ST. GEORGE — For many police agencies across Southern Utah, and across the nation, the thin blue line has been getting thinner.
In December 2015, St. George News covered the issue of declining applications to area police agencies. Since then law officials say the problem has continued.
“It’s actually gotten worse,” Washington City Police Chief Jim Kieth said. “I think it’s worse across the board.”
Law enforcement agencies have seen the number of applicants for open positions decline by half or more in recent years.
“Applications are down significantly,” St. George Police Capt. Mike Giles said.
A single position with St. George Police Department would once draw up to 130 applications, with around 50 to 70 applicants showing up to test for the position, Giles said. These days about 40 or so applications may come in, with half of those testing.
“It’s just not appealing to be a police officer right now,” Cedar City Police Sgt. Jerry Womack said.
Across the state line in Nevada, Mesquite Police Sgt. Quinn Averett said the department has also seen fewer applicants. An open position that may have drawn 60 applications a few years ago now brings in about 30.
“There doesn’t seem to be as many bodies coming in, so there are a lot of vacancies,” Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher said. “You can’t hardly talk to a law enforcement agency that doesn’t have openings.”
Police officials say there are various reasons for the decline.
St. George News asked its readers via Facebook last week if they would join law enforcement if they had the opportunity. A majority of the answers mirrored two reasons why area police officials say recruitment is down – pay and the economy.
A matter of pay
Reader Bethenie Peralta, of Washington City, said she wanted to be a police officer at one time until she learned how much her brother, who is an officer, made a year compared to what he had to deal with on the job.
“He is putting his life on the line to protect his family, friends and strangers,” Peralta wrote on Facebook. “Now a days it’s too scary to be an officer because a lot of people have hate towards officers all due to some officers making the wrong choice.”
Another reader, GW Clem, said, “I am one week away from pulling the plug after more than 30 years. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat but sadly, Utah officers are severely underpaid.”
Clem added he’d love for his daughter, a sheriff’s deputy in California, to come to Utah, but the pay cut would be too steep.
“Ours has never been a high-paying job,” Keith said.
With the national and local economies doing well, jobs in the private sector can offer greater pay, flexibility, benefits and predictability over what a police job can offer.
While covering the national police shortage earlier this year, ABC News was told by a Seattle police recruiter that, “You can get shot at for $40,000, or be home with your family for $60,000.”
“One of our local policeman told me that he could make more money working at the Sinclair!” St. George News reader Crystal Mognett, of Fredonia, Arizona, wrote.
For the St. George and Cedar City police departments, starting pay for new hires runs between $19 and $19.50 an hour. For the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, it’s $18 an hour.
The pay issue, as well as other factors affecting the recruitment and longevity of officers, is something the Sheriff’s Office is very aware of.
The last time Washington County raised the pay for the Sheriff’s Office was 2016 in order to stay competitive with other agencies, Undersheriff James Standley said. However, shortly after the county’s raise occurred, local agencies had their own wages bumped up again.
The Sheriff’s Office is still 10-12 percent lower than other police agencies, Standley said.
“The County Commission is looking at wages, benefits and flexibility,” Washington County Commissioner Zachary Renstrom said, adding that the commission is well aware of the pay issue and is looking at ways to address it in next year’s budget.
“We have to do something,” Renstrom said.
Police poaching and the retirement issue
The pay issue isn’t the only factor the Washington County Sheriff’s Office is facing. While some deputies quit to take better-paying jobs in the private sector, others may be poached by other police agencies or simply be on the way to retirement. Replacing them hasn’t been easy.
From June 2016 to June 2018, the Sheriff’s Office lost 42 state-certified law enforcement officers, Chief Deputy Nate Brooksby said. Those officers accounted for nearly 300 years of experience in law enforcement.
“We’ve lost a lot of veteran officers because they can go (to northern Utah) and make so much more than they can down here,” Pulsipher said.
