Law enforcement agencies nationwide are facing recruitment challenges, and the struggle is no different across Southwest Colorado.
It’s not uncommon for regional departments to have open positions. Nationally, the number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 residents in general-purpose law enforcement agencies decreased by 11% from 1997 to 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Officials point to the quality of applicants and recruiting competition as reasons why it’s difficult to fill positions.
“We’re not shorthanded to the point where the calls are not being answered. Response times are not delayed,” said Kirk Phillips with the Ignacio Police Department. The department, which has fewer than 10 officers, recently lost one patrol officer and is trying to hire a new school resource officer. The department has been advertising for the position since early July, with no applicants as of this week.
Pagosa Police Department has had two positions open, a community resource officer and a police officer, for more than 30 days. Cortez has had one police patrol officer position open since May 21. La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has been advertising for three patrol deputies for about a month.
Southern Ute Police Department is down five positions, and Durango Police Department has eight open police officer positions, Phillips said, based on recent conversations with staff at those departments.
The departments vary in size, but nationally, 48% of local police departments employed the full-time equivalent of fewer than 10 officers in 2013, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
If the Ignacio department had two more positions open, the department would have more overtime; longer response times; and officers would have a harder time taking vacations and covering absences because of extended illness – and they would work for longer hours, Phillips said.
“We’re looking for quality candidates, and in the last month, we haven’t found any that meet our expectations,” said Chris Burke, spokesman for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.
The staffing challenges revolve around finding qualified candidates and offering competitive financial packages.
Small departments tend to start at a lower salary than neighboring agencies and can’t compete with signing bonuses offered by other competing agencies. Current public dialogues about officer-involved shootings could also affect a person’s decision to go into law enforcement. Police officers must pass several layers of certification, testing and training, which can discourage some potential applicants, Phillips said.
“I think you’ve seen nationwide that people are actually lowering standards to help people meet hiring eligibility, and I’m not willing to do that,” he said. “I think it’s important to get the right person that’s the right fit for our community.”