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Reports Claimed That Police Left In Droves Due To BLM. New Data Say That's Not True


In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, we began to hear anecdotal reports from police departments across the country. Those reports claimed that officers felt demoralized, unsupported by the communities that they served. And as a result, police chiefs reported that droves of their officers were retiring early. But recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics tell a very different story. According to those numbers, last year, police departments nationwide shed less than 1% of their employees. That is far less than job losses in the U.S. economy overall. Weihua Li reported on those competing narratives for the Marshall Project and joins us now.


WEIHUA LI: Thank you, Ailsa, for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So which is it? Are officers leaving in droves or aren't they?

LI: Well, according to what we found in the data, nationwide in local police departments, there were 4,000 fewer police employments in 2020 comparing with the previous year. And if you look at state and federal police, there is actually a slight increase, so this counters what police departments are saying. What we see is they are not leaving in droves.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about the numbers that police chiefs are giving. I mean, we should note that a survey from the Police Executive Research Forum think tank found a 45% increase in the retirement rate among police departments it surveyed. Can you just put that rate change into context for us with what you're seeing in the government employment data?

LI: Yeah, of course. So what that survey found is out of 100 officer, there were one more police officer retiring - so from fewer than three to more than four. That is a 45% increase, sure. But if you look at that one more retiree out of the entire 100 officer, that's precisely 1%. So they're not lying with their numbers per se. It's just numbers can represent the truth in very different ways.

CHANG: So ultimately, where were the most retirements, transfers and walk-offs happening in the country, among police departments?

LI: That's a very good question. What we did learn from reporting is, one, a lot of the major cities are seeing their police officers transferring to the suburbs and rural areas, where it's arguably safer and they feel there is a lot more political backing. And what we also learned through our reporting is last year, a lot of major cities have suspended their police academies and the hiring process. Part of it is because of just how COVID has taken a hard hit on the city's economy. The other part is because of the criminal justice reform sparked by the death of George Floyd. So, you know, there is likely fewer new officers going into the force last year than the number of officers leaving.

CHANG: I mean, we should note that there has been an increase in violent crime over the last year. Do you think there's any connection between that rise in violent crime and staffing issues that departments say they're struggling with right now?

LI: What we know is in many cities, homicides and shootings have gone up since the beginning of the pandemic. But if you look at other type of crimes from burglaries to drug crimes, those have been actually overwhelmingly decreasing during the pandemic. Of course, police plays a role in preventing and solving crime, but we don't have enough evidence to show the direct connection between losing police officers and having an increase in homicides and shootings.

CHANG: Weihua Li is a data reporter for the Marshall Project.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

LI: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.