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July 8, 2022, 5:00 AM

As fears about public safety loom, many NYPD officers leave the force

By SAMANTHA MAX

New York City police officers are leaving their jobs at what some officers and experts say is an alarming rate, and not enough new recruits are taking their place.

Even as 561 new police recruits were sworn in earlier this month, hundreds of officers were handing in their badges and shields to leave the department. According to the Police Pension Fund, over 2,100 sworn officers have retired or resigned since January. That’s more departures in half a year than there were in all of 2019.

Departures surged in 2020. And while fewer people left last year, the department is still struggling to staff up. There are currently almost 1,200 vacant positions, according to NYPD statistics.

This comes as violent crime is still above pre-pandemic levels, and a string of high-profile crimes have left many New Yorkers on edge. Some in law enforcement are concerned that the shrinking ranks lack the manpower needed to keep the city safe.

The Police Benevolent Association, which represents rank and file officers, calls the staffing decline a “stampede.”

 Source: New York City Police Department Census 2017-2021, NYPD Members of Service Demographics page for current numbers  Created with Datawrapper

“We’re not only losing experienced veterans. We’re also losing cops in the prime of their careers who are taking their talents elsewhere,” President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement. “The NYPD cannot continue papering over this staffing crisis with more and more overtime. That will drive even more cops to pursue other opportunities where they can make more money and have a better quality of life.”

The NYPD did not share details on its attempts to hire and retain more officers, but says it has rolled out a recruitment campaign and is currently accepting applications. The department has also noted that many officers retiring now joined in the NYPD’s large academy class after 9/11, following another surge in retirements.

“I’m not going to say it’s the worst I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely up there,” said Robert Lukach, who spent 35 years with the NYPD and retired this spring as a deputy chief. Lukach loved his job at what he felt was the country’s “premium” law enforcement agency.

He worked all over the department, from patrol to the domestic violence unit in the Bronx and the city’s emergency service unit. He liked helping people and keeping busy. For years, he felt like his work was doing something – that people appreciated it.

But that started to change in 2020. First COVID hit. Then New Yorkers protesting police brutality filled the streets. Lukach agreed that George Floyd’s death was tragic, and he didn’t stand by the actions of the officer who killed him. But protesters didn’t know that, and he said he could feel their anger as they threw hard frozen water bottles at him.

“The destruction was just, it was just unbelievable,” Lukach remembered thinking as he traveled through the city and saw all the boarded up windows. “All the hard work, all the things that had been done over the years by the NYPD to reduce crime just felt like it just kind of went out the window, and it was just – it was sad.”

Lukach said many of his coworkers have left recently or are thinking about it. He wonders how that will impact the department, as it loses so much institutional knowledge.

“There were some really, really good gun guys that could say, hey, just by that individual’s walk, his hip, how he grabbed his you know right part of his belt, were all quick indications that, ‘OK, let me start looking at this guy. Let me see what’s going on,’” Lukach said. “And I think that learning curve, you’re going to lose. And that’s an invaluable thing for young police officers to get that information so that they have the understanding and the ability to use that later on, when they need to.”

John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Maki Haberfeld is a former law enforcement officer who studies police science, including staffing trends. She worried about an exodus from the NYPD back in 2019, after officers were drenched with buckets of water while working in Harlem, which Gothamist and other outlets reported at the time.

“It’s not like you get a job and you’re married to it,” she told Gothamist for this story. “You can go and get another job and you are not risking your life and nobody’s throwing buckets of water at you and nobody’s throwing molotov cocktails at you.”

 Source: NYPD for 2019-2021, NYC Police Pension Fund for 2022  Created with Datawrapper

It’s not just a New York problem, Haberfeld said that other cities are struggling to recruit and retain officers as well. Recently, ads for departments across the country, including Washington D.C.and Norfolk, Va., have popped up in subway cars, urging riders to apply.

“I’m on many list-servs of many police organizations, so I get, you know, maybe 15, 20 emails a day from various police organizations and associations,” she said. “I’m just seeing an overall sentiment that there aren’t enough qualified candidates to join.”

“There’s only that much an individual can take given the fact that we live in times that you can go and get another job,” Haberfeld said.

Experts say other factors are at play as well.

Some officers and politicians blame recent changes to New York’s bail laws, which have caused frustration among officers who feel people they arrest are being released from jail too quickly. They cite a city law that prohibits some types of police restraints, which officers say they need to do their jobs. Others blame vaccine mandates which barred officers from working if they didn’t get their shots.

Experts and officers also point to the NYPD’s low pay compared to many other departments. The starting salary is $42,500, and the average hourly pay for an officer with decades of experience is substantially lower in New York City than in neighboring departments, according to a 2019 review by the Police Benevolent Association.. Experts say that leads some local criminal justice students entering the profession to consider taking their training and skills elsewhere.

“Some of our students are more inclined to leave the comfort of New York to pursue a better life,” said Kristina Simonsen, also of John Jay College, who advises students applying for jobs in law enforcement. She said higher pay outside the city allows some of her students to pursue their passion without sacrificing their quality of life. The starting salary in nearby Yonkers, for instance, is over $72,000. In San Jose, California, she mentioned, it’s even higher: nearly $106,000 once you graduate from the academy.

“The cost of living is different,” Simonsen said. “They’ll still be able to save money. They’ll still be able to afford a home and, like, the other essentials that we look for when we’re thinking about our career versus $42,000. That is just to me not on par with what the job is asking.”

You can go and get another job and you are not risking your life and nobody’s throwing buckets of water at you and nobody’s throwing molotov cocktails at you. John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Maki Haberfeld
But Simonsen said there are still plenty of people who do hope to join the NYPD. And as officers retire and resign, the department they leave behind is becoming more diverse. The share of white officers has dropped by more than 2,000 in the last five years, from half the department to less than 45%, according to department statistics. Meanwhile, the number of Latino and Asian officers in the department has climbed.

At the latest academy graduation, the recruits hailed from 38 countries and spoke 34 different languages, according to the NYPD. They were men and women of various races and ethnicities who had chosen to join the department even though many of their potential colleagues were leaving. Class valedictorian Amall Ali said she had eagerly accepted the job at the NYPD, even though she could have made more money elsewhere.

“As you all know, we don’t take this job for the money, but rather, to protect and serve,” she said, and the crowd cheered in agreement.

Simonsen said many of her students want to stay close to their families. They want to work for their hometown department. And they want to make it better and more reflective of the communities it serves.

“They want to be a part of the change, and that has to come from within,” Simonsen said. “Nothing’s going to change if the same people are consistently getting these jobs or applying for these jobs. So, we have women who are going into law enforcement. We have people of color who are going into law enforcement and want to be there and want to be the agents of change.”