Disappearing Blue Line

Imagine a subway bombing in a city lacking enough experienced cops to fight ordinary crime, much less terrorism. America faces a quiet crisis that looms large in the days ahead: police are leaving law enforcement in some of the highest numbers ever and there aren't enough new ones to take their place.

A 2006 study in North Carolina concluded that smaller departments are actually losing officers at a greater rate than larger ones. In fact, while large agencies reported a yearly attrition rate of more than 10 percent, small-town agencies had a turnover of nearly twice that figure. Taken literally, that means a town with 20 officers would lose an average of four officers a year. Since formal police training usually takes from six to 12 months, and officers with less than two years of service lack in experience, this leaves a theoretical 20-man department stacking up like this:

Unfilled positions: four,

Officers in police academy: two to four,

Officers with less than two years in: four.

What this means for a small municipality is that about half the positions within the department are unfilled, or manned by officers with little or no experience.

Police chiefs from Alabama to Wyoming agree with what the head of a police agency told me when speaking of potential police applicants, "They don't want to dodge bullets for pennies when they can chase cybercrooks for some Fortune 500 company, then climb in their Mercedes to make the drive home."

The thin blue line grows more faint with each passing day. Police agencies — and that includes local, state and federal law enforcement — say recruits are signing on for shorter rides, then disappearing into the civilian community, lured by bigger bucks and less hazardous working conditions.

Private security, particularly in computer-related fields, siphons top law enforcement officers from the profession. The results — less experienced cops handling supervisory and investigative duties. With fewer and fewer willing to stick around for gold watches, and a flood of officers bailing, the future for departments of all sizes looks iffy. But there are strategies that can help police maintain their ranks.

Employers can rescind mandatory retirement policies that force officers out at age 50 and older, and urge their legislatures to dump laws prohibiting "double-dipping." That would allow more experienced officers who would normally have to retire to work longer, as well as allow some to retire and return to work for other agencies on the same retirement system.

Another key issue is many officers can't afford to live within their jurisdictions. This has become particularly problematic in light of the recent out-of-control housing boom. Cops who live in pricey areas, such as resort areas, simply don't make enough to live in their jurisdictions. This lengthens both the officer's commute and their response time in emergencies. I don't know about you, but I'd want my SWAT officers closer than an hour's drive.

Some cities have tackled this problem by building affordable housing made available to officers in order to keep them inside the city limits. But while measures like this and reducing age restrictions are designed to relieve the present problem, what will the cure future personnel shortfalls?

The present local government paradigm has to change. Make better use of sworn officers by increasing their street time (and less time completing routine paperwork or twiddling their thumbs in court).

Find alternative sources of manpower: use retired officers to work cold cases; lobby hard to change legislative and policy restrictions on hiring retired officers for full- or part-time work; civilianize positions that do not require sworn status; consider hiring the physically challenged to work cases involving computer security and pawn sheets; find innovative solutions to this problem or risk a future where that thin blue line is all but invisible.