PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - It's a pivotal time in law enforcement. We are coming off a year of widespread protests against police brutality, with cities facing budget demands to defund police and lawmakers on Capitol Hill reviewing policy reforms and the state of policing. Recruiting and retention is a growing problem for law enforcement in recent years.
And while a lot of officers are walking away from the job right now, we found more, especially locally, are leaning into the calling. And they say, recruiting people who want to see a change to be a part of it, might just be the best way to heal our community.
Every call, every day, Glendale Police Sgt. Marcel Dulaney is dialed-in. "When someone is upset with me because of what I do, I try to listen to them because I understand that they're hurting, even if it's not an accurate picture of how things are. There's a reason why that person is hurting so profoundly," Dulaney said.
Police officers frustrated
It's understandable why his first year as a patrol supervisor has been one of the most challenging in his nine years on the job.
Raw emotion from a now-viral TikTok post from Major Kelvin Dingle, another officer who is black and blue, quickly racked up more than 2 million views. In the video, he shouts his frustrations with people blaming officers everywhere for the actions of cops who abuse their power, like Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murder for the death of George Floyd. "I am tired of every time I wake up in the morning there's someone else polarizing the fact that maybe law enforcement is just not a good thing. All of us are not bad. I am not as they are. Most of us are not. There are bad people in every career! I am so goddamned tired! Tired, tired Tired!" Dingle said.
It's relatable to many who are turning in their badges in droves. The New York Police Department lost 5,300 officers, 15% of their force. Portland, Oregon's dropped more than 30%.
We talked with Assistant Chief Sean Connolly from Phoenix Police. "When I look at the data here, we're not seeing this massive wave of people leaving. I know I see it on social media, but when I really look at the data and facts here, except for the outliers where you see some big pops in New York City, we're not seeing that," Connolly said.
Phoenix has one of the largest departments in the state, averaging 12 to 24 resignations and retirements a month for the last decade for their city of 1.7 million people. He says retention's not the problem. It's recruiting. "To be incredibly honest with you, we have seen a reduction in recruitment," Connolly said.
The department says it hopes to push out the new training later this year.
He oversees the Phoenix Training Academy, where class counts are down about 40%. Detective Tom Sye spent the last eight of his 17 years recruiting for Glendale Police. He says his department used to average 1,500 people for every test. Lately, they've had to reopen the recruiting windows three or four times to get enough qualified applicants. "When I came into the unit eight years ago, we sent a class of 22 to the police academy. Our last academy had two people in it," Sye said.
"We're not just looking for bodies, yeah, we have 21 openings, but we're not just looking for anybody," Sye added.
Glendale Sgt. Justin Ramsay's dad was a Maricopa County deputy for 30 years. "This is a job like none other, right? Someone who is willing to go in and put their self, their life, their livelihood and all those other things in jeopardy for someone they never met and may never see again," Ramsay said.
"I put on my uniform at the beginning of the day, and I absolutely have no idea what I may see. There is no way to predict what I'm going to face, what I'm going to see, or who I might be able to help," Ramsay added.
He says he sees every encounter as an opportunity to change public perception. "I want them to know that I was born in this city. I was absolutely raised in this city. I went to high school in this city. I got married in this city, had my kids in this city, everything I am is," he said as he broke up with emotion. It's personal. "Myself and my officers are going to respond to that person in their time of need with the same compassion we would treat my family," Ramsay said.
"You can't heal with a hammer"
Jacob Raiford with the W.E. Rising Project, helped organize a lot of the police protests we saw take over streets in the Valley last summer. "Police, just their presence, they show up, it automatically creates and exudes this level of anxiety because you know they're here as more or less, the hammer meant to de-escalate things through pain compliance," Raiford said. "You can't heal with a hammer."
He's also a part of the Neighborhood Organized Crisis Assistance, or NOCAP Coalition, pushing for cities like Phoenix to develop a new arm of first responders that would be licensed mental health and substance abuse counselors dispatched to crisis calls before law enforcement. Phoenix Police and Fire already have specialized crisis teams, but Raiford says an independent agency would be able to run very differently and use more discretion to help people without criminalizing their behaviors.
"Behavioral health issues, mental health crisis, substance abuse issues, calls pertaining to the unsheltered community, we began to realize that there is a misappropriation of this first responder department as a resource to these calls which they are fundamentally incapable of being trained in," Raiford said.
The city said it needs to pay and hire more officers and civilian positions. Still, protestors think the money is better suited for the community.
"I majored in psychology and actually both my parents were social workers," Dulaney said. Sgt. Dulaney spent 14 years as a caseworker for group homes and in foster care before getting into policing. "The hard truth to swallow in this situation is that these situations can turn dangerous and violent in an instant," Dulaney said.
Recruiting for change
"That's my fear. If you put somebody in a situation that's not prepared to deal with that violence potential, they might get hurt," Dulaney added.
His hope is to recruit the very people who want to change the system from all different fields and walks of life, to join them in being the change to answer the call to serve.
Connolly agrees. "Come join us. The more each of us can walk in each other's shoes and put each other's lenses on, amazing things can happen," Connolly said. He says most new recruits do share a common drive these days. "They talk about wanting to be a part of something greater. I think a lot of people watched what happened over the last year or so and now they're like, 'I want to be part of the solution,'" Connolly said.
He says a lot of departments are still playing catch-up in recruiting from hiring freezes from the recession. And with the Valley growing and these volatile crisis calls only ratcheting up during the pandemic, focusing on expanding and diversifying recruiting will be even more important moving forward.