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Cops are quitting. The story of a retired McLean County patrol sergeant may help explain why.

flickr.com/appleswitch (Creative Commons)

Policing is difficult work. The job involves long hours, low pay, and high stress. People who work in law enforcement say the job has never been easy. But difficulties are now compounded by a wave of anti-police sentiment that swelled in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

The Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, was sentenced to more than 22 years for his murder. But for many people, Floyd’s death was an indictment of the entire profession.

Jody May served 20 years with the McLean County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). He retired this year, earlier than expected, partly because he was tired of the constant attacks on his character.

Jody May receives his retirement badge from McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage.
McLean County Sheriff's Office

“Being called a bigot racist by two 17-year white kids who get into their mommy and daddy’s BMW,” May said. “You judge me for having a patch on my arm before you even talk to me.”

The best way May could think of to cope with incidents like that was make jokes to his wife about her racist husband. May’s wife is Black.

May can’t point to one reason in particular why he chose to leave law enforcement. He said he finally just became too worn down to continue.

Increased attrition

In 2018, May was one of 140 employees in the sheriff's department. There's been a lot of turnover since, with 54 of those people (or 38%) no longer employed with the department today, according to employee records reviewed by WGLT.

A similar story is unfolding in police departments across the country. A recent survey of nearly 200 departments found a 45% increase in the retirement rate and a nearly 20% increase in resignations in 2020-21 compared to the previous year.

The survey was completed by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit thinktank. PERF’s Executive Director Chuck Wexler said people are leaving the profession in record numbers partly because of increased levels of public scrutiny.

“I mean think about it,” Wexler said. “Read the papers today. It’s hard to get through the paper without a story about how the police have failed to do their job in some capacity.”

An intense focus on what police do wrong has led to a skewed perception of how they preform their jobs more generally. While structural racism in law enforcement does exist, it doesn’t tend to align with popular narratives, according to Bill Lally, a veteran police officer who teaches criminal justice at Eureka College and Illinois State University.

“We know there’s a systemic problem with police over-policing minorities on things like traffic stops,” said Lally.

“Is there an overall problem where use of force is concerned? Data says no, there isn’t,” Lally said.

Lally cites contact surveys dating back to 1996 showing that of more than 45 million contacts police have with citizens each year, less than 1% involve even the threat of force – let alone actual force.

But when Lally asks his students to guess how many police contacts involve force, they often guess upwards of 70%.

It's that kind of widely held misperception that can make being a police officer so difficult, Lally said. When bad actors color public perception, it can lead to sweeping mischaracterizations of the entire profession.

“The vast majority are just trying to take care of their community,” Lally said.

But Lally said there’s a growing perception among police that they’ve lost the support of the community they’re policing. And that lack of support is one reason why Lally, who’s a third-generation cop, isn’t sure he’ll encourage his own son to follow in his footsteps.

Shifting mindsets

That’s a sentiment that’s echoed in departments across the country, said Wexler. Policing used to be a family business, but Wexler finds that cops are starting to rethink whether that’s a tradition they’d like to see continue.

“You go into a room of police officers and you say how many of you would like to have your brother or you children become cops, and very few will raise their hands,” he said.

Part of what’s driving that shift in mindset is the fact that policing, always a dangerous job, is becoming more dangerous. So far, 2021 is on pace to be the worst year for gun violence in decades. And according to theFBI annual crime report, the U.S. in 2020 experienced a 29% increase in murders.

Amid these statistics are calls for sweeping changes to the criminal justice system that would strip officers of protections like qualified immunity and reduce funding for police departments.

Considering everything police have to contend with, retired MCSO patrol sergeant Jody May said it's no wonder people don't want to get into law enforcement.

“I would hate to be a 25-year-old kid just starting in this profession,” May said. “A year ago, they basically wanted to strip you naked and send you out there and tell you, ‘Do nothing. Stand there.’”

On top of everything else, law enforcement often pays less than other jobs. The starting salary for MCSO officers is $54,519, the lowest among area departments. May acknowledges that pay is a factor, but he said it’s not the reason he chose to leave the profession.

Instead, he describes just becoming gradually worn down. Eventually he decided retirement was the best way to take care of his mental health.

But even in retirement, May can’t let go of the job completely. It’s impossible to drive anywhere in the county without being assaulted by memories, he said.

“Kid got killed there. Grandma didn’t make it from a car wreck on that road. There’s the cross where the guy was doing CPR,” May said.

“Before I got into this, I never knew there was so much death.”

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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