Our Editorial: State needs more cops in pipeline

The Detroit News

Roseville Police Chief James Berlin is on the hunt of a rare species: individuals wanting to be police officers. He’s got jobs to fill, but increasingly finds that no one wants them. That’s not a good sign for a society that may not always value cops, but can’t function without them.

“This generation is not prone to service,” Berlin says. “It’s not just police — it’s firefighters and paramedics, too.”

He says there are exceptions and some younger people are stepping up to fill public safety roles, but not enough. Since 2001 the number of law enforcement officers in Michigan has dropped to under 18,500 from almost 22,500, an 18 percent decrease.

It’s more than just a generational problem, though. Public perceptions of police officers are harmed by the highly publicized shootings of young black men. There’s also been a sharp increase in shootings of police officers.

Both deter potential officers, Berlin says.

“The endless attacks on law enforcement have scared a lot of candidates away,” he says. “It takes someone tough to join an environment where you will be constantly ridiculed for your profession.”

Add to that the weak financial incentives for taking on a dangerous occupation. Wayne County has a police officer position available that offers less than $30,000 starting pay. Right below it is a posting for a “tree trimmer” job with starting pay at $36,000.

Low starting pay is the beginning of the problem. Police officers have fewer and fewer opportunities for pay raises. Berlin says officers at the Roseville Police Department recently received their first raise in seven years.

Salaries for police officers have traditionally been augmented by generous pensions and health care benefits. But tight budgets are threatening these packages. Only a handful of Michigan’s cities and counties are saving enough money to pay pension benefits to their retired employees.

A major obstacle to attracting police recruits is the training cost. The Macomb County police academy charges $6,000 for its 16-week course.

Berlin says some would-be officers can’t afford the fee, and others who are uncertain whether they will pass the rigorous course don’t want to risk losing their money.

Local governments used to pay for candidates to go through the police academy, but they can no longer afford to do so.

Berlin notes that often officers will receive free training in one county’s police academy and then take a higher paying job somewhere else in the state, so the county’s investment won’t pay off. He suggests the state provide more funding for police academies to lower the tuition costs.

Most police budgets have been cut as well because of local financial crises. Roseville’s police budget has decreased almost $3 million since 2011. The fire and EMS budget shrank by more than $600,000.

It isn’t all bad news. Despite cuts in law enforcement budgets and a declining number of police officers, violent crime is on the decline. In 2006, violent crime topped 560 incidents per 100,000 people, while today it is down to 415. Property crimes have consistently decreased as well.

That’s thanks in large part to good policing by well-trained officers. Michigan must make sure it has more of them in the pipeline.