Who wants to join the force in 2022? Eagle County law enforcement agencies struggle to staff up | VailDaily.com

Who wants to join the force in 2022? Eagle County law enforcement agencies struggle to staff up

Workforce shortage, lack of housing and changing political climate have stretched local agencies

Eagle County law enforcement agencies are facing new recruitment challenges as the nationwide worker shortage collides with a changing political climate around policing and a local lack of affordable housing.

Law enforcement positions that used to draw pools of 15 qualified applicants are now attracting one suitable recruit or remaining open for longer periods of time, forcing leadership to reconsider pay and other benefits.

The lack of affordable – or even attainable – housing in the Eagle Valley causes out-of-state applicants to drop like flies, meaning agencies must compete with one another for a limited pool of local candidates.

“We’re all competing for this very small pool of applicants in general,” Captain Gregory Van Wyk of the Eagle County jail said Monday. “… So, everybody’s trying to figure out, ‘OK, how do we become more enticing? How do we make ourselves more appealing? Is it pay? Is it housing? Is it benefits? What is it?’”

Leaders of each local law enforcement agency stressed that they are all on the same team in keeping Eagle County safe. Agencies collaborate often and mutual aid agreements can be used as something for departments to fall back on if they need help with coverage. Still, the competition is palpable at times.

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“Obviously, we all try to keep our secrets a little bit close to the vest,” Van Wyk said, chuckling. “But, at the end of the day, our goal is to be maintaining community safety.”

Employers across nearly all industries have struggled with retention and recruitment of employees, leading bars, stores, salons, and restaurants across the valley to limit their hours of operation or shutter their doors entirely.

Local police departments, however, do not have the option of being closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Police departments also cannot properly protect their communities if operating below sufficient staffing levels — this is something leadership said they do not compromise on. So, officers work overtime instead.

All hands on deck

“We have the utmost appreciation for these officers because we know that they do take on these extra shifts,” Commander Justin Liffick said. “And we also want to be conscious of that work-life balance, you know, we’re people too. We need to enjoy our time off and experience everything that the valley has to offer.”

The Avon Police Department was down five officers before it swore in two new recruits, Josh Hernandez and Cirilo Zarate, on Monday, Avon Police Chief Greg Daly said. That still leaves the department with three open positions, the most openings it has had at one time in at least eight years, he said.

Daly’s two new recruits are set to complete their field training in May, so he expects that his staff will be working extra overtime until then.

“We’re very sensitive to not having overtired officers,” Daly said. “That could be a safety issue for themselves and the community, so that is something that we take a lot of time and effort in monitoring and making sure that they are okay.”

The Vail Police Department is six empty positions away from being at “full strength,” Liffick said.

Municipal police departments seem to be feeling the worst of it, while the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office is fully staffed – on the patrol side that is, Sheriff James van Beek said Monday.

“We still have applications coming in but we are seeing the quality and the amount of applications starting to dry up even for us,” van Beek said. In the past, “if we lose somebody who moves on someplace else, we’ve had people lined up ready to … we’re not seeing much of a bench anymore.”

Eagle County government added three new sergeant-level positions for the Sheriff’s Office in the 2022 budget, for which it is looking to hire internally, van Beek said. But then, of course, the Sheriff’s Office will need to hire to fill the positions of any current staff promoted into the new positions.

The Eagle County jail — also a part of the Sheriff’s Office — has two open positions for detention deputies but can pull from a wider pool of candidates as jail staff are not required to complete police academy, Van Wyk said. His recruits just need to have a high school diploma and at least 21 years of age under their belt but still, not everyone is right for the job.

“Hiring is still an issue,” Van Wyk said. “… It’s something that I put focus on every single day. I’m looking at applications, making phone calls.”

Higher rent, higher pay

Eagle County is in the process of conducting a comprehensive analysis of the salaries and benefits offered to county employees, including those with the Sheriff’s Office, Van Wyk said. The county has set aside funds in the 2022 budget in case any adjustments need to be made.

“We’re optimistic that that will produce some upward movement in the pay scales because, at the end of the day, we’re not seeing housing come down. And if pay is not adjusting to those housing increases, then ultimately people are going to potentially look elsewhere,” Van Wyk said.

