Earlier this year, the chief of police in Aurora, Colo., needed to find a few dozen officers to join his force.
The chief, Dan Oates, was 50 officers short to patrol Aurora, a city of roughly 400,000 people just east of Denver. But he knew limiting his search to Colorado would not be enough: Like many other leaders in law enforcement, he has found that fewer people these days want to be cops.
So Chief Oates and his team began to seek recruits at agencies where they believed pay and morale were low. They settled on New York City, and in August, he flew about 1,800 miles to meet with New York Police Department officers. He convinced 14 of them to move out west.
“I feel bad raiding my home agency,” said Chief Oates, who once served as a deputy chief in New York City. “But frankly it’s a cutthroat environment right now among police chiefs to recruit talent, and we all desperately need it.”
The departure of those officers was no anomaly. The New York Police Department, with about 34,000 officers, has seen more resignations this year than at any time in the past two decades as other agencies have become more aggressive in recruiting from its ranks.
Through November, about 1,225 officers resigned before even reaching five years of service, according to New York City Police Pension Fund statistics obtained by The New York Times. Many left for other New York State agencies or police departments outside the state.
That figure, which represents the largest such departure since at least 2002, compares to 870 resignations last year and 477 in 2020. The total number of officers who left the department through November, including retirees, is about 3,200. It is the highest overall number since November 2002.
New York Police Department officers are particularly susceptible to being wooed by other agencies. Lower salaries for new recruits are a big reason. So too are longer hours amid increased attention to crime from the mayor and the public, particularly in the subway system.
“Other communities are recognizing the talent and are poaching our members,” Patrick J. Lynch, president of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the city’s police officers, said in a phone interview. “If we pay our police officers a market rate of pay, they will stay here. We know that’s the answer because that’s what these other departments and jurisdictions are doing, with success.”
Police departments across the country are grappling with increasing resignations and retirements. And while hiring levels rose last year after a sharp decrease in 2020, they have not made up for the losses, according to a March report from the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group. In November, the organization’s director, Chuck Wexler, wrote that finding the next generation of cops may be “the single most daunting challenge that policing has faced in decades.”
The shortage has prompted agencies in less populous, less expensive areas like Aurora to broaden and intensify their searches for talent.
Chief Oates, who retired this week, said the officers he recruited from New York were partially lured by better pay. The starting salary at the Aurora Police Department is about $65,000 in an area where the average monthly rent is approximately $1,750 and the average home sale price is about $624,000, according to an August report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Incoming officers with four or more years on the job can earn a salary of around $100,000. Aurora also gives incentives to those who transfer from other departments, including a signing bonus of up to $10,000 and a $5,000 relocation bonus.
That is more money than officers make in New York City, where the median sales price for a home is $810,000 and the average monthly rent is about $4,500. The starting salary at the Police Department is $42,500, according to the most recent contract between the agency and the officer’s union. After three and a half years of service, officers can earn a salary of $47,000, and $85,292 after five and a half.
New York City officers were among the highest paid cops in the country until the mid-1990s, when the rank and file saw periods with little to no raises. In 1997, after a drawn-out battle between the union and then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, an arbitration panel ruled that officers should receive the same wage freeze as other city workers.
That decision began to widen the pay gap between the New York Police Department and other law enforcement agencies that continued to increase officer salaries.The union has since negotiated agreements and received arbitration settlements, but those raises were not always enough to catch up with wages in other police departments.
The current pay scale came about in 2017, when the union and then-Mayor Bill de Blasio entered a contract in which new recruits would receive lower starting salaries in exchange for raises later in their careers.
But many officers are leaving the force before they can earn those higher salaries. Some go to states like Florida, which promises officers a $5,000 bonus after they sign on. They can also receive other financial perks, including money for continuing education at Florida police academies.
Spero Georgedakis, a former Miami police officer and the owner of Good Greek Moving & Storage, works with the Florida Police Benevolent Association to help cops relocate to the state.
He recently began running a TV ads in New York City to promote his company’s services. The ad costs $20,000 a month to run, Mr. Georgedakis said, but is an investment in an area ripe with officers looking to leave.
“We don’t want to deplete New York City of their police officers,” he said. “But police are needed everywhere, and we want them to choose Florida.”
Law enforcement agencies outside New York City have long recruited from its Police Department, said Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
While there is little data on how many out-of-state agencies are recruiting New York City officers, Ms. Haberfeld said there was enough anecdotal evidence to show that “departments are much more aggressive in their efforts than before.”
“They have become very familiar with how their salaries and benefits compare to other departments, and they’ll tell candidates, ‘This is what we can offer you,’” she added.
Lower pay is exacerbated by other grievances, Mr. Lynch said. Many officers must work longer hours to make up for the staffing shortage to meet extra demands like patrolling the subway system, he said. Some officers feel frustrated when the people they have arrested are quickly released, he added.
The New York Police Department did not immediately respond to questions regarding officer morale, but said it was actively hiring.
“The N.Y.P.D. regularly monitors attrition and plans accordingly to address the loss of officers who retire or leave the department for a variety of reasons,” the department said in a statement. “Year-to-date we have hired approximately 2,000 individuals, including 600 individuals who were hired in October and have been training at the Police Academy.”
Since January 2020, about 9,400 officers have left, city pension data shows. About 6,900 have joined, though some graduating classes have fallen short of target goals.
The department this year put out a robust recruitment campaign on social media to get people to register for the police officer exam. But so have competitors. The Norfolk Police Department in Virginia posted a video on Twitter in July showing a group of officers on the job, including at the shooting range, on a boat and riding four-wheelers along a sandy coastline.
The post directly addressed the New York City Police Benevolent Association. “You should see what we are paying out-of-state laterals! Brand new officers start at $52,105,” it read, along with a link for how to sign up.