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POLICE SHORTAGE: Many law enforcement agencies struggling to attract recruits

September 2, 2018

Idaho State Police hire people who are age 21 or older and have at least a high school education. They also train them, provide them with competitive benefits and pay them a starting wage of $20.66 an hour.

There aren’t a lot of jobs out there like that, said Capt. Eric Dayley, the commander of the state police in the Pocatello area.

“We pay you that wage while we train and educate (you),” he said. “It’s a good deal that way.”

Still, state police have a hard time filling all their vacancies.

Dayley said Idaho State Police District 5, which is based in Pocatello, is currently down a detective and eight troopers. They are going through a hiring process right now, but he doesn’t expect to fill all of those positions.

“If I can fill five of the eight (trooper positions), I’d be happy,” Dayley said, adding that they do have one trooper who is on a military deployment but will return. Another person is currently going through the police academy, which will help their numbers in the future.

Still, it would be nice to fill all of the spots they have available, Dayley said.

The challenge is not unique to Idaho. Such police shortages have occurred throughout the nation in recent years. And the problem appears to have multiple facets.

One of the biggest issues is that there aren’t as many people applying for police jobs these days.

Sgt. Jon Johnson of the Idaho Falls Police Department recalls that there were a few hundred people in the testing process to become officers with his department when he got involved in law enforcement more than 20 years ago. Now, he says they’re thrilled if they can get 50 or 60 candidates.

Blackfoot police Capt. Scott Gay said they’ve had as few as 17 candidates apply for jobs with his department recently.

“The last one we blasted on Facebook and did everything we could do for advertising the job. We got 35 applicants,” Gay said, adding that only about half of them showed up for the tests.

Dayley said low unemployment rates may be contributing to the shortage of police officer applicants.

“The labor market is just tight and law enforcement is feeling the pinch,” Dayley said.

The state’s overall unemployment rate was at 2.9 percent in July, and it was even lower at 2.6 percent in Southeast Idaho.

Esther Eke, a regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor, noted that Southeast Idaho has had unemployment rates below 3 percent since May of 2017, with the exception of a slight jump to 3.1 percent this past January.

“The last time we had unemployment rates this low was in 2007 in the months leading up to the Great Recession,” Eke said. “We do not have any records of lower unemployment rates before that and our records go as far back as 1978.”

Considering only numbers and not skill sets, she says there were about 1.33 unemployed job seekers for every job posting in Idaho last month. And in Pocatello, there were 700 job openings with only 766 people who were counted as unemployed.

“The police officers are absolutely right in that with such slim pickings, it is a job seekers’ labor market,” Eke said. “This is slowly putting upward pressure on wages as employers are having to offer incentives to attract these unemployed job seekers and even those that are currently employed and looking for something better. We see this every day.”

Still, Eke points to government statistics showing that the average wage of a police officer is $31 per hour nationally, $25.16 per hour in Idaho and $26.58 per hour in Bannock County. Generally speaking, those wages are higher than the average wages in other occupations, she said, adding that police officers make about 40 percent more than the average worker in Bannock County.

That should give police departments an advantage. But higher wages aren’t always enough. Police work isn’t an 8-to-5-with-holidays-off kind of job, and it can be, sadly, thankless and dangerous work.

“I would wager that the rigors and risks involved in law enforcement work contribute towards making it difficult to attract applicants in this tight labor market,” Eke said. “This is not unique to Idaho. It is a national trend.”

Lynn Case, the coordinator of Idaho State University’s Law Enforcement Training Program, agrees.

“With the economy going the way it is, there are jobs that are much easier to get — jobs that don’t involve people shooting at you or seriously disliking you,” he said.

ISU’s law enforcement program can accommodate 25 people per semester, but Case says he only has 12 in his class right now.

A retired police officer himself, Case knows it takes a special kind of person to do the work.

“You have to be self-satisfied knowing you’re doing a good job and knowing you’re doing the right thing and helping the community,” he said. “That’s the biggest key.”

Another factor in the police shortage may be a lack of enough qualified applicants.

There’s a lengthy hiring process, which can include written, physical and polygraph tests, interviews and background checks that candidates must pass.

“It’s a complicated process for us to make sure we get the right candidates,” Johnson said.

And it’s an understandable one given the important work that police officers do and the public scrutiny they face these days.

But the requirements also mean that police don’t always have enough qualified, or willing, applicants to take the jobs at the end of the hiring process. And even if they do, it can take months of training before the new officers are ready to hit the streets.

That puts more stress on the existing officers who have to continue working overtime to cover vacancies and it can cause them to burn out. It also tends to make them more reactive than proactive in their work.

“It’s hard to do proactive enforcement and to do other things we’d like to do,” Dayley said, adding that state police don’t have time for community outreach if the troopers are always responding to calls.

Another challenge is that baby boomers are now retiring, so departments are constantly having to recruit new officers to fill their positions.

“It’s a moving target,” Dayley said.

The Idaho Falls Police Department is in the process of trying to hire 14 officers right now, although they hope to have four of the positions filled soon. Most of those vacancies were caused by retirements, but the Idaho Falls City Council also authorized the department to add four new positions.

“(The vacancies) didn’t all happen at once. We’ve accumulated that over a period of time,” Johnson said, adding that it takes awhile to find people to fill the positions.

There are also positions vacated by people who decide they don’t like the job.

Case thinks part of the issue is TV shows that portray all the excitement of the job, but not necessarily the paperwork or tough things that can happen. Some people think they’ll enjoy the work, but struggle once they become an officer and join a police department.

“The first five years, our attrition rate is really high,” Case said about the percentage of rookie cops who quit.

He noted that people figure out pretty quickly if the job is right for them.

“If it is, nothing else will do,” Case said. “If it’s not, (you will) not be happy.”

Case also thinks some people are deterred by the fact that they can’t start working as an officer until they’re 21 years old.

He encourages people to start pursuing their education while they’re waiting for the time to pass — something that will set them apart when they do go looking for a job in law enforcement.

At ISU, Case says they teach students how to write reports, shoot guns, investigate crime scenes, defend themselves and drive at high speeds, and they have roughly a 90 percent hire rate for those who complete the program.

“If you have any interest, come talk to us and take a look at the program and go through the program,” Case said. “(It will put you) ahead of other people in the same position if you’re already qualified for the job.”

Local law enforcement agencies also encourage people who have an interest in the work to visit their websites to learn about current openings. Many police departments say they are willing to answer questions and take people on ride-alongs to help them learn more about the job.

“Go down to your local police department or sheriff’s office and ask to go on a ride-along or have a conversation with someone doing the job,” Dayley said. “Don’t see it from an outside perspective. See it from an inside (perspective).”

Gay, who has been in law enforcement for nearly 35 years, says police work is a career that’s worth pursuing.

“We need people to believe in the community and help the community,” he said. “I believe we do that.”

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