Recruitment & Retention      Community Relations       Equitable Policy Reform       Support for Officers

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Losing badges: St. Louis area’s major police forces struggle to recruit, retain officers

WELLSTON — When St. Louis police Chief John Hayden announced his retirement this month on the steps of St. Louis City Hall, he identified the biggest challenge facing the region’s largest police force: finding and keeping officers.

“We’re competing for the best officers in the region and they can go elsewhere for more money and less demands,” Hayden said.

In St. Louis and St. Louis County — the region’s second-largest department — officer departures have spiked this year and are on pace to be up 60% in each department, compared with the annual average from the four years prior.

The Post-Dispatch interviewed police leaders, visited the region’s police academies and collected data on factors law enforcement leaders say are straining their departments. Results show recruiting and hiring are struggling to keep up with departures. For now, both departments have a ratio of police officers to residents that still falls in line with agencies of similar size and crime rates across the country.

Department leaders worry, however, that those ratios will decline if they can’t reverse the trend.

Among the problems the departments face:

• More officers are leaving. More than 82 officers are expected to leave St. Louis County Police by the end of 2021, up from an average of 51 officers who left the force in each of the past four years.

In the city, 103 officers have left so far in 2021, compared with an annual average of 87 departures the department saw in the previous four years.

• New hires are plummeting. St. Louis County police had hired just 26 officers by early August, compared with 45 to 60 hires in a typical year.

Before the pandemic, St. Louis typically had hired more than 100 officers by September. But by last September, the department had hired only 27 after police academy classes were canceled or delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So far in 2021, hiring is lagging, with 75 new officers and trainees on board.

• Both departments are below their budgeted strength. St. Louis County, with 923 officers, is short 53 people (about 5.5% of its police force.)

In St. Louis, the police force is the smallest it’s been in at least 20 years — 1,156 officers as of this month, according to city personnel records. That puts the department 95 officers, or 7.5%, short of its budgeted total, even after St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones cut 98 vacant officer positions from the department’s budget.

• St. Louis still ranks among the top large U.S. cities with the highest ratio of officers to residents. St. Louis’ ratio fell from 40 to 38 officers for every 10,000 residents between 2019 and 2021. That would put St. Louis below the ratio in some cities with similar violent crime rates — Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore — but above Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Kansas City, among others, according to the most recent FBI data from 2019. The areas patrolled by St. Louis County police have both a lower crime rate and a lower ratio of 23 officers for every 10,000 residents — slightly below the national average for departments of similar size.

Departures in the two local agencies do, however, seem to be outpacing national trends. The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of total local police officers nationwide fell by about 1% between 2019 and 2020.

Concern about police officers fleeing the profession are widespread in law enforcement circles. A national survey of 194 police departments conducted in May by the Police Executive Research Forum found that from April 2020 through March 2021, police resignations were up 18% and officer retirements increased by 45%.

Theories on what is driving the trend in St. Louis vary.

Department leaders, officers and recruiters told the Post-Dispatch this summer that increasing national focus on police misconduct, calls to cut law enforcement budgets, increased stress last year connected to high homicide rates and the pandemic, the draw of better benefits with less stress at smaller departments, and low national unemployment rates this year all may be contributing to the trend.

St. Louis Police Academy Director Lt. Angela Dickerson, who grew up in the city’s Walnut Park East neighborhood before joining the force 21 years ago, said she’s seen a stark difference in the number of people interested in the profession since the Ferguson protests in 2014, as well as the length new officers stay with the department.

“In a lot of places, policing is looked at in a negative fashion today: Social media, the news, protests, so that’s of course making it hard to get recruits,” Dickerson said. “And when they do complete our top training, in St. Louis these days they have a tendency to leave.”

Small academy classes

With their classmates observing, recruits Micah Stofferahn, left, and Jack Wheeler respond to a role play of a heroin overdose on Friday, Aug. 2021, at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

Class 203 at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy in Wellston is smaller than usual, but on a recent Friday its recruits were nevertheless going through a rite of passage.

The names of two recruits had been drawn to role-play a scenario they might one day encounter: a fentanyl overdose.

Outside on the academy’s blacktop, experienced officers portrayed an armed man who had just OD’d and his female companion with — the recruits would learn — an active warrant for her arrest.

Back in a classroom about an hour later, Class 203 analyzed body camera footage of the drill.

“Now what would we have done different?” instructor Michael Moore asked. He called on class members with the help of a digital wheel of names that played a round of applause when it selected a recruit. “Should the gun be evidence? Should we have put it on top of the car and left?”

