After the killing of five police officers on 7 July, Dallas police chief David Brown issued an invitation to those who marched in protest at killings of African Americans by law enforcement: join us.

“Serve your community, don’t be a part of the problem,” Brown said at a news conference. “We’re hiring. Get off of that protest line and put your application in.”

A message on the Facebook page of the Dallas police recruiting department four days after the deaths suggests that there had been a surge of inquiries. “Thank you for everyone’s interest in wanting to apply with our department,” it said.

But there are fears that strained community relations, budget shortfalls and perceptions of a “war on cops” heightened by the deaths in Dallas and the fatal shootings of three officers in Baton Rouge last Sunday will worsen recruiting problems faced by departments in the Texas city and elsewhere.

Keith Wenzel, an instructor and retired Dallas police sergeant who still trains officers there about once a month, said he doubted that Brown’s well-intentioned plea would be persuasive given the trenchant criticisms of police expressed by many protesters, the national outpouring of anger since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson in 2014, and the risks underlined by the Dallas and Baton Rouge tragedies.

“You can’t turn on a news source without seeing that police officers have been assassinated,” he said. “Quite honestly, why would anybody right now be encouraged to be a police officer?” Wenzel believes that “with the protests, everything that’s going on, it is safe to assume … nearly all departments are having a difficult time to attract applicants.”

You can’t turn on a news source without seeing that police officers have been assassinated

Keith Wenzel

Despite recent events, statistics do not suggest that law enforcement personnel are substantially more likely to be killed now than in the past, though fatal shootings are on pace to exceed last year’s total.

The Officer Down Memorial Page, which counts line-of-duty law enforcement deaths, tallied 130 fatalities from a variety of causes in 2015, down from 145 in 2014. In 2010 the figure was 177. So far this year the Memorial Page has counted 69 deaths, 32 from non-accidental gunfire. Last year there were 39 deaths from non-accidental gunfire. In 2014 the figure was 47; in 2010 it was 59.

The most recent of this year’s gunfire deaths was a drive-by shooting in Kansas City on Tuesday.

Long before Micah Johnson’s attack on officers in downtown Dallas, the department had been grappling with practical problems that have hampered its ability to attract and retain staff: its location in a large metropolitan area with numerous police departments that offer higher salaries and a safer working environment.

Wenzel said that Dallas provides good-quality training, but the department, which has more than 4,000 employees, is short by several hundred officers. A Dallas police spokesman was not made available to comment on recruitment.

The base salary for new Dallas police officers is $44,658, or $48,258 with a college degree. That is lower than in Fort Worth, 30 miles away, where officers can expect an annual wage in excess of $52,000. In the affluent suburb of Plano, where the violent crime rate is significantly lower than Dallas, officers earn a base salary of $63,757.

Two Dallas academy classes were cancelled because a lack of applicants made them financially unviable, WFAA local news reported in May. Mike Mata, a Dallas Police Association vice-president, told WFAA that the hiring issues were becoming “critical”.

Brown said that the challenges involved in modern-day policing go far beyond coping with the current polarised climate. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” he said. “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve,” referring to problems from dealing with mentally ill people and drug addiction to inadequate education and stray dogs.

Dr Ron Martinelli, a forensic criminologist and former police officer, believes that America’s law enforcement agencies are increasingly diverse, educated and technologically advanced.

You’re expecting the police officer to resolve everything like they see on television. It’s ridiculous

Dr Ron Martinelli

But Martinelli, who has criticised the Black Lives Matter movement, claimed that officers face “the most challenging and difficult population to work with that we’ve ever had in our lives”, citing cultural complexities, changing relationships between citizens and police, and mental health and drug problems in the general population.

“You’re expecting the police officer to resolve everything like they see on television. It’s ridiculous,” he said.

A Reuters review found that the number of uniformed officers fell by 6.1% last year in Baltimore, a city enduring a host of woes including budget cuts, rising crime and tense relations between community and law enforcement.

Last year an investigation by WBAL local news found that 79% of Baltimore’s police officers do not live in the city.

According to census figures, the population of San Jose rose by 7.8% between 2010 and 2015 and now stands at more than a million. But the California city’s police department trended in the other direction. The Mercury News reported in March that officer numbers have sunk from over 1,400 eight years ago to about 900, largely because of pension reforms that have spurred employees to look elsewhere, while many academy applicants fail to make the grade.

The San Jose police department announced a new rule in March that makes it easier for some military veterans to sign up. The force now accepts their service in lieu of college education requirements.

In Chicago, with the number of retirements outstripping the rate of new hires, the city’s beleaguered police force spent $116.1m on overtime in 2015 – up more than 17% on the previous year, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Copyright © 2016 theguardian.com. All rights reserved.

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