Cop out: Fewer want to be officers
June 2, 2007
Law enforcement brass in Summit County say tight labor and housing markets, combined with relatively low wages, danger and heavy public criticism make it difficult to recruit qualified officers.
In resorts like Ketchum, Idaho, near Sun Valley, police officers drive for an hour to work because real estate costs too much in the tony ski town that was Ernest Hemingway’s home.
"Right now is the first time that I have been fully staffed in probably a two-year period of time," said Mike McNeil, assistant chief at the Ketchum Police Department.
The average home in the town of roughly 3,600 people sells for $750,000, he said, adding that one of his 12 officers — some of whom might earn less than $40,000 per year — lives in the city limits, in a unit with rent subsidized by the government.
"They can’t afford to live in Ketchum," McNeil laments. "There was a period of time when I was actually down a fourth of my workforce."
Meanwhile, Utah’s low unemployment rate fuels the recruiting dilemma, Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds said.
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"It’s killing us," Edmunds said.
Lower unemployment than last year in Summit, Wasatch and Salt Lake counties creates competition among employers for competent employees.
An example is former Park City officer Nick Kingery who left his City Hall position to work security detail at the O.C. Tanner jewelry store on Main Street.
Patrol officers in Park City earn an average annual salary around $46,384, according to Park City Police Chief Lloyd Evans.
The average annual salary for a deputy at the Summit County Sheriff’s Office is $43,835, Edmunds said.
"Across the board we have three times as many employees, three times the budget, three times the responsibility and you’ve got a huge disparity on pay," Edmunds said.
Some officers in Park City receive housing allowances of $250 per month, bonuses and extra pay by working night shifts, Edmunds claimed, adding that "we can’t even compete with Park City."
The housing allowances paid to officers who live in western Summit County are intended to encourage local applicants.
"We are not up to snuff when it comes to housing allowances and shift-differential pay," the sheriff said.
With his bonus, Park City Police Chief Lloyd Evans could earn $120,000 this year while the sheriff is paid less than $88,000, Edmunds said.
"All of the responsibilities that I have, they far outweigh what a chief of police does," Edmunds said about running a jail and supervising search-and-rescue operations.
‘A very thankless job’
"We are seeing some people who are leaving to go to the private sector," Edmunds said. "It’s simple economics. They can make more money in the private sector."
Last month, former Sgt. Mike Dorman quit his job as a crime investigator at the Sheriff’s Office to pursue a new career in Washington state.
"We’ve got people who are leaving to go chase the almighty dollar and in some cases I can’t blame them," Edmunds said.
The media’s sometimes critical view of the police also contributes to fewer recruiting options, Edmunds said.
"Increasingly, this job is becoming a very thankless job and I’ve heard that from a lot of subordinates and a lot of my colleagues," he said. "The hiring pool is increasingly becoming shallower and if we get into a situation where we’re just attracting ill-qualified people because the wages are so low, then that’s a major problem."
Also, like it or not, the world is more dangerous, Edmunds said.
"If the salaries were decent and where they should be, these talented people would stay," he claimed.
Looser hiring policies
Right now the Sheriff’s Office is busy hiring a handful of new deputies. Soon applicants won’t need previous experience in law enforcement to qualify for the jobs.
"We’re thinking about allowing people that have never been through the academy to test with us, and then if we like them, sending them through the academy," Edmunds said.
Still, housing allowances for deputies remain out of reach, he said. The Summit County Commission won’t likely give housing assistance to officers while ignoring other county employees.
"Everyone who works for the county has an essential job, so designating emergency- and law enforcement-type people as more essential than anyone else is something that we wrestle with," County Commissioner Sally Elliott said. "I’d like to see every person in Summit County make a wage that is sufficient to make them want to continue to do their job and be able to live in Summit County. Unfortunately we need to balance those needs against the base that we have."