(Bloomberg) — Cities from San Diego to Jacksonville, Florida, want to rebuild police forces thinned by the recession as they mend frayed community ties that snapped entirely in Missouri, setting off riots and nationwide demonstrations.

Their obligations to retirees stand in the way.

The shortfalls in the 25 largest state and local-government pensions have tripled over the past decade to more than $2 trillion, according to Moody’s Investors Service. Those gaps, which persist even as the stock market reaches record highs, have mayors scrapping plans to increase patrols and reopen precincts as they spend more on retirement instead.

In cities that cut benefits, officers have quit or retired, underscoring the challenge of balancing the promises of the past with the duties of the present.

“The difficulty you run into when you have minimal staffing is there’s less proactive time that an officer can spend on community-oriented policing,” said Brian Marvel, president of the police union in San Diego, where the number of officers has dropped by 200 since 2009. “There are officers out there doing great work every day. They’re just not doing as much of it.”

Simmering tensions between law enforcement and minority communities boiled over last year after a grand jury declined to charge a white officer in the August shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri. The November decision sparked riots and looting in the St. Louis region and helped trigger demonstrations around the country against police brutality. President Barack Obama created a task force last month to address what he has called a “gulf of mistrust.”

National trend

There are fewer officers around to bridge that gulf. The diminished force in San Diego, which has declined to 1,850 sworn officers from 2,050 five years ago, mirrors a national trend: There were about 390,000 police officers nationwide in 2013, down 14 percent from four years earlier, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most recent figures.

Rebuilding police ranks is crucial to preventing their standing in communities from slipping even more, said George Kelling, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a New York nonprofit that studies techniques for making police more effective at reducing crime.

“Community policing is very labor intensive, and if you want to get out into the community, you have to have the resources,” said Kelling, who helped develop law-enforcement tactics adopted in New York. “Most cities ought to be viewing policing as an investment rather than a cost.”

Hiring dashed

Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown found his plans dashed by retirement bills. Brown, a Democrat who in 2011 became the first black mayor of Florida’s most populous city, proposed hiring 80 police officers last year to revive a community-policing unit dismantled by budget cuts. The City Council blocked Brown’s plan to borrow for the hiring spree because Jacksonville’s pension fund shortfall had more than doubled since 2006 to $1.7 billion.

The rising debt meant Jacksonville put more into retirement funds, causing its annual bill to triple since 2008 to about $155 million.

David DeCamp, a spokesman for Brown, said the city is nearing a plan to pay down the pension shortfall, which would free funds for law enforcement.

“We supported investment in prevention and intervention measures on public safety,” DeCamp said in an e-mail.

Chicago streets

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to add 1,000 officers during his 2011 campaign. Facing a $19.2 billion pension shortfall, the City Council approved a budget for the current year that kept roughly the same number of officers. The city has redeployed desk-bound police to the streets and spent more than $200 million for overtime since 2012, rather than pay benefit costs for rookies.

More than 90 municipalities in Arizona created a task force to discuss ways to deal with the retirement crisis.

“The pension costs that come along with hiring those officers are just too high,” said Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns in Phoenix.

Some municipalities have faced a different kind of setback: an employee exodus.

Retirements at police and fire departments doubled to about 600 last year in Minnesota after the state reduced pension benefits, according to the Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota.

Voter changes

In San Jose, California, where voters approved pension reductions in 2012, retirements and resignations have surged. The number of police officers on patrol in the city, which has 1 million residents, fell below 900 last year. The city’s plan to increase their ranks to 1,250 has suffered setbacks as officers have left faster than they are replaced.

Police in San Diego, which has about 1.4 million residents, face similar obstacles.

San Diego hired 160 officers during the most recent budget year, which ended in June, as part of a five-year plan to rebuild staffing to 2009 levels and promote community-oriented policing. Yet 162 officers left, almost double projections.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer has supported increasing pay and putting more money aside to hire officers.

“Mayor Faulconer understands the recruitment and retention crisis,” Craig Gustafson, a spokesman, said in a statement.

Pay freeze

The exodus can be traced to pension cuts voters approved in 2012, said Marvel, the president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, who has been with the department for 15 years. The plan included a five-year freeze on base compensation, used to calculate pensions.

“Some employees will go 10 years without a pensionable pay increase,” Marvel said. “That’s huge.”

The department is trying to rebuild its image after accusations of sexual harassment, racial profiling and excessive force. Chief Shelley Zimmerman has backed a plan to outfit 1,000 officers with body cameras, and the department recently began tracking racial data on traffic stops.

More than half of San Diego police have less than six years of experience, according to a city report in September that called attention to the “persistently high rate of attrition.”

“To be a police officer is not one of these things where it’s just like ‘Here’s a gun, here’s a badge, here’s your nightstick. Now go enforce the law,’” said Marvel. “There’s a huge learning curve.”

–With assistance from James Nash in Los Angeles.

 

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