New York City police officers are leaving their jobs at what some officers and experts say is an alarming rate, and not enough new recruits are taking their place.

Even as 561 new police recruits were sworn in earlier this month, hundreds of officers were handing in their badges and shields to leave the department. According to the Police Pension Fund, over 2,100 sworn officers have retired or resigned since January. That’s more departures in half a year than there were in all of 2019.

Departures surged in 2020. And while fewer people left last year, the department is still struggling to staff up. There are currently almost 1,200 vacant positions, according to NYPD statistics.

This comes as violent crime is still above pre-pandemic levels, and a string of high-profile crimes have left many New Yorkers on edge. Some in law enforcement are concerned that the shrinking ranks lack the manpower needed to keep the city safe.

The Police Benevolent Association, which represents rank and file officers, calls the staffing decline a “stampede.”

“We’re not only losing experienced veterans. We’re also losing cops in the prime of their careers who are taking their talents elsewhere,” President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement. “The NYPD cannot continue papering over this staffing crisis with more and more overtime. That will drive even more cops to pursue other opportunities where they can make more money and have a better quality of life.”

The NYPD did not share details on its attempts to hire and retain more officers, but says it has rolled out a recruitment campaign and is currently accepting applications. The department has also noted that many officers retiring now joined in the NYPD’s large academy class after 9/11, following another surge in retirements.

“I’m not going to say it’s the worst I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely up there,” said Robert Lukach, who spent 35 years with the NYPD and retired this spring as a deputy chief. Lukach loved his job at what he felt was the country’s “premium” law enforcement agency.

He worked all over the department, from patrol to the domestic violence unit in the Bronx and the city’s emergency service unit. He liked helping people and keeping busy. For years, he felt like his work was doing something – that people appreciated it.

But that started to change in 2020. First COVID hit. Then New Yorkers protesting police brutality filled the streets. Lukach agreed that George Floyd’s death was tragic, and he didn’t stand by the actions of the officer who killed him. But protesters didn’t know that, and he said he could feel their anger as they threw hard frozen water bottles at him.

“The destruction was just, it was just unbelievable,” Lukach remembered thinking as he traveled through the city and saw all the boarded up windows. “All the hard work, all the things that had been done over the years by the NYPD to reduce crime just felt like it just kind of went out the window, and it was just – it was sad.”

There were peaceful and violent actors on both sides during the protests. Most protesters were not violent, and the Civilian Complaint Review Board has investigated hundreds of allegations of police misconduct during the demonstrations, including the pepper spraying and arrest of a Black state senator.

Lukach said many of his coworkers have left recently or are thinking about it. He wonders how that will impact the department, as it loses so much institutional knowledge.

“There were some really, really good gun guys that could say, hey, just by that individual’s walk, his hip, how he grabbed his you know right part of his belt, were all quick indications that, ‘OK, let me start looking at this guy. Let me see what’s going on,’” Lukach said. “And I think that learning curve, you’re going to lose. And that’s an invaluable thing for young police officers to get that information so that they have the understanding and the ability to use that later on, when they need to.”

Simonsen said many of her students want to stay close to their families. They want to work for their hometown department. And they want to make it better and more reflective of the communities it serves.

“They want to be a part of the change, and that has to come from within,” Simonsen said. “Nothing’s going to change if the same people are consistently getting these jobs or applying for these jobs. So, we have women who are going into law enforcement. We have people of color who are going into law enforcement and want to be there and want to be the agents of change.”

This story was updated to include additional context about the 2020 protests and the police budget.