The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fairfax County has a police officer shortage. A youth program may help.

Like many big departments across the country, the county has many unfilled positions, and is working to build a pipeline of young recruits

Andrew Ohene-Nyarko, 18, gives a presentation to high school students about the public safety cadet program with the Fairfax County Police Department. (Fairfax County Police Department)

On Monday nights, after most students are long gone from the tiled halls of West Potomac High School, one classroom is left open.

It’s the room where Capt. Wilson Lee and other Fairfax County police officers meet about 35 high school students in the public safety cadets program — a pipeline, officials hope, that will one day fill their dwindling ranks.

Fairfax County officials say they are in the midst of a significant officer shortage, with about 190 vacancies this fall on a force that should have 1,600. According to data provided by the department, 172 of those empty posts are among patrol officers, often entry-level positions where officers have the most day-to-day contact with the public.

The problem is one plaguing some big departments across the country, as young people are reluctant to join a profession that faces intense scrutiny and whose members do not always act honorably, analysts say. Research suggests agencies saw an average 5 percent decrease in hiring from 2020 to 2021, according to the Police Executive Research Forum. Departments with more than 500 officers saw an average 36 percent reduction in hiring rate. D.C. police have advertised for officers on New York City subway trains, and the city now offers $20,000 signing bonuses as incentives to new hires.

“Large agencies are hit the hardest,” said Amie Bowman, a criminology professor at George Mason University. “And Fairfax County was one of those really big agencies.”

New-officer training presents ‘immediate crisis for policing,’ report says

The problem is not easy to solve quickly. High-profile incidents in which officers are caught on film abusing their power — such as in Minneapolis, where George Floyd died at the hands of police — reinforce negative views of all of law enforcement. Recruits must face vetting and undergo a lengthy training academy. In Fairfax, the vacancies have forced police to change their shift schedules to provide basic levels of coverage, Lee said.

But Lee and others hope that in reaching out to youths, they can fix the issue in the long term.

Lee and Fairfax county officers gathered around the students one November evening, asking them why they wanted to join the year-long public safety cadet program. Most teenagers said they wanted to learn what it means to be a police officer. One student said she was looking more for discipline. A returning student, who comes in from Spotsylvania County, Va., every week, said she hoped to help grow her confidence.

“The program introduces kids to police officers, but the students can also serve as ambassadors,” Lee said. “So, it’s a force multiplier in police recruitment.”

The officers listened to the students’ responses with an eye to solving a difficult problem. In this day and age, how do authorities persuade young people to join law enforcement?

Filling gaps

Criminal justice academy data provided by the county shows that Fairfax’s hiring declined by 27 percent between 2017 and 2022. Lt. Chris Cosgriff, head of recruitment at the Fairfax County department, said his team attended more than 10 hiring fairs at local universities this fall, working to pique young people’s interest in public safety.

As in D.C., the department is also rolling out financial perks. The minimum starting salary is $56,000, but new officers get a 5 percent raise if they speak a second language, have a college degree or have served in the military, according to the department.

Fairfax County’s board also voted in October to dedicate $2 million toward hiring bonuses for recruits — up to $15,000 for critical positions.

Salary incentives can be helpful, but they cannot be the sole solution to recruitment woes, said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum.

“Money is not the driving force,” Wexler said. “And as a matter of fact, if that’s the reason why someone wants to be a police officer, it’s probably the worst reason.”

Politics of policing

Amid calls to defund the police and hold law enforcement agencies accountable for their actions, Wexler said, more people realize the high-stakes nature of being a police officer — and some are more reluctant to sign on.

“The issue in policing, I think, is accentuated by the kind of post-George Floyd era we’re in where being a police officer just isn’t what it used to be in the minds of many,” he said.

Prosecutors to drop dozens of cases amid probe of D.C. violent crime squad

Wexler said it could take about six months to a year to hire someone who would be the right fit for police departments, but taking time to vet candidates was important. He said recruitment efforts should prioritize hiring people who want to join for a good reason.

“You don't want officers to be a microcosm of society,” he said. “You want them to have higher standards.”

Queenie Cox, head of the Gum Springs Civic Association in Fairfax, said there have been times when her community had a contentious relationship with the department.

But she said she believed the relationship has slowly improved over the past decade. Cox, 70, said the relationship could keep improving if police continue to recruit people who represent her community, which is predominantly Black.

About nine percent of Fairfax County is Black. Black officers make up roughly eight percent of the department, according to department data.

“I think that having a real, well-rounded, colorful police department that’s representing the community goes a long way,” Cox said. “A White officer is not going to know what a Black man, Black woman, Black youth, a Black person is feeling when they’re stopped or questioned.”

Brad Haywood, founder of Justice Forward Virginia, a police reform nonprofit, and the chief public defender in Arlington, said new patrol officers could help create a police force aware of historical tension between law enforcement and the Black community.

“Most police are legitimately hoping to serve their communities — I don’t dispute that,” Haywood said. “But I think the younger ones understand the approach needs to be more holistic.”

Recruiting for community

Andrew Ohene-Nyarko, 18, said he couldn’t wait to apply to Fairfax County’s criminal justice academy, which might give him a chance to join the department.

Since he was 14 years old, Ohene-Nyarko was one of the students who would come to West Potomac High School once a week. The recent Mount Vernon High graduate is now part of the team that leads the high-schoolers, welcoming new members to the program as they walk in each week.

Ohene-Nyarko said he liked that the program allowed him to better understand the department and what police there do. Since his freshman year of high school, he said he has met officers from all the stations and visited the academy facility. He also has gone on a ride-along in a patrol car.

“I didn't know half the things that actually happened in the community,” he said. “But after joining this program … seeing and hearing more about the community made me feel like I had to pursue this profession.”

They’re locked up in D.C. — and learning how to code from MIT

Cherise Milligan, a new officer in Fairfax County, said getting to know law enforcement officials also persuaded her to be a police officer. Milligan, 26, said she was long interested in criminal justice but wanted to apply to the academy after getting coffee with a federal agent. She had previously worked in the medical field, but graduated from the academy in August and has been working at the West Springfield station for about three months.

“I actually had a family member that went through the juvenile system and ended up going to prison long-term,” she said. “It inspired me to study the field and try to make a difference.”