A sheriff’s sergeant with 15 years experience and a supervisory position left Washington County to became a patrol officer for another agency along the Wasatch Front where he’s paid $10,000 more a year, he said.
The police shortage has turned into “a little bit of a war” for experienced officers across the region and state, Pulsipher said.
One of the reasons officers and deputies will go to higher-paying agencies in Utah is due to how the state handles retirement.
In Utah, police officers used to be able to retire after 20 years with a pension equal to 50 percent of their salary. Due to changes made to the Utah retirement system by the Legislature, new officers who work 25 years will retire with 37.5 percent of the pay received in their three highest-paid years of service. Police officials across Utah say that doesn’t appeal to possible recruits.
And it has led to some officers “chasing their three years of highest pay,” Standley said.
While continuing to comment on the pay issues, St. George News readers mentioned the retirement factor as well.
“I’m retired from a California Police department and I loved my career but I wouldn’t do it Utah! Terrible pay, terrible retirement system and benefits are poor,” reader Ron Vallejo Sr. wrote.
Increased scrutiny placed on police by the public and the news media over the last decade has also been seen as a deterrent to joining law enforcement, several police officials told St. George News.
“Law enforcement tends to be painted into a corner by the press,” Standley said.
Michael Dickamore, of St. George, who said he wanted to be a police officer at one point, but is unable to due to past mistakes, wrote, “Media has put a large target on cops with the whole race crap that you would have to worry way to much about stupid stuff.”
Another reader, Joshua Dutson, also of St. George, added, “Society has created a bad image of police officers by focusing on corrupt/bad cops.”
Other readers said they wouldn’t join law enforcement due to their own negative outlook on police.
“Join the worlds biggest gang? No thanks,” Chris Cahow, of St. George, said.
A reader who goes by “Star Man” on Facebook, also commented, “No. I’ve seen them abuse their authority many times. They seem to think they are above the law and it doesn’t apply to them. As a child and growing up I learned to distrust and hate them, seen it first hand how they treat people of color.”
Despite the negative national media attention, Averett, Giles, Keith, Pulispher and Womack say their respective communities are very supportive of the police.
“The public’s view of LEOs is very different than it used to be,” wrote reader Angela Carpenter.
With all the negative press and arm-chair policing surrounding LEO-involved incidents, (why did s/he shoot, s/he should have done this instead, or why didn’t he police officer just tase him, it was only a B.B. gun) who would want to voluntarily put their life at risk for a public that criticizes before they know the whole story? I’ll tell you who, a special person, that’s who. LEOs see others in their worst moments. To be thanked with criticism after you save someone’s life or lifestyle, I just don’t have that kind of patience. I love our (police department).
Did anyone say they would join?
A handful of people said they would join law enforcement and were planning on pursuing careers in that direction. Others also noted a desire to join, yet had issues they said would disqualify them.
“I am currently working toward joining the police force,” wrote Jaedon Nobles, of St. George. “It is something that I have wanted to do for a while.”
Sam Merrill also said she had her eyes set on the police academy, “Yes I would be a police officer. I have been setting goals in place in my life to be able to join the academy.”
Reader Payton Patterson, a retired police officer of 30 years, said he would do it again.
“When you join the force you become a member of the thin blue line between us and them and at the same time you become a part of a brotherhood and family like no other,” Patterson wrote. “I would do it again in a heart beat. “
Law enforcement can be an exciting and gratifying job with activities that can vary day to day, and allows you to have a direct impact on your community, Giles said.
For anyone considering law enforcement as a potential career, the various agencies invite those individuals to come and see what they have to offer. While many agencies tend to require recruits to be state-certified, openings for noncertified applicants also become available from time to time and are put through the police academy by their sponsoring agencies.
“Reach out to some of our guys on the street, come and do ride-alongs, look into it and find out,” Pulsipher said. “There are a lot of great opportunities. … Law enforcement is more than just the guy you see in the patrol car.”
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.