Law enforcement agencies struggle to recruit, retain officers
Steamboat Springs — Like teachers, reporters, grocery store checkers, taxi cab drivers and bar tenders, law enforcement officers often struggle to live and work in the resort communities they are sworn to serve and protect.
While it’s no secret it’s difficult to recruit and retain law enforcement officers in the Yampa Valley, and that the trend is not a new one, law enforcement administrators say more than ever they are confident there are ways to attract and keep cops here.
Steamboat Springs police Capt. Joel Rae said addressing law enforcement employment
trends and turnover rates happens on the local, state and national level.
“After domestic terrorism, employment (rates) is probably the second-biggest issue facing our police departments,” he said. “Departments all over really struggle to fill these positions.”
The Steamboat Springs Police Department currently is down three positions in patrol but recently filled a fourth patrol position with Officer Scott Middleton, who is scheduled to begin work Monday.
Two additional police officer positions were created in January during the City Council budget process after the council approved the funding for the new positions. Another vacancy was created when former Officer John McArthur resigned a few months ago.
“One of our biggest challenges is finding good applicants who are able to afford to live here,” Rae said. “It’s tough.”
Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall said while his department’s staffing is healthy and stable, he understands staffing levels in a law enforcement agency will always fluctuate for a variety of reasons.
“It is difficult to get good people because it’s expensive to live here,” he said. “Everyone complains about that, but what we’re trying to do is make the area more attractive but be honest about what our officers are coming in to.”
From Springs to Springs
Law enforcement agencies in Routt County aren’t the only resort communities facing the same struggles with law enforcement employment rates.
Glenwood Springs police Chief Terry Wilson, whose department serves a community of about 8,000 people, said he also has trouble attracting officers to the area.
“We see a couple of issues. The first being the fact that the size of the department makes it difficult for officers to see a lot of upward mobility and specialization opportunity,” Wilson said. “The second thing, and probably the most important, is the disparity between the financial end of the job and what it costs to buy a house and live here, which is probably what you see as well.”
And it is.
“The bottom line is that (Steamboat is) a resort town, and that police officers are in a very unique position to provide the most important service to a community – protection of lives and protection of personal property,” Rae said. “It’s paramount. However, we’re always going to lose officers to bigger departments or to the Front Range where the cost of living isn’t so high. We face the same struggles as anyone else does to live here.”
Wilson said most of his officers are between 22 and 24 years old, and most of them are entering a stage of life not compatible with working law enforcement in a resort community.
“An awful lot of our recruits and applicants are looking to start a family with that little house with the white picket fence, and it’s hard to achieve,” he said.
Wall said he encountered the same issue with employment rates in the 1970s when he was the police chief of Aspen’s budding police department.
“One advantage we had back then was competitive salaries to the metropolitan areas,” he said. “At some points, they were actually higher than in Denver.”
An entry-level police officer at the police department is paid about $44,000 a year with the opportunity to start at about $48,000, based on education and professional experience, Rae said. Officers can gradually work up to a pay of about $60,000, he said.
Similarly, Routt County Sheriff’s Office deputy salaries begin at around $42,000, county personnel director Chris Hensen said.
The county operates on an 11-step pay scale, which allows department heads to request starting salaries for employees at higher steps contingent on education and experience.
The Routt County Board of Commissioners approved a 4 percent pay scale increase for all county salaries, which began Jan. 1, Hensen said. The county conducts salary surveys bi-annually to adjust its pay scale to the “hedge of market fluctuations,” she said.
The city also conducts salary surveys to keep salaries in tune with the changing market.
While law enforcement administrators don’t have the magical answer to solve some of their struggles with employment rates, they agree building and maintaining strong departments is key to employee retention.
“I would love to be able to hire a good person and have them retire as a Steamboat Springs Police Department officer,” Rae said. “We’re constantly looking at what we can do to attract and support people who want to come and work for us.”
Rae said he is looking forward to a summer meeting with Colorado Association of Ski Towns officials to discuss some of the challenges police departments face in resort communities. Colorado Association of Ski Towns is an organization of 23 municipalities whose economy largely is dependent upon tourism.
“This is an issue that is going to come up with them,” he said. “The focus is going to be on the retention and recruitment of police officers in resort towns – we’re trying to share ideas to see what works for some agencies and what doesn’t, because it is a problem.”
After being in office for four months, Wall said he is comfortable with the direction his department is taking in creating and sustaining a healthy working environment, which likely will encourage employee retention, he said.
“I inherited all these people and this organization as it was set up,” Wall said. “I want people to enjoy coming to work. I have a different style of management than your traditional law enforcement manager – I don’t believe in managing by fear or by punishing someone by hurting them financially. But whatever it is you do, it seems like you’re always looking for somebody.”
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