Memphis police numbers dropped by nearly a quarter in recent years – were staffing shortages a factor in the killing of Tyre Nichols?
Published in Political News
In the years running up to the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, the Memphis Police Department faced an increasingly dire staffing crisis. Indeed, shortages on the force have led to questions over whether, given their relative lack of experience, the five officers now charged with Nichols’ murder would have been assigned to the now-disbanded SCORPION unit – or even hired in the first place.
Memphis isn’t alone in confronting the issue of dwindling officer numbers. In January 2023, the federal judge monitoring the Baltimore Police Department said a severe staffing shortage there is causing slow reform progress as the agency attempts to comply with a federal consent decree.
We are criminologists, two with experience as police officers, who study police turnover and its effects on agencies and communities. In jurisdictions across the U.S., we’ve seen how police departments are experiencing significant changes to the three main variables in police staffing: recruitment, resignations and retirements.
We’ve also seen that these changes are likely to deteriorate the quality of policing and may give rise to more incidents of officer misconduct, increased violent crime, decreased policing services and a failure to meet community and professional standards. The investigation into what happened in Memphis, Tennessee, on Jan. 7 is still ongoing, but we believe the effect of staff shortages and the experience levels of the officers involved in Nichols’ death should form part of the inquiry.
Since 2011, the earliest year of staffing data available on the Memphis Data Hub, the Memphis Police Department’s number of sworn officers has dropped by 22.6% – from a high of 2,449 officers in September 2011 to a low of 1,895 officers in December 2022.
When an agency loses this many officers, one consequence can be that more inexperienced officers end up in specialized details like SCORPION, as agencies struggle to fill gaps in their operations.
In response to staffing shortfalls and rising crime, the Memphis Police Department relaxed its hiring standards in 2018, such as by no longer requiring a college degree to begin working as a police officer.
However, this approach only temporarily improved staffing levels. After mass racial justice protests in the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the trend reversed as the agency began losing officers again. This downward trend surpassed the lows that previously led to lowered hiring standards in 2018.
Turnover takes different forms, and in our analysis, the Memphis Police Department has seen a distinct increase in the number of officers leaving the agency voluntarily, prior to retirement. The department experienced a significant spike in resignations since the summer of 2020, losing an additional 75 officers to resignations compared with what would have been expected based on trends in years past. This increase in resignations equates to an additional 3.3% of the Memphis Police Department leaving in just two years.
Concern about staffing shortages is not confined to Memphis and Baltimore. Over the past three years, police recruitment and retention have been key concerns for jurisdictions across the country.