Local law agencies battle to find good fits for officers
It seems like there’s always an ad in the paper for a police officer or sheriff’s deputy.
Going to work not knowing if you’ll be mediating a noise complaint or investigating a homicide takes honesty, integrity, maturity, judgment, communication, critical thinking and a whole slew of other traits that aren’t easy to find in a recruit.
The last time the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office had an opening, five of 13 applicants passed the written test, and only one of those five passed the polygraph. Although their 14 percent turnover rate is about on par for jobs around the region, the process makes it tough for area law enforcement agencies keep up.
“We have a set of standards. We’re not going to lower those standards, but it’s difficult for people to meet them,” explained Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, whose department runs a steady ad in the Post Independent to build a pool of potential deputies or jailers.
After hiring officers, the next challenge is to keep them.
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Four of 10 positions in the Basalt Police Department have turned over the last year.
Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott thinks the current crew will stick around.
“We’ve hired excellent officers, and we’ve stabilized the department,” he said. “I don’t expect anyone to be leaving in the near future or even long term.”
His confidence is rooted in the source of the turnover.
“We’re not losing people to other agencies because of pay or work environments, we’re losing them because people are changing work environments or moving to be closer to their families,” said Knott.
Carbondale has had the opposite experience, including several losses to Basalt in recent years.
“Occasionally they’re tired of doing police work and want to move on to something else, but usually we lose them to a different agency,” said Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling.
“It’s real tough to find people that can do the job and fit in. It’s not an easy job, and it’s not easy on the families,” he added. “Carbondale is a different type of community, and you have to hire officers that can fit into the community and police the community the way it wants to be policed.”
The Rifle Police Department has had only one officer retire since John Dyer became chief in August 2012 and boasts four bilingual officers. Rifle also is working to build a force that’s representative of the community.
“We’re already starting to think about different ways to recruit and advertise,” said Dyer.
Dyer hopes to see more underrepresented groups, including Hispanics and women, considering police work. In the end, regardless of the applicants, it always comes down the best fit for the position.
“These are people that you have to trust completely,” said Dyer. “Obviously, all things being equal, if they already have a certificate or are already an officer, that would be the way to go, but if the best fit was someone who has not been through the academy, I would do that.”
Colorado takes a fairly unusual approach to law enforcement training. Anyone who meets the minimum requirements can enter the 16-week Colorado Law Enforcement Training Academy program at Colorado Mountain College. Many take the traditional route of sponsorship from an interested agency, but a fair number pay their own way in hopes of landing a job later.
Kevin Brun, the program’s instructor, estimates that around seven in 10 graduates exit the program with a job lined up.
“The most successful student is the one that makes a plan pretty early,” he said.
Less successful, according to Brun, are those who were inspired toward law enforcement by being pulled over themselves, or are looking for something out of an action flick.
“There’s a percentage of students that have come to the academy, got a job in law enforcement, and it’s not turned out to be what they expected,” said Brun.
“If you’re looking to swing an MP5 [a 9mm submachine gun] around your neck and rappel out of a helicopter, this is not your department,” said Glenwood Police Chief Terry Wilson.
Instead, a small-town cop must learn to take every call seriously.
“Typically, when someone calls the police, it’s because they don’t know what else to do,” Wilson said. “We want to maintain a relationship with the community at large that makes them feel comfortable calling us.”
Another challenge is the people who don’t want to see a cop.
“It’s a pretty core principle of human nature that we all want to be liked. It gets old being told that you’re lying, you’re evil, you’re conspiratorial,” said Wilson. “You’ve come in with such a lofty goal and the intent to do the right thing. There’s something deep inside our DNA that says we want to be the guy on the white horse that rides in and saves the day. When you’re received in a negative fashion, it’s difficult to learn to understand that.”
If you can get past that, the odd hours and the mounds of paperwork, there’s the issue of pay. Some Front Range agencies pay better with lower cost of living, so the mountain quality of life has to be its own compensation.
“We don’t live here to work here, we work here to live here,” said Wilson. “We’re a reflection of our communities. We’re all a little bit different. We’re all a little bit quirky.”
Knott agreed. “Each agency has incredible people that are doing really great things. They’re the ones that get things done.”
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