By David Kennedy
As Pennsylvania families gather around their dinner tables, I hope they’ll say a small prayer for the three Pennsylvania police officers we’ve already lost this year: Brackenridge Police Chief Justin McIntire, McKeesport Police Officer Sean Sluganski and Temple University Officer Christopher Fitzgerald.
McIntire, Sluganski and Fitzgerald made the ultimate sacrifice. They are heroes. It’s in their memory that I hope state lawmakers can come together to help law enforcement do their jobs safely — and return home to their families. That means giving them more backup.
Right now, the biggest issue law enforcement faces is the recruitment and retention of good police officers. Departments across Pennsylvania, and America, are suffering from some of their lowest numbers ever.
In 2019, before the pandemic, police recruitment in the United States was already dire. So dire, in fact, that the International Association of Chiefs of Police termed it, “a crisis for law enforcement.” IACP noted that despite an increase in the raw number of law enforcement jobs, overall population growth has actually led to a decline in the ratio of residents to police officers.
Staffing problems became even more acute in 2020 with the pandemic and later fallout from the murder of George Floyd. Covid-19 claimed the lives of 900 officers nationwide, and the riots following the events in Minneapolis gave rise to the “defund the police” movement. This made our jobs more dangerous and led to an exodus known as the “great resignation.” The resignation rate in 2020-21 increased by 18% and the retirement rate rose by 45%, according to a survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum.
Here in the commonwealth, Pennsylvania police departments and the Pennsylvania State Police have not been immune. Things have gotten so bad that then-Attorney General Josh Shapiro initiated a “hero-pay” retention bonus program for police officers who work in short-staffed departments.
When you add in the effects of an economic recession with high inflation, salaries paid to police officers simply don’t go as far as they did, making recruitment even more challenging.
What does all of this mean?
Police staffing is no longer a crisis; it is a full-scale catastrophe. We simply don’t have enough officers to protect the citizens of this commonwealth. That’s the truth. If it’s one thing a criminal knows, it’s a numbers advantage, and they know our officers are spread far too thin. The result: Increased crime and violence is taking place all across Pennsylvania.
Here’s an example of how bad recruitment is suffering at the Pennsylvania State Police.
When I signed up in 1995, I competed for a position with 10,000 applicants. Let me say that again. I had to compete with 10,000 applicants to become a state trooper.
Last year? The Pennsylvania State Police had only 1,000 applicants. Let me say that again. Last year, the Pennsylvania State Police had only 1,000 applicants.
Despite this, our duties as troopers haven’t decreased. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Local municipal police departments continue to cease operations, leaving our department with the sole responsibility of covering those jurisdictions. We’re now responsible for over 85% of Pennsylvania’s land mass. Troopers also provide patrol duties in the cities of Chester and Philadelphia. And every time a new program is initiated by state or federal authorities, the state police are charged with implementing it without additional funding.
The Pennsylvania State Troopers Association believes there are legislative steps that can be taken to enhance public safety for all residents of the commonwealth. One item that can and should be done quickly is a dedicated funding stream for our department in the next state budget.
We must recognize the first duty of government is the safety of its citizens. With dedicated funding, our department can address many of the issues I’ve laid out here related to trooper recruitment and retention. It also would ensure we have the training in place to protect Pennsylvanians.
We are in constant training as state troopers, and the costs are only rising as more training is included. For example, since only November, I’ve received training for contact data reporting, emergency awareness, the Commonwealth Law Enforcement Assistance Network (CLEAN) and cyber security.
For the record, we support more training for our troopers. As we like to say, in a little over a century, training has helped the Pennsylvania State Police make the transition from horseback to helicopter.
Let’s address this growing catastrophe and increased violence head-on. A good start is to directly fund a line item in the state budget for the Pennsylvania State Police, so we have the backup and resources to accomplish our ever-growing mission.
David Kennedy is the president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association. This originally appeared in the February 23, 2023 edition of Trib Live.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Susquehanna Valley Center.