Pennsylvania faces ‘historic shortage of police.’ AG Shapiro, Commissioner Outlaw call on Harrisburg for help

A police car drives in Philadelphia

A police car drives in Philadelphia, Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro met with Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, along with area police chiefs, on Tuesday to discuss an ongoing problem: a historic shortage of police officers.

“The fact is, and we see this, fewer young people are deciding to make law enforcement their career,” Shapiro said. “That’s a problem. And it’s going to lead to long-term negative consequences in our communities.”

Pennsylvania as a whole currently has 1,229 vacant police positions across the state.

In Philadelphia, Commissioner Outlaw said, a combination of staff shortages and rising crime have worn police increasingly thin.

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“They’re all just bearing heavier case loads, suffering from burnout, and experiencing increased stress,” Outlaw said.

In 2015, the Philadelphia Police Department had approximately 6,600 sworn officers and 800 civilian personnel — that’s well above this year’s staffing numbers with 5,900 sworn officers and 600 civilian personnel.

In an attempt to triage the situation, Outlaw said, the PPD has been shifting officers from special units and administrative assignments to patrol duties in an effort to increase police presence in crime hotspots.

“But the truth is these efforts are just pulling from the same diminishing pool of resources,” Outlaw said, adding that they need more detectives to investigate cases — but they also need patrol officers to aid in preventing crime.

“To put it plainly, we’re just robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she said, “We know that rapidly increasing caseloads and reduced staffing equals lower case clearance rates, and lower clearance rates aren’t just about numbers or percentages. We’re talking about finding justice for victims and bringing closure to loved ones. It’s about healing our communities and about living freely without fear.”

Shapiro added that staff shortages have had a detrimental effect on police departments’ ability to build crucial relationships with the communities they work with — forcing officers to choose between walking their beat or engaging with the community in ways that help build confidence and trust.

“And that confidence really matters because having it leads to more tips from the public, more cooperation in solving crime, and it leads, importantly, to safer streets,” Shapiro said.

In the closed-door meeting with local police leaders that preceded public remarks, Shapiro said they discussed the origin of the problem, and possible solutions.

“It’s not just pay or pay differences or the inability to pay a competitive wage,” Shapiro said. “Oftentimes, would-be applicants are choosing not to apply because police feel beaten down in our communities.”

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He called for elected officials and the media to express stronger support for law enforcement, along with funding to invest in recruitment, training for officers, crisis intervention teams, and mental health units to work with the police. Shapiro also suggested incentives, like $6,000 signing bonuses for new officers in Pennsylvania, and $1,200 “hero pay” to keep existing officers on their beat.

“Unfortunately, it has not moved in Harrisburg,” Shapiro said. “It’s time for Democrats and Republicans to come together and invest in policing here in Pennsylvania. I want to hire 1,000 new police officers in the Commonwealth right away. We have the funds to do that. We have the leadership that wants to do it. It’s time for the politicians to act.”

In response to questions about how the effort jibes with ongoing calls to defund the police, Outlaw took a balanced stance.

“We have to swing the pendulum back,” she said. “We have to let folks know that these are not either/or conversations. We can be supportive of the police and hold us accountable at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

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