The Avon Police Department already offers competitive benefits and new officers come on making around $68,000 with more experienced officers making between $79,000 to $89,000, Daly said.

“The town of Eagle continues to assess the current climate and has adapted to our current market with increased incentives, higher wages and an attractive benefit package,” Eagle Police Chief Joey Staufer said in a written statement. “This will be assessed again in 2022 to ensure the town of Eagle remains competitive.”

As to the housing piece, leaders from each agency said they receive support from their respective towns or the county to try to get new recruits matched with housing, but it is not enough to meet the need and not something that can be guaranteed to attract out-of-county or out-of-state applicants.

“To be reaching the broader spectrum of need, it’s got to go beyond just, ‘Hey, there’s one apartment available here, one apartment there,’” Van Wyk said.

Agencies in the upper valley, where housing prices are at their highest, seem to be under the most strain.

Chief Staufer, on the other hand, was glad to report that his department is fully staffed after facing significant difficulties with recruitment and retention several years ago. He did not shy away from talking about what this period of shortages meant for his patrol team.

“This resulted in increased workloads, stress buildup and overtime to fill vacant shifts. We incurred longer response times and it took our team longer to complete complex investigations,” Staufer said in the written statement. “Extra-duty shifts were occasionally filled by law enforcement officers from other agencies. It also impacted our officer-initiated patrol and community policing initiatives.”

Eagle Police Chief Joey Staufer, left, presents Operations Sgt. Carrie Buhlman with the Town of Eagle Chief of Police Outstanding Service Award in September 2021.
Eagle Police Department/Courtesy photo

When Eagle Police received professional accreditation by the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police in September, Eagle Town Council members joked about how upvalley agencies used to steal candidates from the small-town police force, saying Eagle is now giving them a run for their money.

Well, they were right, Liffick said.

“I think every (upvalley) agency notices that to some affect,” Liffick said. “I think it’s a personal decision on the officer. Most of our officers live downvalley as it is … I live in Gypsum but, for me, I like the commute.”

But even Eagle Police are opting to live outside of Eagle County’s bonkers real estate market and not just a few officers – 40% of his staff, Staufer said.

“Of course, we would always love to have officers living in their communities. But I think given the Eagle County, Vail Valley housing prices, it’s not necessarily possible,” Liffick said. “Unless the county and the municipality administrators come up with some type of solution for that.”

In the meantime, the Vail Police Department is offering hiring incentives and bonuses to draw people in. The Sheriff’s Office is trying to be more forward-looking in recruiting for positions before they even open. Leaders from all four of Eagle County’s law enforcement agencies said they have been trying to stoke interest in policing as a career at a younger age, going into high schools to recruit 18-year-olds. It is worth the three-year wait for them to become eligible to join the force if it means gaining a quality officer.

They have opened applications to all candidates, regardless of prior experience or training, and sponsor the cost of police academy in exchange for working a few years on the force after graduating.

‘An overall worse climate’

“I think one challenge is the vision of officers,” Liffick said. “Some of these larger cities are dealing with these riots and just an overall worse climate. We’re just not exposed to that up here in Eagle County because we have good community backing, we have a good relationship with our community, but the perception is that all police departments are the same and that is just not true in my opinion.”

This broader perception, along with recent legislative changes, has led to the early retirement of law enforcement personnel with the Vail Police Department, the Eagle Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office.

“Institutional and community knowledge is lost when an officer departs,” Staufer said in the written statement. “It can take anywhere from several months to a year for a new officer to find her/his cadence in operations and consistency with community initiatives in our community.”

The current climate around policing has also made young adults hesitant about a career in law enforcement, Liffick said. The Vail Police Department encourages those who are interested to participate in ride-alongs to see what policing is really like in Eagle County.

Eagle County has “been on the forefront of that with the body cams and the reporting and other things related to (Colorado Senate Bill 217),” Liffick said. “I think that shows our community that we take this stuff seriously.”

While some may be dissuaded by the most recent iteration of a national reconciliation around race and policing, others are encouraged.

The next generation of cops

“There are the officers that see the new reforms coming in and feel that they can bring in new innovative and creative ideas, which we encourage,” Liffick said.

One such person is Vail Police Officer Abby Castillo, who is coming up on her one-year anniversary with the force.

