MPD continues to struggle to recruit new officers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The loud bang doesn’t make Katie Millian flinch. She takes aim, squeezes the trigger on the gun, and the bullet hits the paper target 25 yards away. Firearm practice is not recreational for Millian; it’s professional. She wants a career in law enforcement.

“I want to help people. I believe police officers are the first people on the scene and have the closest connection to the community,” said Millian, a graduate student in the University of Memphis Criminology and Criminal Justice Program.

Millian is the type of candidate who would attract attention from a police department recruiter. She is college-educated, a minority and bilingual in English and Spanish. Police departments across the country are competing for such candidates, especially the Memphis Police Department, as it tries to build up its complement of officers to 2,500.

But MPD is having a tough time.

“It is a national problem,” said retiring Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings. “We have seen a year like we have never seen before in recruiting young men and women to the profession. It is a challenge.”

MPD has pushed and publicized the message about rewarding careers in law enforcement through its Best in Blue program and other initiatives, but the numbers keep falling short.

FOX13 wanted to know how many people applied to the Memphis Police Department from the years 2017 through 2020.

According to figures obtained through an open records request, nearly 15,000 people applied, but only 548 candidates graduated from the police academy. That’s a graduation rate of under 4%.

In 2020, more than 1,800 people applied, but only 53 candidates graduated from the academy. That’s fewer than 3%. The department needed more graduates because 122 officers retired in 2020.

FOX13 asked Rallings what would be the impact if his department couldn’t get qualified applicants to join.

“That is an easy one,” said Rallings. “We will continue to spend $25 million or more a year in overtime because the staffing shortage has to be addressed.”

MPD has strict standards that whittle away candidates who are neither committed nor ready to protect and serve. For example, in 2020, 1,802 people applied to join the department, but only 471 showed up to take the basic agility test. The number of applicants who passed that test was 294. Subtract the number of candidates who didn’t have the minimum requirements and failed the background review or psychological exam, and MPD only graduated 53 rookie officers.

“It’s a tough time to recruit law enforcement professionals, but it is a critical function and something we all really need to work harder on,” Rallings said.

It’s a problem that extends beyond Memphis.

“This is nationwide. And again, it has been that way for quite some time,” said associate professor Dr. KB Turner of the University of Memphis Criminology and Criminal Justice Program.

Turner told FOX13 almost all law enforcement agencies compete against each other to find candidates like Millian: educated, computer-skilled and diverse.

“We also know one of the best ways to deter crime is a police presence — again, the presence of those officers. So it is very important. But I do believe we’re going to get those numbers up. It’s just not going be overnight,” said Turner.

Memphis tried to relax the residency requirement to recruit candidates, but a new city council voted down a proposal to put that issue before the voters.

“It would lead one to believe when you don’t have the residency requirements, you don’t have a shortage of officers. But that is clearly not the case when we look at other police departments across the country,” said Memphis City Councilman Martavius Jones, who leads the fight not to relax the residency rules.

So can MPD field a force of 2,500 officers? Rallings told FOX13, “The goal could be reached, but it would take some heavy lifting. I think we need to take the car program. A departmentwide take-home car program. Similar to what Metro Nashville has. We really need to be leading this region in pay and benefits. The residency issue is still an issue that is not going to go away.”

But candidates such as Millian will go away from Memphis to join a police department that offers the best opportunity for a career.

But Millian also added, “I love Memphis. This is my city, and it would be a great pleasure to serve a great department like the Memphis Police Department.”

With only days left on the job, Rallings was adamant in stressing that his officers have not failed the public despite the challenges of staffing and the pandemic. The challenge to build up the department is unfinished business for his successor.

For information on how to join the Memphis Police Department, CLICK HERE.