Thinning blue line: Police see decline in applicants

An officer standing watch at 600 East during an 11-hour standoff between police and a man living in a trailer behind the Coronada Inn & Suites, St. George, Utah, Dec. 2, 2014 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News.

ST. GEORGE — Across Utah and the nation, police recruitment is down. Not as many people are vying to join the ranks of law enforcement as once were. While increasing public and media scrutiny is seen as part of the reason some are shying away from the job, police officials have said it is only one of many contributing factors. Issues of pay and retirement are also cited by police officials.

In Southern Utah, law enforcement agencies are taking note of the issue; and some agencies are even offering incentives to attract new recruits.

“We’ve felt the (same) effects as we have nationwide,” St. George Police Sgt. Sam Despain said. “St. George is not immune to that.”

The St. George Police Department is the largest law enforcement agency in Washington County with more than 100 officers. Though the Department has recently hired two new officers, Despain said, applications have been down overall and with that, the pool of quality applicants.

“We’re still able to find good and qualified applicants,” Despain said, “but overall the number of individuals seeking law enforcement jobs appears to be down.”

Other agencies, like the Utah Highway Patrol and Hurricane City Police Department, are dealing with a similar situation.

People don’t see a career in law enforcement as attractive as they used to, UHP Sgt. Todd Royce said.

In an open recruitment drive held in November in Salt Lake City, 87 people applied to fill 23 vacancies in the UHP, Royce said. That number — half of which was wiped out by the physical fitness exam according to KSL.com — doesn’t leave the UHP with a large enough pool to pick from, he said.

A position with the Hurricane City Police Department was also advertised on the Department’s Facebook page in late November. HCPD Sgt. Brandon Buell said that while small agencies don’t hire as often as bigger ones, they’ve also seen the pitch downward. A position that once drew between 40 and 50 applicants now only draws between 10 and 20 at the most.

Contributing factors

Royce said he believes increased scrutiny laid on police officers in the wake of nationally reported scandals involving alleged police brutality and officer-involved shootings has been among the factors leading to people looking away from law enforcement.

The way media reports on police actions also plays a role, Washington City Police Chief Jim Keith said.

Sometimes, incidents involving law enforcement’s interaction within the community creates misconceptions that also affect this process. Inaccurate information released by some media outlets often fueled by various political agendas add(s) to the challenge.

Inaccurate information regarding law enforcement in general often creates animosity within the community, making law enforcement an unattractive career.

In addition to increased public and media scrutiny, there are also issues of pay and retirement. And, as seen with the UHP recruitment drive, some candidates don’t make it past the application process.

Law enforcement candidates must be able to pass the physical examination as well as a psychological examination, aptitude test and background test. A polygraph test may also be administered. Failure to pass any of those and the applicant’s out.

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 by the state, new officers who work 25 years will retire with 37.5 percent of the pay received in their three highest-paid years of service. This factor has been cited by police officials across Utah and doesn’t appeal to possible recruits.

Faced with low recruitment numbers, some agencies are also having to deal with losing officers to other agencies that offer better pay and benefits.

Low levels of unemployment in the state and nationwide have also been cited as a possible factor in low application numbers.

The job itself

While the term “serve and protect” may seem cliché, it is still used to describe the role of a police officer. Under the umbrella of “serve and protect,” an officer can be helping a stranded motorist on the highway one moment and searching for a missing child the next. They also must deal with a slew of unpredictable and potentially volatile situations from high-speed chases to being shot at during a bank robbery.

While the daily grind of a police officer can be taxing and may deter some people from wanting to go into law enforcement, police officials and individual officers have said it is also rewarding because their work can result in saving lives and making a positive impact in the community.

School Resource Officer Matt Schuman said he is in the profession to do just that — to save lives.

“This is normal,” Schuman said. “It’s what we do.”

Earlier this week, Schuman made headlines by helping to save the life of a 14-year-old Dixie High Middle School student who had collapsed and went into cardiac arrest. He performed CPR on the girl until the ambulance arrived. The girl’s family considers him their hero for saving the teen’s life. To him, it’s just part of the job.

“We get up day in and day out and we come out to serve the public because we love who we serve,” Shuman said. “We love the people in our community and this comes natural for most of us because it’s inside us.”

Incentives

For those looking at the St. George Police Department for a potential career, qualified candidates with no training will be put through the police academy by the Department.

SGPD is also offering to pay those who already have their Peace Officer Standards and Training certification based on their previous experience with another agency if they join the force.

Those are just some of the things that our city’s done to try and attract quality applicants and guys with experience to come over and work for our agency,” Despain said.

While sending recruits through the police academy has been a common practice for the Utah Highway Patrol, Royce said, the UHP has also recently opened recruitment to individuals who have their POST certification, with pay also based on years of experience.

“Come and see what the highway patrol is about,” Royce said. “Come and hire on with us. It’s a great department.”

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • ladybugavenger December 13, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    The problem is police don’t get paid enough to put their lives on the line and deal with crazy people! they deserve higher pay!!!!

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