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Police agencies having a harder time hiring, retaining officers

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WEST JORDAN — It’s growing increasingly difficult to find qualified candidates to become police officers, several Salt Lake Valley police agencies said Wednesday.

Pools of applicants have dwindled in recent years, they said, amid public perception challenges, improving economic times and new retirement rules.

“That’s pretty slim pickings,” West Jordan Police Chief Doug Diamond said, referring to what was left of his most recent recruitment efforts.

Roadblocks in recruitment

About three years ago, Diamond said 150 applicants turned out to recruitment to fill eight jobs. In January, Diamond said West Jordan police fielded applications from 71 people. Of those, 27 failed to show for testing for the three current vacancies. Not all who remained passed the tests.

“That’s people that we’re going to do backgrounds on, so 12 to 20 people that we’re going to do backgrounds on to fill those three vacancies,” Diamond explained. “Two-thirds of those are going to wash out. That pool is really down to eight or nine people. That’s not enough for me to really fill my vacancies.”

Diamond further explained that statistically, two-thirds of people who undergo background checks to become police officers typically do not pass those tests.

Who wants to get a job where you're going to be ridiculed all the time and you're going to be put in a fish bowl and looked at?

–West Jordan Police Chief Doug Diamond

There is no “scientific” answer, Diamond said, to explain the decline in applicants. He suspected several factors have played a role, including the economy improving faster than public sector wages, a legislative change in retirement rules that upped required years of service from 20 to 25, as well as the scrutiny and perception issues that have surfaced amid several highly publicized police shootings across the country.

“Who wants to get a job where you’re going to be ridiculed all the time and you’re going to be put in a fish bowl and looked at,” Diamond acknowledged.

He said it has also been a challenge to retain officers, six of whom have left to neighboring agencies for higher pay.

“Some of our competitors in the area — Salt Lake City PD, West Valley PD, Unified Police Department, Cottonwood Heights — they’ve all started offering incentives for officers, especially for officers with experience,” Diamond said.

In an attempt to become more competitive, Diamond said the West Jordan City Council approved changes last week to pay steps that allowed officers to earn higher salaries at earlier points in their careers.

“We have a good agency, but when you can go and make $5, $6, $7 an hour more doing basically the same job, why wouldn’t you do that?” Diamond said. “Now that we can be a little more competitive, we’re getting those officers back, so we’re not losing that vital experience that we need.”

Recruitment problems valley-wide

It isn’t just the West Jordan police facing hiring and retention challenges.

Salt Lake City, Unified and Cottonwood Heights police — all whom Diamond named as agencies offering incentives to experienced officers — offered similar stories Wednesday about hiring difficulties.

Salt Lake City police detective Cody Lougy said though that department pays well versus other agencies of its size, applicant pools have declined there. He pointed to public perception issues, retirement changes and an improving economy as difference-makers.

Lougy said those factors have made hiring tougher.

“We’re not lowering our standards,” he said.

Unified Police Lt. Justin Hoyal said the number of general applicants was down at UPD’s last recruitment, and he noted the trend of lateral hires between departments.

Hoyal noted Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder has pointed to that as one reason consolidation of police departments in Salt Lake County would make sense.

At Cottonwood Heights Police Department, Sgt. Corbett Ford said police work is “not a job that anybody can do” and frequently candidates come unprepared for interviews.

Ford said generational differences have been apparent in recent years.

“It baffles me the sense of entitlement of younger kids coming into law enforcement that they qualify for everything, including being a police chief,” Ford said. “That translates into the type of officers we get as well.”

Ford also acknowledged the department dealt with some of the same hiring and retention issues as its neighbors, though he noted Chief Robby Russo has tried to create as much opportunity for mobility and variety as possible in the department.

Still, Ford himself admitted the difficult landscape police have faced is causing him to think about a life after police work coming sooner than later, and he was currently looking at his next opportunities out of state in the public sector and private sector. He said he was going to reach retirement age within a month and a half.

“It certainly really makes you think about the decisions and choices,” Ford said.

Officer Brett Madsen, a 14-year veteran at the West Jordan Police Department, said he got into the field to make a difference, like so many other officers.

“That’s why you get into it is to try to make a difference, to make your community safer for your family, for your kids,” he said.

While noting he ultimately had to put food on the table for his daughters, he also pointed to other intangible perks of the job.

“Whether it’s getting my lunch or in a store or at a stop light and you roll down the window,” Madsen explained. “People say, ‘You know what, with everything that’s going on, I just want to say thank you for what you’re doing.’ ”


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