“Nope,” said one of the two recruits in the role-play, Micah Stofferahn, shaking his head. “Yeah, shouldn’t of done that.”

“Our defensive tactics training is scenario based training, it’s based on what you will encounter on the street … we want them to think on their feet. We want them to be able to do stuff when they are under stress or out of breath, to talk to people to de-escalate,” said defensive tactics instructor Marc Wasem, left, who keeps an eye on recruits Deavon O’Neal Fontes, center, and Brandon Andrews, right, as they practice defensive positioning on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, at the St. Louis Police Academy in downtown St. Louis. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

It takes more than six months to make it through the academy’s mix of role-plays, physical and firearms training, and tests on topics such as constitutional law. That’s on top of an often monthslong application process for some departments.

A few months into training, Class 203 has just 16 trainees, down from 21 who began. The typical academy class is 20 to 25 graduates.

In St. Louis, the latest academy class is even smaller with just 11 recruits. Graduating classes over the past five years have averaged 25 to 30.

Last year, the department ran two academy classes with a total of 45 recruits after classes were delayed or canceled because of COVID-19. That’s less than half the recruits trained in a typical year.

Dickerson spoke to a Post-Dispatch reporter as the new recruit class practiced arrests in the academy’s gymnasium. The words “leadership, integrity and fairness” were painted on the walls above their heads.

“We put the class on because we didn’t know with the pandemic if we were going to have to wait again,” Dickerson said. “And we need officers now.”

In St. Louis County, acting St. Louis County police Chief Kenneth Gregory told the Post-Dispatch in August that officer departures were a significant problem, and increasing recruitment was among his top priorities.

Recruit Ronald Portis III fills out evaluation of the heroin overdose role play before a group review discussion on Friday, Aug. 2021, at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy. Photo by Laurie

Among the Class 203 recruits is Ronald Portis III, 27, who decided he wanted to leave his career as a freelance photographer and videographer shooting weddings and other events to become a police officer, despite protests against police misconduct over the last year.

”I was at a point in my life where I said: ‘Hey, I’m sitting on the sidelines. I have friends who are nurses fighting the pandemic. What can I do to impact people’s lives?’” said Portis, who is Black. “I know I can’t change the world, but I’d rather know that I tried to help. Right now there are communities of color that feel like there’s a lack of trust with law enforcement and I thought maybe I can be the person to regain some of that trust.”

Losing officers

Departures tracked over four months this year by the St. Louis Police Officers Association show two groups most likely to leave: New officers with less than four years in the department, and experienced officers who have reached milestones for their pension benefits.

Of the 37 officers who left in those four months, about a third retired, a third moved to other law enforcement agencies, and the rest were dismissed, died or left for personal reasons, according to the union.

The union’s business manager Jeff Roorda said morale at the department is “nonexistent.” He says the mayor’s approach to public safety is driving officers out.

Jones advocated cutting the police department’s budget by $4 million this year, though that reduction was eventually more than offset by $5 million for police overtime included in the city’s federal COVID-19 aid package. Jones has often emphasized that St. Louis does not need more officers and should shift some police functions to social workers and other professionals.

Nick Desideri, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said that pay and high workload are the most common reasons for officers leaving. Reallocating some calls for police could reduce the workload, he said.

“We want our police officers to focus on their most important job: responding to violent crime.”

Roorda said officers are frustrated by the city’s claim that their union contracts are not enforceable because negotiations reached an impasse — an argument the union plans to challenge in court.

Sgt. Donnell Walters, president of the Ethical Society of Police — a group that advocates for Black and minority officers — says a failure by the city to enforce training contracts also contributes to the officer drain.

Walters works in the St. Louis police recruitment office and says the city is not getting full value for the investment it makes to train new officers.

When recruits enroll at the St. Louis Police Academy, they sign an agreement to pay the city back their training salary if they leave before four years. But that’s not being enforced, Walters said.

It costs the city about $35,000 to fully train each recruit, including about $18,000 they get as a stipend through their seven-month training. But new officers have increasingly been leaving after only a few years, Walters said.

This year, for example, at least 14 officers left for other departments before reaching their four-year mark with the city, according to records tracked over four months by the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

The St. Louis city counselor’s office has said recruit agreements can’t be enforced without a city ordinance, according to a statement from the mayor’s office.

“Mayor Jones’ administration is looking into its avenues for enforcement to ensure these agreements are upheld and that the taxpayers get a return on their investment into training new public servants,” the statement said.

In St. Louis County, department spokeswoman Sgt. Tracy Panus said recruits who are sponsored by the department to attend the academy do not sign an agreement to work for the department for a set period.

