RIVERTON — When Don Hutson answered the phone late last week, he was already juggling several conversations at once.
"Sorry," the Riverton police chief apologized with a laugh, as he turned his attention to the reporter on the line. "We’re starting a police department."
Four days before the city of Riverton was set to launch its own law enforcement agency, breaking from a longtime contract with the Unified Police Department, things were "very hectic" for Hutson and his colleagues. While the bulk of the officers’ training — from firearms to records management to just plain bonding — was complete, some key tasks remained on Hutson’s list Thursday. Among them: Finish hiring support staff.
Some of the 35 brand new Riverton police officers, sworn in last week, began patrolling the city's streets at 12:01 this morning. The officers hail from a range of departments around the Wasatch Front, including Lehi, Orem, Cottonwood Heights and Unified.
Mike Ashley, who will serve as a school resource officer with the Riverton Police Department, had a 20-year career with Unified before retiring four years ago. After retirement, he'd stayed on as a reserve officer with the department while working a security job for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When Ashley heard that Riverton was starting its own police force, and that they were hiring, rejoining the police force full time was a "no-brainer." He had worked in Riverton his last three years with Unified, and he and his family grew to love the community during that time.
"What I really liked was the community aspect," Ashley said. "I just liked that home feeling where you know the same people. Like (the TV show) 'Cheers.'"
Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs sees the creation of the new department as "about being able to serve our communities and our officers while saving taxpayer dollars." The new department will cost the city $5.8 million this coming fiscal year — more than the $5.6 million it spent last year, but less than the estimated $6 million that the department would have spent this coming year with Unified, according to Staggs. Riverton is offering officer salaries at least 10% higher than comparable salaries at Unified, city officials say.
The Riverton Police Department will also have nine more officers than the 26 dedicated to the city under Unified.
Staggs said he believes the city will see a "marked and noticeable difference" in the level of police service and response times, as well as "a much more community-oriented policing presence and interaction with our public, knowing these individuals are committed and invested just in Riverton."
A more personalized kind of community policing is also part of Hutson's vision for the department.
"The Riverton Police Department will be … 100 percent focused on the interests of the citizens of Riverton," Hutson said. "What that will mean to the citizens is an additional, visible law enforcement presence in the neighborhoods."
But first, Hutson and his officers have training, organizing and hiring to finish.
The department will use the same city-owned building that Unified's Riverton-based officers used, as well as 29 vehicles and other equipment inherited from Unified. (The department bought another 11 new vehicles to accommodate the nine additional officers.)
Some of the officer training has been practical: learning the new department's policies, making sure officers are comfortable with a specific kind of handgun, familiarizing everyone with the department's records management system.
But part of the training period was also focused on building camaraderie among the strangers coming together to form a police department.
While some of the new officers are the lone hires from their former departments, there are a few clusters of multiple officers coming from the same departments, Hutson said.
"It’s more comforting to them when they have a familiar face throughout this process," Hutson said. "But they are all … adaptable and flexible, and it has been amazing watching them come together as a group so quickly."
Ashley said he's looking forward to using the skills he acquired with the Unified Police Department and his church to serve a community he cares about.
"It’s exciting, the thought of just starting something, being part of something that’s new," Ashley said. "Every officer is bringing something different that we can all learn from, which is really awesome.".