Memphis struggles to find police recruits as violence soars

Published: Dec. 26, 2021 at 2:33 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - It’s a problem facing police departments across the country. Finding enough qualified officers is not easy.

But in cities like Memphis, where violent crime has soared to new records, the problem seems pressing.

As of December, there are 1,973 police officers in Memphis. That’s well short of the 2,500 officer goal city leaders set.

“Police work is really a calling. It’s not an easy job. You don’t go into it to become a millionaire. It’s tough work,” said John Covington with the Memphis Police Association.

Covington says the city has made progress in attracting more officers in the last couple of years.

There’s the $15,000 sign-on bonus, for instance.

Earlier this month, Police Chief C.J. Davis told the Memphis City Council she is constantly re-evaluating recruiting and hiring practices, like relaxing the department’s tattoo policy to attract more recruits.

“We got a new chief, very innovative, fresh ideas,” said Covington “We’re poised, but I think kind of the issue facing us now is we need a bigger pool of applicants.”

MPD says there’s been a 47% drop in job applications over the last year, which they attribute to the pandemic and social change.

Add to that a higher attrition rate than normal and a salary below that of surrounding departments, and it’s easy to see why the recruitment problem is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

MPD said the goal is to try to limit attrition to 125-130 per year.

85 officers resigned in 2021. Most of them either switched careers or went to work for other agencies, many of which offer better pay.

“This is one area we have not addressed, and we don’t compare very well in salary with other agencies in our area,” Davis said.

MPD is preparing for a new class of 78 recruits in January and another class in July.

They’re also increasing efforts to reach high school students who may be interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement, striving to reach students in 10th and 11th grade instead of waiting until 12th grade.

The city council is also considering a proposal that could loosen police residency requirements, letting officers live outside of Shelby County. It would ultimately be up to voters.

Covington says the Memphis Police Association would support loosening residency requirements.

Some council members like Michalyn Easter-Thomas, who led the removal of the police residency referendum from the ballot last year, remain opposed.

“I’m still not seeing what the big urge is to not recruit people to live in a city that we say we all love and support,” said Easter-Thomas. “I don’t understand why it’s so allowable for everyone to be able to throw up their hands and accept whatever, wherever and not even ask them the simple request to live amongst us.”

Other council members like Worth Morgan say it should not matter where police live if they can do the job.

“We’re concerned about where police lay their heads at night as if that has an indication of where their heart is and how motivated they are to do the job,” said Morgan. “To prejudge someone like that, to have a preconceived opinion that is not based on facts or experience is the very definition of prejudice.”

Covington says that taken as a whole, the strategies MPD is pursuing could work.

“We are looking at these longer-term solutions, but I think we’re really poised right now if we kind of open the flood gates a little bit and get to that bigger pool,” said Covington. “I think you’ll see a real turbocharge jump in recruitment.”

But with violence rising across the city, many wonder how long it will take.

Click here to apply for a position with MPD or find more information.

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