Panus said the department did not want its officers to feel like indentured servants.

About half the officer departures this year in St. Louis County have been retirements and people leaving law enforcement, while the rest left for other law enforcement positions, Carl Becker, head of the police department’s human resources department, told the civilian police board that oversees the department last month.

Joe Patterson, executive director of the St. Louis County Police Association, said retirements were expected to increase this year because many had been waiting until three years after they got raises through the St. Louis County Public Safety Tax, approved by voters in 2017 and commonly known as Proposition P. Pension benefits are calculated based on the last three years of employment.

Patterson said the exodus to other departments goes beyond pay and benefits. He argues those departures are a symptom of low morale that the union has tracked through surveys of its members over the last year.

“We as a community and as a nation need to treat our police officers with more respect, while still holding them accountable,” Patterson said. “I remember law enforcement agencies used to have a waiting list for new hires, and now all across the nation police departments are struggling to recruit new members. This is a direct result of negative attention on law enforcement for the better part of the last decade.”

Still, Chief Hayden in St. Louis and acting Chief Gregory in the county have focused their public comments on officers they are losing to other departments in the region, including St. Charles County police and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

Starting police salaries last year were $49,140 in St. Louis and $52,200 in St. Louis County, according to the Post-Dispatch 2020 public salary database. In St. Charles County officers started at $56,000 and all officers got a take-home police vehicle. Deputy sheriffs in Jefferson County started at $50,300 as of last year.

St. Charles County police Chief Kurt Frisz said he’s hired more than 30 experienced police officers, mostly from St. Louis and St. Louis County, within the last 18 months.

Frisz says his department hasn’t had to sponsor any recruits through academy training in that time because he’s been able to fill all 145 police officer jobs with already licensed officers.

”I think a lot of police officers want to live out here or do live out here already and they want to police in their community,” Frisz said. “They usually don’t say anything bad about the agency they’re leaving, but I do think some of them get frustrated by the political noise. In St. Charles County, our community really supports law enforcement in a big way.”

Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak said in August that he had just interviewed at least 12 St. Louis police officers and hired three. Marshak said the officers told him they didn’t feel supported in St. Louis.

When a department is understaffed and morale dips, Marshak said, suburban cities and counties can cherry pick officers from the larger police forces.

”There becomes increased resentment and distrust,” Marshak said. “With fewer officers on the street there also becomes a feeling of vulnerability. All these things become more stressful and a motivator to seek something different.”

Upped recruitment

A year ago, the St. Louis police chief told city aldermen he was hopeful that 2021 would see a turnaround in police recruitment.

Hayden told the aldermanic public safety committee that he hoped the state Legislature’s removal in fall 2020 of the residency requirement for St. Louis police officers, at least until 2023, would result in a net increase of 100 officers.

“It’s possible we could make a lot of headway,” Hayden said at the time.

Instead, the department has 64 fewer officers today.

The department had hoped to capitalize on the relaxed residency rule through an ad campaign launched in February and paid for by the nonprofit St. Louis Police Foundation.

Ads using the slogan “Be the Change” ran on local radio stations, in print, on social media and took over posters around the St. Louis Galleria. The effort was paired with a new recruitment website for the department.

“It’s asking people: If you could be the change, what would you do?” said Sgt. Christy Allen, who was featured in the campaign and has worked in recruitment for St. Louis police for six years.

The department saw an uptick in applications after the ad blitz, but candidates change their minds or were weeded out through the department’s weekslong vetting process.

To be accepted into the academy, applicants can’t have a significant criminal record nor infractions like unpaid taxes. They must pass a written exam that tests their comprehension and reasoning and surveys their life experiences, and they must pass a physical test consisting of an obstacle course as well as a board interview before they can enter the academy.

Allen said slowdowns in recruiting that began around the Ferguson protests in 2014, intensified with the COVID-19 pandemic.

For months, recruits were not allowed to come in to complete the academy’s eligibility tests because of concerns about spreading COVID-19. Finding candidates in schools and at job fairs was also harder with many events canceled because of COVID-19, Allen said.

“In recruiting for law enforcement, I personally rely heavily on the face-to-face interaction with people, and it’s just not the same over a computer,” Allen said.

In St. Louis County, Becker, the head of human resources, told the police board in August that the department had increased the number of recruiters from two to three this year.

“We want the recruiters to get out in the field and make more personal, aggressive recruiting,” Becker said. “Not just at job fairs, but also that one-on-one recruiting.”

Despite the added focus, Becker said, “I don’t see any home run recruitment tactic.”