At Tulsa City Hall on Wednesday, councilors and Tulsa Police officials met to discuss growing rates of attrition among TPD officers.
“Chief [Franklin] said to me: We’ve got to get more folks or we’re going to have to cut some services,” councilor McKee recalled at the start of the meeting.
Since April of 2020, ninety-two Tulsa Police officers have left the force according to department representatives. In 2021 alone, the department has lost 45 officers with eight more departures currently pending.
Lack of staffing despite higher budget
Deputy Chief Jonathan Brooks said the department is facing mounting challenges as officers retire in “mass numbers”. This, coupled with younger officers leaving the force “after just three to four years of service” is straining staffing and capacity.
When officers leave the force, there simply aren’t enough applicants to fill the spots left vacant.
Academies for new recruits remain hardly half full and some more senior members of the department are being pulled from other roles to cover vacancies in patrol.
This sudden lack of staffing, however, isn’t the result of budget cuts. According to city documents, the police department’s overall budget is actually slightly higher than last year. Over the last five years, the Tulsa Police Department’s total budget has increased by more than $22 million.
Issues in police staffing has been a growing national trend for decades
Attrition in the police force is a nationwide trend. Some are quick to blame the media or the national uprising in the wake of the George Floyd murder. But recruitment numbers have been slowing over the past several years.
According to the Police Executive Research Forum, there has been a steady decline in police officers across the country over the last few decades. From 2013 to 2016, there was a more than 3% decrease in the number of sworn officers nationwide. Between 1997 and 2016, the number of officers per capita decreased by more than ten percent.
Likewise, a survey conducted by the Forum showed that nearly ⅔ of departments reported declines in staffing and applications over the course of the past several years.
While departments are sounding the alarm about this reduction in staffing now, the trend has been building for some time. National calls for policing practices to shift and evolve are being met with the recognition that the career needs of potential recruits are evolving as well.
“We’re going to have to think outside of the box to solve this problem,” said Tulsa City Councilor Jamie Fowler.
Community engagement and trust crucial for retention, study says
Several councilors discussed the possibility of voting on a property tax increase next summer to increase public safety departments funding. Some councilors believe this funding could help increase officer salaries and provide financial incentives for retention. Such an increase would require approval of at least 60% of voters across the city to take effect.
Community members continue to advocate for measures like reallocating funding to increased mental health services. City council members voted Wednesday to expand the city’s Crisis Response Team’s operation from three days a week to five. Before the vote, several councilors expressed a desire to expand it even further and asked Tulsa citizens to keep pushing.
According to the Police Forum report, equipping officers to address issues like mental health crises is key to retention.
Community engagement a key factor
The report also suggests incentives like housing assistance and student loan forgiveness to help expand recruitment access.
Similarly, the Police Forum’s report places significant emphasis on increased community engagement. In Tulsa last summer, following the deaths of multiple Black men at the hands of TPD officers, community members protested and called for clear and measured policy reforms.
After a meeting with the mayor, officials agreed to work toward community oversight, budget transparency and changes in accountability measures to enhance trust. A year later, these reforms still have yet to be implemented.
Department leaders continue to work to craft creative solutions to the staffing crisis facing the city’s police force. Several assured councilors that community engagement, traffic enforcement and addressing violent crime will remain a top priority.
“Our goal is reducing size of departments and not eliminating them completely,” said one TPS representative. “We want to spread it out so that the citizens don’t feel the impact.”