Local law enforcement not immune to area’s hiring issues

Leaders at each local agency say they are dealing with variety of issues, including a narrative around police they believe is keeping people from joining the profession

Oak Creek’s is the only police department fully staffed in Routt County, as law enforcement isn’t immune to hiring pressures felt by local employers.

There are seven open positions within the Routt County Sheriff’s Office, six with the Steamboat Springs Police Department and two more in the Hayden Police Department.

But while each leader of these agencies said the shortages are because of a variety of issues, such as the local housing crisis, one issue for each is what they say is a negative perception around policing in general that is keeping people from wanting to pursue the profession.

“I think it’s a tough profession to go into right now,” said interim Steamboat Springs Police Chief Jerry Stabile.

Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins said addressing negative publicity around policing is one of two major concerns he has in terms of getting more people to apply to his open positions, with the other hurdle being housing.

“Fewer people are interested in becoming law enforcement servants considering it is one of the most unappreciated, dangerous and stressful jobs known when there is the constant threat to defund,” Wiggins said via email.

Wiggins and Hayden Police Chief Greg Tuliszewski both pointed to police reform bills passed by the Colorado Legislature in the past two sessions as actions taken that have contributed to this narrative.

“I can anecdotally say that it’s because a lot of officers don’t feel that their backs are gotten,” Tuliszewski said. “They feel like they could do their job entirely right, and it will be totally criticized and/or they are liable for charges on something they’ve done by policy and by their training.”

Colorado was one of the quickest states to respond after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 and protests that followed, passing sweeping reform that changed rules around the use of lethal force, increased the amount of data officers must collect, requires them to intervene if a colleague is acting inappropriately and allows officers to be sued in their individual capacities, according to The Colorado Sun.

During the bill’s signing, Gov. Jared Polis said changes are evidence-based, and he hoped it would help build more trust between communities and law enforcement.

An update to that law passed earlier this year further changed the use of deadly force to only allow officers to use it as a “last resort,” in addition to clarifying other provisions in the 2020 law.

When it comes to personal liability, what became law is less drastic than what was initially proposed, the result of negotiations with law enforcement. For an officer to be sued, their agency would need to say the officer acted in bad faith, and damages are capped at $25,000.

Still, it is the general message the law sends that is making some choose a different career path, Tuliszewski said.

“The message I am hearing is that (officers) don’t feel that the powers that be, the elected officials, have their backs anymore,” he said. “Because of that and the rhetoric that goes with that, society also may not have their back.”

But while this perception was mentioned by each entity’s leader — including Oak Creek Police Chief Ralph Maher — many said the national narrative is not like the relationship they have with the local community.

“We are very fortunate here in Oak Creek to have the support of a vast majority of our citizens,” Maher said.

Maher said the approach they take — not being overzealous about policing, a focus on education and knowing people in the community with mental health and financial challenges that may lead to an experience with the police — is part of why their relationship is so good.

“I don’t know if there is a global answer,” Maher said when asked how to fix the negative narrative. “I think each and every single police department is going to have to really do some examination of how they’re doing the job today and seeing how that fits with what their community wants.”

Tuliszewski agreed, saying that to improve this narrative, policing needs to continue to change as well.

“Police work is always evolving. Can we do things better? Yes, there’s nobody I think you’ll find in law enforcement that feels we were doing it exactly right, and this is all baloney,” Tuliszewski said. “We always need to change because society changes, and you have to change with that society.”

Stabile said they have really worked to develop a good relationship between the community and his Steamboat officers, and that can be seen nearly every shift when a community member thanks an officer for their work.

What can be difficult is convincing potential officers from elsewhere that his officers really do feel the love of their local community.

“When you come work for us, if you get up in the morning, and you want to tangibly feel that you made a difference in somebody’s life, you can do that here every day,” Stabile said. “We’re big enough to stay busy and small enough that you can take that extra time and let people know that you truly care about their well-being.”

Other hurdles

Addressing this narrative is not the only issue, as local law enforcement looking to hire is also impacted by the local housing shortage, as well as more competitive pay in departments on the Front Range.

Stabile said one of his officers is leaving for a job in Longmont that offered between $67,000 and $94,000 per year. When trying to get someone to make a lateral move into Steamboat, he can offer between $58,240 and $62,400 per year.

Part of the reason that officer is leaving is because he wants to buy a house, something that he doesn’t feel attainable in Steamboat, Stabile said. He said he is constantly keeping an eye on potential places for recruits and says some apartments have been handed off between officers for years.

Housing is a significant issue for Wiggins, as well, and until the situation is better, he said it is extremely difficult to hire people from outside of the community.

“This administration is currently working on other options,” Wiggins said. “One example is hiring untrained individuals and paying for their training as an incentive to work for our agency.”

Steamboat is sponsoring a couple candidates through the policy academy, as well, and is testing for two more spots, though they are competing with short-staffed law enforcement across the state.

Since the beginning of the year, the Hayden Police Department has offered a $5,000 signing bonus for officers, and some of his newer recruits will be eligible for it once they join the force. But he also just pulled an advertisement for another officer that had been out for eight weeks without an application. He plans to put it out again in December.

Wiggins said they tested two potential applicants for the positions in the detention center last week and received two more applications for his open patrol jobs, but the process of getting an applicant on the force is cumbersome, requiring weeks of testing and background checks.

In the meantime, he is often left to staff both the detention center and patrol at minimum levels.

Stabile said he has prioritized ensuring he has the officers needed to provide service expected when it comes to patrols. He has been able to do this in part by holding off on promoting officers to investigations, where staffing is also short.

“We have a couple people that are burning the candle at both ends,” Stabile said. “They want to do a good job for the community that they are paid to protect and to give service to, and our attitudes have been good. Morale is good.”

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