Union membership for police officers is on the rise across the nation even as individual police departments, in some cases, face hundreds of vacancies.

The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, has the highest union membership in almost a decade, with 341,946 members as of Dec. 19, according to an organization spokesman. That’s an increase of almost 20,000 members since spring 2018.

“Year in and year out, we’re in a gradual growth pattern,” Fraternal Order of Police Executive Director Jim Pasco told Bloomberg Law.

At the same time, however, police departments like the one in Austin, Texas, are trying to fill positions in a tight labor market, Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday told Bloomberg Law. The Austin department has 103 vacancies, he said.

The Police Executive Research Forum group distributed a survey in October to 775 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, asking whether the number of candidates applying for full-time sworn positions had changed. More than 63 percent said applicant numbers have decreased in the past five years, with 35.8 percent saying the numbers have declined significantly.

Recruiting is just getting harder, Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told Bloomberg Law.

“On the one hand, you’re seeing specific reduction in the number of people wanting to be police officers,” Wexler said. “On the other hand, you’re seeing people retiring.”

Overall, national police officer employment numbers have increased year over year—just as the population has grown year over year, according to Current Population Survey numbers—but jobs can still remain vacant.

Unions like the FOP seek higher wages, offer legal support, and facilitate community outreach on behalf of officers. The FOP is the largest law enforcement union in terms of membership, but there are other law enforcement unions, like the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Association of Police.

“The reason I think that we have been able to gain against the trend is that police see a greater need for the kinds of protections that a union affords,” Pasco said. The union is tasked with giving “that individual the best possible defense, and to do everything in our power to preserve their due process rights.”

Applicants Wanted

Some unions are stepping up to find more job applications by subsidizing recruitment costs or helping with outreach, said Austin Police Association’s Casaday.

“We have a very close relationship with our department and recruiting. We talk to recruiting every week,” he said. The union also provides food for recruiting events and subsidizes other costs.

Other unions take a hands-off approach to hiring, relying on the quality of their reputation to recruit new members, FOP Lodge 7 President Kevin Graham told Bloomberg Law. The lodge represents police officers in Chicago. There, he said, it’s the city, not the union, that does the hiring.

“It is up to the member whether or not they want to join the Fraternal Order of Police,” he said in an email. “However, the only way to participate in legal defense for Police Officers is to be a FOP member. Most Officers feel it is important to belong to the legal defense fund.”

Unions do, however, advocate for higher salaries, something job prospects want, the FOP’s Pasco said.

“We fight for improved pay and improved pensions and benefits,” he said. “They’ve gotta make a living wage—police officers, like I say, don’t sign up to get rich, but they’ve got to support their families.”

Low Morale, High Risk

Labor observers agree that job candidates are put off by the public perception of police, which complicates recruiting efforts. Unions, however, can step in to support officers when morale is low, Northeastern University law and criminal justice professor Daniel Medwed told Bloomberg Law in an email statement.

“It could reflect a growing sentiment among police officers that they are ‘under siege’ as a result of the bad publicity generated by citizen shootings and the sense that bolstering union clout might be an effective long-term strategy both in terms of public messaging and job security,” Medwed said.

Turning to unions for security also could be explained by a general move in the direction of decriminalization of minor infractions—less work might mean fewer employees needed, he said.

“If arrests decline, what does that mean for staffing at police departments? Will we require fewer officers and, if so, what are the consequences for people currently in the field?” Medwed said.

Unions can help bridge the gap and improve the perception of police officers in the field, but they can also hurt it, former Seattle police chief and current Northeastern University professor Gil Kerlikowske told Bloomberg Law.

“If you’re trying to bridge with the community, there’s some very smart, strategic, tactical union presidents that can work very well with community groups,” he said. “And then you’ll see kind of the union leadership that will just lash out, and feel life is unfair, and on and on.”