Vail Police Officer Abby Castillo is photographed in her new uniform after fulfilling a lifelong goal of becoming a police officer.
Abby Castillo/Courtesy photo

In many ways, Castillo’s story represents the happy ending of community policing programs. Growing up in the Aspens Mobile Home Park in Avon, Castillo said she always looked up to the police officers that came to her neighborhood.

“I would always stop every police officer I would see for a sticker, and I would tape it on my bike and I would say, ‘I’m going to be a cop. I’m going to be a cop and here I am,’” she said.

When Castillo was around 8 years old, her mom was diagnosed with cancer. Money was tight and her family could not afford to spend it on Christmas gifts, she said.

“One day, we opened the door and it was a bunch of law enforcement officers at my house with presents. And ever since I’m like, ‘Yep. That’s what I want to do,’” Castillo said. “That impacted me forever. I want to make sure I put that smile on a little kid’s face.”

Still, Castillo said getting her family and friends on board was challenging.

“My father was terrified of the cops, even up until my swearing-in ceremony,” she said.

Many people in her community compare local police to law enforcement in Mexico or other countries they come from and fear having to interact with them, Castillo said. Others fear police because of their immigration status.

“I told my dad, ‘If you have the mindset that cops are bad, let me prove to you that they’re not bad at all’ and little by little he started realizing that cops were actually good people,” she said.

Castillo earned an associate degree in criminal justice at Colorado Mountain College before attending the Red Rocks Law Enforcement Academy, an intensive, paramilitary program in Lakewood. She was sworn in as a Vail Police Officer just under a year ago.

Working for an understaffed department can be draining, but she said she would not trade it for the world.

Castillo said she is also sensitive to a different kind of pressure that is unique to being the only female Latina police officer in Vail.

“I do feel like I have a duty pretty much to make the community trust us more,” Castillo said. “…It’s a responsibility that I take with a lot of pride and I’m very happy for it.”

The Vail Police Department has a total of five officers who identify as Hispanic/Latino out of a team of 26, Liffick said.

The applicant pool for aspiring police officers who identify as people of color has shrunk even more considerably in recent months, Chief Staufer said in his written statement.

“While several reasons exist, some of the feedback we have received include unfounded perceptions of local law enforcement operations based on select negative national media/social media accounts toward the profession, more attractive incentives with private sector businesses, personal safety considerations and perceptions of local law enforcement based on experiences in select countries/cities of previous residence,” Staufer said.

This perception of police officers may be “unfounded” locally, but it is not unfounded nationally and national incidents of excessive use of force by police officers have had a local impact.

“There has been a big hit to the policing profession over the last two years — some terrible events, criminal acts that police officers have undertaken across the United States,” Daly said. “…When we talk about policing, its systemic racism in government in general in a lot of these other jurisdictions. Thankfully, that is not something we suffer here.”

With 25 years working in Eagle County, Daly said criminal acts by local police officers are a “very, very, very rare occurrence” and the few he can remember were isolated incidents.

The Avon Police Department has seven Hispanic/Latino police officers, six of whom speak Spanish, which Daly said is more than they have ever had. His goal is to bring this number up to 10 officers to account for 50% of the 20 full-time Avon police officers. That way, the department would be directly reflective of the community it serves.

“A lot of our community members speak Spanish as their first or predominant language,” Daly said. “To be able to speak to Avon (police) officers who are fluent in Spanish, that just instills some extra security to them and not having to go through a third-party translation service is always beneficial.”

Again, recruitment is hard, but Daly has gotten creative, even capitalizing on a recent haircut at a Latino barbershop to spread the word about what a career in policing with his department could look like.

“You guys see a lot,” is often the response he receives, Daly said.

“I have friends that showed interest in being officers and ever since everything politically that happened and all the protests went on, they were like, ‘No, being a cop is just too hard,’” Castillo said. She said she is trying to show other people who look like her that they can become police officers, that they are needed and will be supported.

Other people have a very romanticized vision of policing, all high-speed chases and saving the day, Daly said.

“The reality of it is we deal with a lot of, unfortunately, the very challenging side of humanity. And it’s something that you have to really want to serve to be able to deal with those things,” he said. “…We deal with a lot of the great side of humanity too. We have a tremendous, very supportive community here.”

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