Law enforcement officials have met calls for defunding police and protests against police violence with an implicit threat: be careful what you wish for. More officers are quitting in frustration at the lack of respect, police officials often tell the press, and public safety will surely suffer. This summer, reports of cops quitting en masse have popped up across the country: Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, and New York City, a major center of the 2020 demonstrations.
“No one wants to come to work every day and be demoralized and vilified as they risk their lives to protect people,” NYPD detective union head Paul DiGiacomo told CNN in July, as applications for retirement picked up. “We are losing people who love this city, love the people of the city, love this agency,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea rued this month. Chief of Department Terence Monahan pointed to the rise in attrition at the same time as protests as a factor contributing to the precipitous rise in shootings and homicides this year, with fewer police available to deter crime in neighborhoods away from demonstrations.
The narrative makes intuitive sense: protestors are subjecting police forces to unprecedented scrutiny, and cops don’t want to put up with it, so they quit — and cities fall to pieces. But the relationship between the defund movement, a surge in police retirements and rising violence is not so straightforward. In fact, many of the police leaving forces may be strongly incentivized to quit right now, and a wave of retirements should have been coming around this time anyway, regardless of the protests.
“Actuarially speaking, a few hundred more people quitting in a year is a blip,” said E.J. McMahon, the founder of the Empire Center, a think tank which analyzes New York state and local governance and has studied police pensions. There has definitely been a surge in NYPD retirements. But it likely was driven by cops who were a year or two out from leaving, McMahon said, so protests may simply have sped up retirements that would have happened soon anyway.
Indeed, according to data provided to Newsday by the NYPD, the surge in police leaving the force has been completely driven by retirements — that is, officers eligible for pensions — rather than resignations, which would account for officers who just can’t stick it out until their pensions vest. Resignations actually decreased in the summer of 2020 compared to the same period last year.
This pattern was expected in many cities besides New York. Police forces in the country’s 62 largest cities went on a hiring spree throughout the 1990s, with headcount increasing at twice the rate of population growth in those localities, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Pensions for cops typically vest after 20 to 25 years, so those Clinton-era hires are reaching the point where they can claim their benefits. Crucially, they don’t have a lot to gain from staying on the force for much longer, said McMahon. “The way the benefits work, it doesn’t pay to work much longer than 20 or 25. You don’t get much more benefit from doing it unless you climb the chain of command, and you can still go out and get another full time job while collecting your pension and keeping free health care. Why wouldn’t you do that?” So it is likely true, as Commissioner Shea said, that the city is losing its veteran officers - but it probably would have over the next few years no matter what.
Protests may have driven officers to take their retirement this year in particular not just because they hurt cops’ feelings or presage more oversight: the demonstrations have sent overtime pay skyrocketing and thus made pensions more valuable this year. New York City saw its overtime payments quadruple in the two weeks after the protests. The NYPD calculates pension payments based on an officers’ “final average salary,” a measure of total compensation in the prior 36 months that includes overtime. Thus, a ton of extra work increases the final average salary. But the protests and thus the overtime are not likely to continue at the same pace into next year. Better, then, to put in papers for 2020 before one’s final average salary likely falls in 2021. “There tend to be waves of retirement after unusual events that lead to huge amounts of overtime,” McMahon said. The last time NYPD officers quit in large numbers was in the aftermath of 9/11, for example, when New York police officers were treated as unimpeachable national heroes.
The wave of retirements after 9/11 suggest that police attrition doesn’t necessarily lead to spikes in crime. According to the New York City Independent Budget Office, average uniformed headcount decreased by ten percent from its peak in 2000 to 2007, due to both increased retirements and weaker hiring, and it has stayed at the same level through 2019. In 2002, as the number of cops quitting ramped up, the Police Benevolent Association warned that the city’s safety was at risk. Yet in the 20 years before 2020, crime continued to fall to its lowest level in decades even with fewer uniformed officers.
“The size of police departments have shifted significantly over time in different directions,” said UCLA Law professor Joanna Schwartz, who has studied efforts to reform policing. “The notion that decreasing police forces will inevitably worsen public safety needs to be looked at skeptically.”
Police quitting out of pique may seem, ironically, to be doing the defund movement a favor. But in the current context, the attrition could be a big political risk for activists who want to rethink public safety. For one thing, police cuts are not being done in a thoughtful, planned way, and any savings from shrinking payrolls aren’t being applied to social service budgets, as many demonstrators have demanded. Local governments are aggressively slashing non-police budget items as tax revenues crater due to COVID-19 and Congress leaves states and cities out to dry.
“It’s really dangerous to think of austerity politics that leads to less policing as a win for the defund movement,” said Jocelyn Simonson, a professor at the Brooklyn Law School who has written about police reform. After all, in some cities like New York, a rise in shootings and homicides is being blamed on protests against police. “If the state not only isn’t spending money on police, but also isn’t spending money on health care and education or support so people don’t abuse drugs or harm each other, we’re not going to be in a good place. I worry about people pointing to the ‘results’ when we cut everything, and saying ‘well, that didn’t work.’ Of course that won’t work!”