(NewsNation) — Police departments are struggling to retain existing police officers and recruit new ones, causing severe staffing shortages that are leaving communities around the country vulnerable.
“So many people have left our department that it’s not uncommon for you to be put on hold and wait four or five minutes to get someone to answer a 911 call,” Detective Ken Casaday, from Austin, Texas, told NewsNation.
A mass exodus of police officers has happened in the past two years, leaving some departments “severely” understaffed. In many departments across the country, low police morale is intertwined with steep budget cuts and a lack of public support.
“They feel tired, overworked, stretched to the breaking point,” Lt. Tracy McCray said.
This comes amid a wave of growing violence, as many cities are now trying to navigate how to maintain public safety while also addressing the calls to reform and “defund” the police sparked by George Floyd’s murder. Activists are seeking to have police budgets reallocated to other services.
McCray was a police officer for nearly 30 years, and now serves as president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. She points to funding cuts as a major issue facing the SFPD, with more than $120 million being taken from the police budget and redistributed to other areas.
“I think the officers today in the city, they don’t feel supported by some of the local politicians, even by some of the command staff within the department,” McCray said.
Amid these challenges, the calls for help haven’t stopped, creating a perfect storm for officers on the streets.
“The ones that you do have out working the street are taxed because they’re having to stay longer,” McCray explained. “They’re having to deal with more calls because nobody stopped calling us.”
Staffing shortages have led police departments like Austin to reallocate resources.
“Our detectives that work in child abuse, robbery, homicide, who are very, very busy these days have just been told we’re sorry, but you’re gonna have to leave your caseload and go back to the streets to answer 911 calls,” Casaday said.
Casaday is president of the police union in Austin. Casaday told NewsNation the Austin Police Department is down 400 officers from a high of 1,900 just three years ago. Casady said police officers are working up to 60 to 80 hours a week to make up for the shortage. He said his union is grappling with officers dealing with overwork, exhaustion and negative comments.
“It’s not only the defund movement, it’s the negative comments saying, ‘We don’t need you.’ Your boss, your mayor telling you that they hope there’s a day that you’re no longer needed,” Casaday said.
Nearly 4,000 miles away in Hawaii, Lt. Robert Cavaco is facing the same situation, which he believes is making the community less safe.
“Crime has gone up specifically robberies and sex assaults — it’s the violent crime,” Cavaco said. “We may not have enough officers to fulfill the calls for service. I’m not trying to be dramatic. But we may come to a point where, you know, we may have to call back and say we can’t service you right now, if it’s not a dire emergency.”
Higher retention and more recruitment are the immediate solutions.
“The profession in itself is in a dire, dire crisis,” Cavaco said, underlining the importance of officers feeling valued in their community.
“2,000 men and women who come in every day and try to do their best. Do we get it right all the time? No. But when we don’t we own up to it,” McCray said. “We still come back the next day to do our job to serve the people in the city.”
Officers stressed the need for open and honest dialogue between police and the communities they protect.
This is the first part of a series revolving around the police crisis in America.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.