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OPINION

Who wants to be a police officer?

From society’s perspective, the more important question is: Who should be a police officer?

Washington, D.C., police cadets, officers, and recruits on the front lines of demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd gather to meet with then-Police Chief Peter Newham and police leadership at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in 2020.
Washington, D.C., police cadets, officers, and recruits on the front lines of demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd gather to meet with then-Police Chief Peter Newham and police leadership at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in 2020.Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post

Before former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on Tuesday of murdering George Floyd, a decrease in police applicants and an increase in resignations and retirements were already creating staffing concerns across the country.

After the verdict, “The thing I really worry about is who is going to want to be a cop?” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit devoted to law enforcement issues, told me. In a 2019 survey done by that organization, over 40 percent of police departments reported a shortage of available officers, and over 60 percent reported a decline in the number of applications. Recruiting people of color, female, and bilingual officers is especially challenging. And more officers are leaving for jobs outside law enforcement. “If you walk into a room full of cops and ask, ‘Would you like your kids to be cops?’ — no one raises their hand,” said Wexler.

That may be demoralizing for cops. But from society’s perspective, the more important question is: Who should be a police officer?

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Certainly not anyone like Chauvin. His lack of humanity and judgment was captured on the now infamous video taken by a teenage bystander who saw Floyd face down on the street, with his neck under Chauvin’s knee, and decided what she saw “wasn’t right,” as she told the jury. But the 9 minutes and 29 seconds of Chauvin kneeling mercilessly on Floyd did not come out of nowhere. A report by The Marshall Project — a nonprofit news organization focused on criminal justice reporting — documented a history of Chauvin using excessive force, including six arrests dating back to 2015, during which he restrained people by their necks or by kneeling on top of them. “Police records show Chauvin was never formally reprimanded for any of these incidents, even though at least two of those arrested said they had filed formal complaints,” the report said. During more than 19 years on the force, Chauvin was the subject of at least 22 complaints or internal investigations, only one of which resulted in discipline, The Marshall Project found.

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Chauvin was not just a bad cop. He was a bad cop whose behavior was tolerated by colleagues and superiors for nearly two decades. During his trial, the blue line finally turned on him, and fellow officers, including the department chief, testified that what Chauvin did to Floyd was wrong. By doing that, they were essentially excusing themselves from any culpability associated with looking the other way.

If this is truly a defining moment for policing, the culture that protected Chauvin for so long has to change. That means changing who police are. As the report by the Police Executive Research Forum notes: “It’s not just a question of finding more recruits . . . . A major concern is whether today’s recruits have the skill set and temperament to meet the challenges of policing today.”

Another report by the organization concludes the obvious: Police departments are shaped by who is recruited and who is winnowed out. Veterans preferences and, with them, a mindset that goes with military training, greatly influence department culture. Certain physical fitness requirements do too. For example, measuring fitness by how many push-ups a candidate can perform rules out many women. Some departments are rethinking what used to be automatic disqualifiers, like drug use and financial problems. Setting higher education standards can also be a way to change the culture. Departments that are successfully recruiting a more diverse workforce rely on cadet and explorer programs, social media platforms, and the removal of obstacles to applying, such as application fees.

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But that’s still tinkering. It’s not revolutionary change. In fact, the case against Chauvin didn’t stand for revolutionary change. Prosecutor Steven Schleicher went out of his way to say, “This case is not called the State of Minnesota v. the Police. Policing is a noble profession.” To be sure, policing as practiced by Chauvin was anything but noble; as Schleicher said, it was murder — and the jury agreed.

But the current problem for law enforcement is that the public does not generally think of nobility when it thinks about policing, especially when it comes to the treatment of Black Americans.

That’s bad for police morale and bad for police recruitment. But the only ones who can change public perception are police.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.