Police force faces staffing crisis | SteamboatToday.com

Police force faces staffing crisis

Chief says Steamboat Springs must act to stem losses

Steamboat Springs Police Chief Sherry Burlingame told city council members on Tuesday that the department is operating with more than a fourth of its positions for police officers currently unfilled.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Down eight sworn patrol officers, the Steamboat Springs Police Department is on the verge of a staffing crisis, according to Police Chief Sherry Burlingame.

The relatively small department has experienced significant losses in staff, she said, and the department is operating with 72% of its total 29 sworn officer positions. The national average for police departments is operating at 91.5% of total capacity, Burlingame said.

“If we don’t take some kind of corrective action right now to stem the exodus of sworn officers, we will find ourselves in a serious hiring crisis,” she said.

In response, Steamboat Springs City Council expressed unanimous support on Tuesday, March 1, to appropriate approximately $500,000 for pay raises and a new full-time employee focused on recruitment.

The proposal would increase the starting salary for police officers from $61,500 annually to $74,000.

The question of a pay equity heated up in recent months following the salary increase awarded to the Routt County Sheriff’s Office deputies. Effective Feb. 1, the starting deputy salary is now $72,000.

Both departments have a step-based salary plan.

Under the proposal, the starting salary for a police detective would go from $67,944 to $84,327. The starting salary for a police sergeant would increase from $84,328 to $98.000.

With a stringent and lengthy hiring process, Burlingame noted her department is competing across the state and country for the same candidates.

But the increase in pay is just one part of her department’s strategy to address recruitment and retention.

“We are looking at everything,” Burlingame said, which includes opportunities for training and career development, ensuring support systems for officers and their families, improving technology and efficiency, and “making sure (officers) feel valued and have everything they need to go out and effectively police. We are talking about much more than just looking at getting appropriate compensation for employees.”

Housing and salary are without doubt the two biggest obstacles, Burlingame said, but the situation is much more complex.

“Recruitment of patrol officers has been next to impossible due to a number of factors,” Steamboat Springs City Manager Gary Suiter said during Tuesday’s meeting.

One of the problems is the “substandard pay compared to the statewide average,” he explained.

Suiter also listed the pay increase for sheriff’s deputies, who now share a building with police, as another factor, as well as the national conversation and controversies around public safety and policing.

Burlingame said she has lost officers who simply no longer wanted to work in policing and described how she works daily to impress on her employees of “the nobility of the profession.”

“The ability to make a positive impact on people’s lives and make our community a better place to live — to be part of that is hard to describe — but it is a great feeling,” she said.

Suiter and Burlingame also pointed to hesitancy around Colorado Senate Bill 217, which in 2023 will change rules around the use of deadly force, add new requirements for body cameras, data collection and reporting, require officers to intervene if a colleague is acting inappropriately, and allow for officers to be sued in an individual capacity.

“You lump all those together,” Suiter said, “and it makes it hard to hire cops. Bottom line.”

Being stretched so thin isn’t good for the department or for the community, Burlingame described. Her officers are working 12-hour shifts instead of 10 hours, more overtime than they want, and are relied on to cover special events. Some have been unable to take a vacation.

“Some are working five days in a row,” she said, “And it is becoming very stressful and fatiguing. To do this long-term is not sustainable and will result in issues — it is not good for the health of the officers or their families. It will lead to burnout. We need to be rested and on the top of our game to go out and interact positively with community members. We really have to address this now.”

Under the plan before city council, the proposed cost of the adjusted pay plan will be approximately $410,000 for 2022 and approximately $540,000 for 2023. That includes the additional full-time employee at a cost of about $150,000, including benefits, for 2023, and that was the only source of debate at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Given the continuing challenges of hiring, the police department needs an aggressive strategy to attract officers,” according to the proposal. “This position will focus on recruiting through social media, software platforms, advertising, attending events and public speaking.”

Council members questioned whether that position needed to be a sworn officer. Human Resources Manage Wendy Ecklund said they explored adding a civilian position, but wanted the credibility a sworn officer brings to the role of recruitment. And a sworn officer could provide coverage and backfill for fellow police, Ecklund said.

Council member Heather Sloop questioned whether a human resources position dedicated to addressing staffing shortages in all city departments might be a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Sloop expressed her support for pay raises, but said she “can’t get behind the recruitment of a new full-time employee — that’s a lot of money in perpetuity.”

Council plans to vote on the supplemental appropriation on March 15.

“I know it will make a big difference,” Burlingame said. “It’s very meaningful for our officers.”

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