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Take it from two former cops: We need to reimagine the job of policing

Police departments have a staffing crisis that can’t be resolved simply by paying officers more money.

H. Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff; leremy/Adobe

The nation’s police departments are facing a profound recruiting and retention crisis. More officers are quitting than are coming out of police academies, and in some agencies the turnover is rapid and extreme. Seattle, for instance, lost 25 percent of its police force in less than three years. Officers are retiring, resigning before retirement age, or transferring to agencies where public criticism is less withering and community support for policing is stronger. Meanwhile, the pool of potential new hires continues to shrink as people become more hesitant to join the profession.

Cities need to act quickly because if the crisis is left unaddressed, it will compound on itself. As the most highly skilled officers leave, lower-quality hires will continue to downgrade the status of the profession. The risk of high-profile scandals and tragedies will rise, the public fallout will persuade the best potential recruits to reject the idea of becoming police officers in the first place, and overall performance will decline.

We joined big city police departments in the 1990s as Ivy League college graduates. One of us is the son of a professor, the other of a Cuban immigrant. We see the problem as three-pronged. Nationally, police departments have been behind the curve in modernizing their practices and getting a firm grasp on misconduct. At the same time, influential voices and the media have taken the most terrible outcomes as license to vilify police with a broad brush. And the public’s legitimate desire for better policing has produced muddled, often contradictory expectations about what we want our police to do.

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The police profession hasn’t been able to convince the public that agencies are well-regulated and accountable to the communities they serve. Officers have strangled a Black man to death in public, beat a Black man into a mortal coma over a traffic stop, and shot a Black man running away before planting a Taser next to him. The traditional police response is to argue that individual officers are bad apples and remind people that there are over 18,000 police departments, each with a unique culture and competence. That sufficed for a time, but of late, there has been a shift in the public’s response: Even though the acts are a statistical rarity, people think these things could happen in their own local department. Apples don’t fall far from trees, they reason, and policing prides itself on being an extended family. Police leaders haven’t been able to fully address that concern, and it’s degrading the standing of the entire profession.

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Like the priesthood or medicine, policing becomes a person’s identity. It’s inescapable. Even if you don’t want to take on the identity, people will impose it on you. Politics and popular culture guarantee it. Who wants to be someone hated by many? Policing and politics may be the only two professions where public servants are routinely called bastards.

Despite everything, policing still consistently polls as one of the most trusted occupations in the nation, along with physicians and nurses, ahead of lawyers, politicians, and reporters. But cops aren’t invulnerable to the effects of our insults, derision, and criticism. Predictably, many internalize it and act accordingly. Some officers resign; others do the minimum until they retire. And too many of those inclined toward a career in law enforcement will never take the job in the first place.

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It is a tall order to ask non-police agencies to solve the issues police currently struggle with. Do we expect social workers to manage crime scenes, solve homicides, arrest suspects without incident, issue traffic tickets, and engage a mass shooter? Do we expect police to treat addiction, respond to children from broken homes, deal with mental health emergencies, and address homelessness? It’s little wonder people question whether they want to make policing their career. They can’t be fully sure what we’ll be asking them to do or how we’ll treat them when they try their best.

It could well be that police agencies need to deliberately recruit officers for a range of different specialties and train them accordingly, while recognizing that the era of the one-size-fits-all police officer is over. This calls for Dr. Frankenstein-level management, sewing a police department together from different professionals. It’s possible, but it could become a monster.

Municipalities could acknowledge that a 20- to 30-year career with one employer is largely a thing of the past. We may want to ask young people to give a city their best five years as an officer, like the military or Teach for America do. If people go into the work knowing it will be a fixed-duration experience for them, one where they can both serve and learn, they may be more willing to put on the uniform than if they think the decision is a career-long commitment with a lifelong identity.

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Or, the solution may be the opposite: Turn policing into the type of highly educated profession it is throughout most of Europe, where it can take up to four years of university training to earn a commission as a police officer.

These ideas probably can only be accomplished with federal support and funding. High-crime jurisdictions, often with a low tax base, can least afford to raise standards or implement better systems. More uniform national standards and pay would mitigate the issue of officers being poached by better-paying agencies that didn’t invest in the officers’ education and training.

Too often those pushing for reform balk at the idea of spending more on police. More money doesn’t automatically mean better policing. But the inverse is certainly true: Less money means worse policing.

We sometimes act as if police are shipped to us from Mars or come off a boat from a place called Police Island. We forget that they live among or near us. In many cities, police are first- and second-generation immigrants, often Black and Hispanic, eager to serve their communities in a palpable, high-stakes way. Policing can be both a calling and a path to America’s middle class.

Young adults often come to us for career advice. When they ask us if they should become police, we think about a young man alone, under attack by officers, his last words pleading for mercy, and the resulting public fury. But we also think of the gratitude of the people we have served as police officers. And we think of friends and former colleagues out there on patrol doing valuable and important work, necessary work, too often vilified. It is hard for us to know what to say.

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Brandon del Pozo served in the New York Police Department for 19 years and for four years as chief of police in Burlington, Vt. He researches policing, public health, and criminal justice at Brown University and is the author of the 2022 book “The Police and the State: Security, Social Cooperation, and the Public Good.”

Peter Moskos, a former police officer in Baltimore, is a professor in the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of the forthcoming book “The Great New York City Crime Drop.”