WASHINGTON — Police recruit Nancy Laroche would once have considered herself an unlikely candidate to wear a badge. Growing up in a trailer park in Minnesota, Laroche thought police officers were the bad guys.
“I also thought police officers’ jobs were to go around making people’s lives harder because they weren’t hard enough. I know there is a large number of people in America who also believe that,” Laroche said.
Laroche is one of several recruits whom VOA interviewed at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy, outside Washington, who say they want to build a better, kinder force. Like many other parts of the country, the Washington area is suffering a shortage of officers, a problem blamed on a tight labor market and a negative perception of the job after a spate of incidents in which officers killed unarmed Black people.
Laroche chose to work for Arlington, Virginia’s police department because she thinks its values best reflect hers. “They are extremely involved in the community, making sure that different people, groups are being reached … making sure that those communities that need law enforcement get exposure to the police before a crisis happens,” she said.
Laroche said she was also impressed by how the department recruited her nearly a year ago. It was around the holidays and department staffers reached out with warm wishes, making her feel like part of their police family, even before she was hired.
Such personal touches and extra efforts are becoming the norm as police departments across America struggle to meet recruiting goals.
Patrick Loftus, director of strategic engagement for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, says recruiters are having to dig deep to find good talent, adding that negative perceptions of policing are also hindering recruitment.
“If you look at things that have happened over the last few years … there has been a lot of anti-police sentiment out there,” Loftus told VOA. “There’s been negative coverage in the media. There’s been negative things on social media, and really that anti-police climate has really hurt our recruiting – and not just us here. We talk to departments across the country and everyone is struggling to recruit.”
The shortage of police in the nation’s capital is acute. Officials say a fully staffed Washington Metropolitan Police (MPD) Department would have 4,000 members. The force currently has 3,400.
MPD has innovated to attract candidates. They’ve taken to the skies, with planes pulling banners above beaches advertising the department’s $20,000 signing bonus. They place ads on TikTok. They have also run a recruiting campaign in the New York City subway system urging “foodies and influencers” to become Washington police officers instead. The department helps some with college tuition costs, and rental assistance is offered to officers who decide to live in the city and not its suburbs.
“We are continuing to try to come up with just creative ways to attract the best candidates that we can,” Loftus said.
Meantime, there’s still an active movement in the United States to defund the police. Its ranks swelled following high-profile deaths of Black men at the hands of law enforcement, such as the 2020 death of George Floyd in police custody in the state of Minnesota.
The issue has split Democrats, with some, like President Joe Biden, demanding accountability for police actions but rejecting calls to slash law enforcement funding.
Others, like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, want police funding redirected.
“Affluent white communities already live in a world where the[y] choose to fund youth, health, housing etc more than they fund police,” Ocasio Cortez said in a statement after Floyd’s death. “Why don’t we treat Black and Brown people the same way?”
Republicans have seized on the issue, seeking to portray Democrats as soft on crime.
“The ‘Defund the Police’ campaign – endorsed by Democrats – has decimated our law enforcement, pushed them to leave their profession, and in some cases have even put a target on their backs,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California tweeted last year.
A Gallup poll released in May showed low public support for reducing police department budgets and shifting money to social programs, and minimal support for abolishing police departments altogether. There was broad support, however, for requiring officers to have good relations with the community and punishing officers who commit abuses.
Change was a word VOA heard several times when interviewing recruits at training academies in Northern Virginia and Washington. Recruit John Cox said he chose to join the Alexandria Police Department because he likes how it interacts with the local community.
“I want to influence a little bit of change even if it’s just a small drop in the bucket,” Cox said. “Maybe we don’t always make somebody’s day better, but if I can influence a little positivity in the community that’s kind of the ultimate goal … to help people.”
And Loftus says police work is still exciting for those with a calling to serve.
“You can go from finding a lost child to a domestic violence call,” he said. “You can help change somebody’s tire if they are on the side of the road broken down, give directions to a stranded motorist, catch a robber – and that’s all in one day.”