouped together. So we’re all living with those mistakes.”

But the Springfield Police Department has its own history of misconduct. Over a dozen officers were charged in connection with an assault on a patron outside a bar in 2014 and trying to cover it up. A former narcotics detective is facing federal civil rights charges for threatening several teens accused of stealing a police car during interrogations. And a Department of Justice report released last summer alleged widespread civil rights abuses by the department’s Narcotics Bureau.

Clapprood acknowledges that the department’s own missteps have likely had an impact on recruitment.

“A mistake in policing is magnified much greater than a mistake in a lot of other professions,” she said. “If that was something you would be looking at, I think you would go in the opposite way.”

Kyes said most police officers were horrified to see the Floyd footage. But media coverage of bad cops also impacts the many good ones, he said.

“You hate to say the profession gets painted with a broad brush, but it does,” he said.

Clapprood said the pandemic has also limited traditional forms of recruiting at high schools, as well as face-to-face networking.

“We’re in a position where we should be, where I should be, going to school assemblies. I should be out there talking to young people about (policing) as a career,” she said. “It’s limiting and it’s constricting to only be able to do it on Zoom.”

The department has been trying to promote itself where and when it can. Clapprood says she has tried to nurture an active presence on social media to promote careers in policing, selling the idea that officers do good work for the community.

“One thing that has remained a constant, one thing I will always say, is we do have the ability to help people, and we do have the ability to make their lives better,” she said. “The officers have been doing a lot of good out there.”

Another selling point is the salary. Clapprood said even rookie Springfield police officers make good money.

The base salary for a Springfield police patrol officer ranges from $65,780 to $78,072.

“If you’re a young person and you like to work and want to work … there’s a lot of overtime with this job,” she said, adding that working extra-duty jobs directing traffic a few times a week, “you make yourself a pretty good paycheck for a down-payment on a house or a car.”

According to city payroll records for 2020, the department paid salaries to 386 patrol officers. Because of overtime and extra-duty assignments, all but nine of the 386 patrol officers made more than the base salary of $65,780.

The average gross salary for 2020 was $93,876, and 178 patrol officers earned more than that. Of those, 134 earned between $100,000 and $145,695 — and six earned more last year than Mayor Domenic J. Sarno’s $137,596 annual salary.

Clapprood said she ultimately hopes the declining interest is cyclical, and that it will eventually turn around — as will public perception.

“It might take some time now. We’ve taken a few heavy punches in a row here, and especially in Springfield,” she said. “But hopefully, yes, it does come back and it’s a job that people once again desire to have.”


More from The Latest News.