Police struggle to find officers in Colorado
LOVELAND, Colorado ” Jerry Garner had never seen anything like it in all his years of being a police officer. The chief of the Greeley Police Department was driving through Texas a while back, and there, in the middle of a field, was a sign advertising the Amarillo Police Department.
They needed officers, and badly.
But that’s the trend right now, Garner and other local law enforcement officers say.
Garner and Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden will tell you, being a street cop isn’t as popular a job as it once was.
“I’ll tell you, this is one of the toughest times I’ve experienced in my 35 years of law enforcement,” Alderden said. “There were times, when I used to run our recruitment, for a patrol position, we’d have 250 applicants, and we could just select the cream of the crop. Now we’ll test for patrol and maybe get 10 or 15 people to show up. We don’t even get enough sometimes to fill our vacancies for the jail or patrol.”
It’s similar in Greeley, where there are sometimes enough applicants, just not enough of the ones that police departments like to see.
“We’re still finding an adequate number of applicants, we’re just having to look harder, having to work harder, having to work harder to find the qualified ones,” Garner said.
“I would never say we’re not finding them,” the Greeley chief said. “It drives salary competition among the agencies, too, because youre always trying to find the right person.”
That doesn’t mean there are fewer folks in blue patrolling the streets. Loveland police are almost at full staffing, with 90 of the 96 allowed sworn officer positions filled.
Greeley also is keeping most positions filled, as is Larimer County.
It’s just taking a little more effort than it used to.
“I would say there has been a slight decline,” said Loveland Police Sgt. Benjamin Hurr, the personnel director for the department. “It’s not a whole lot of a difference, but it is challenging to find qualified candidates that you want to hire.”
Hurr, who handles the hiring process for all Loveland police openings, said he doesn’t quite share Garner’s and Alderden’s recruiting blues.
Hurr said for the last position Loveland police posted, about 84 candidates returned applications.
Of those, only about 40 had academy training and other qualifications the department requires before considering someone for a job, Hurr said.
In Greeley, which has similar prerequisites for hiring patrol officers, Garner said the department couldn’t even find enough candidates to fill four recent openings, forcing it to advertise and start the recruiting and hiring process all over again.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also have sapped applicants, Hurr and Garner said. With the military keeping as many soldiers and workers as long as possible, what used to be a deep pool for law enforcement agencies is running a little dry.
“Definitely the war in Iraq has had a significant impact,” Hurr said. “A lot of people who are inclined to being a police officer are also inclined to maybe join the military. The military, for a while there, was highly selective because they had a lot of people.”
“Some of the people who were interested in the military said, well, maybe law enforcement was a better path for me. But with the military accepting more people now, a lot of people who might have had an affinity toward law enforcement are going into the military.”
Garner said many forces simply can’t offer a bonus like the military’s re-enlistment package ” which in some cases can be $40,000 for joining up again ” so an excellent officer candidate instead decides to stay in the military for a bigger paycheck.
There are other driving factors, too. All three men said recent applicants ” and the current generation of workers, as well ” are sometimes interested in the “cool” aspects of law enforcement, such as being a homicide detective or a crime scene analyst, but not too interested in working their way up the seniority ladder.
“You have to learn to crawl before you can walk,” Alderden said. “We have a lot of youngsters who are enamored with the CSI (crime scene investigation) people, or they want to come in and work homicide. Then the new generation is coming in and wondering, ‘Well, why aren’t I a sergeant or a lieutenant already?”‘
Added Garner, “I think a lot of people realize it’s not what the TV show portrayed it as. They don’t necessarily want to go through the career earning their bones. They want to move right through it. Youve got to earn your way into that assignment.”
Greeley and Loveland have programs allowing officers from other departments to transfer.
They start out at the bottom of the seniority chain but sometimes will earn a higher salary because of their experience.
“When you have an opening, and for police officers, this is one of the first things anybody looks at, is you sell the place you are moving to,” Hurr said. “The recruiting is really something that is competitive pay first, quality of life second. The quality of life in Loveland is ultimately something that has drawn in the transfers.”
Hurr said Loveland recently hired an officer from Las Vegas who took a minor pay cut but was sold on the area. The Loveland Police Department’s pay scale is on par with many other departments, Hurr said, but having a good city to live in is a big help.
So the picture isn’t bleak, yet, but it’s not getting better.
Still, the one thing Alderden, Garner and Hurr wont do is lower the standards for someone to put on a uniform.
“The trust placed in police is too significant not to have high hiring standards,” Hurr said. “We don’t aim to have an average employee. We want to have an employee we have confidence that we can put them by themselves and they’re going to be good.”
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