Francisca Benitez

Across the nation, fewer people are deciding to become police officers, and a rising distrust in law enforcement may be the reason.

According to data from the Department of Justice, the number of police officers per 1,000 people in the U.S. has gone down 11 percent since 1997. Nationally, police departments are finding it more difficult to fill vacancies.

The Oregonian reported earlier this month the Portland Police Bureau currently has 75 unfilled officer positions it is struggling to fill, and new recruits are dropping or failing out of training at double the rate they used to.

La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey said he can see the trend in La Grande as well. He said in the past when there was a vacant officer position he would likely receive 90 to 100 applications but now the department gets only about 20. He said that even though there are fewer applicants, the positions are still being filled with good candidates, so there hasn’t been a shortage of cops in La Grande.

“Locally we’ve been very fortunate,” he said.

One reason the job is less sought after, he noted, is that there is a good job market right now, and people are finding it easier to get jobs that pay more or aren’t as dangerous as policing.

Another big factor is the change in the public perception of police officers. Harvey said that a negative perception of cops is making the job seem more dangerous and less appealing.

After several highly publicized incidents involving police use of lethal force that resulted in the deaths of black men, national outrage sparked and protests broke out across the nation. A Gallup report from 2015 found public confidence in law enforcement was at the lowest it had been in 22 years.

“Look at the amount of negativity that’s put toward police,” Harvey said. “(A law enforcement) career is not perceived to be as desirable as it used to be.”

He recalled seeing applicants losing the desire to become officers and speculates that some may have lost interest because of the national distrust.

“They are saying, ‘Why would I even want to do this job?’” he said.

Kaleb Cole started working for the La Grande Police Department about a year ago. Cole said of the national increase in distrust for police: “Some cops have made a bad name for us as a whole.”

He said that he understands why the job is not for everyone. He decided to become an officer because his “heart is in the job.”

See complete story in Monday's Observer