Southeastern Utah town disbands police department as cost-cutting measure

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ST. GEORGE — The small city of Monticello in southeastern Utah is doing away with its police department, effective June 30.

The decision was made last week during the Monticello City Council’s June 9 meeting, the San Juan Record reported. Instead of maintaining its own small police department, the city will instead contract with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office to provide police services. 

Contacted by telephone for comment, Monticello City Manager Doug Wright told St. George News the move has been in the works for some time and was unrelated to recent “defund the police” efforts happening in various areas around the country over the past few weeks since the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minnesota sparked numerous protests nationwide.

“None of that factored in,” Wright said. “This was all in the works since January, and it just happened that we sealed the deal during the movement of ‘defund the police’ and all that.”

Wright explained the logistical and financial reasons behind the change, noting that no current officer jobs will be lost as a result. Following the recent departure of both of the department’s regular officers, only Police Chief Clayton Black remained and will be hired on as a San Juan County Sheriff’s deputy, Wright said.

“We had a three-man department,” Wright said. “Scheduling was very difficult. It was very difficult for the officers to find time off because someone always had to be on call. … You really need a four-man rotation in order to make the scheduling work, really, and we just could not find it in the budget to come up with four officers.”

Compounding the problem was the department’s ongoing turnover issues, a common dilemma for police departments, particularly in rural Utah. As previously reported by St. George News, insufficient salaries is often blamed as a main reason for high police turnover rates, as people can often find higher paying jobs with better benefits and flexibility in the private sector.

In the October 2018 report, St. George Police Capt. Mike Giles said the number of applicants for law enforcement agencies had been dropping for several years. He said that while a position with the St. George Police Department would previously draw up to 130 applications, with around 50 to 70 applicants showing up to test for the position, in recent years it has been closer to about 40 applications, with half of those testing.

In Monticello’s case, both of its regular officers had left the force in recent months. The first one was hired by another law enforcement agency. This “poaching” issue was also cited by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office as a reason for dwindling numbers.

From June 2016 to June 2018, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office lost 42 state-certified law enforcement officers, accounting for nearly 300 years of experience in law enforcement. Sheriff Cory Pulsipher said many of these veteran officers can go to northern Utah and make “so much more” money than in Southern Utah.

In Monticello, when the first officer left, Wright said they attempted to find a replacement but ran into obstacles.

“We advertised and did not get anyone who was qualified to be an officer without having to go through POST training,” he said, referring to the state training course required of all certified law enforcement officers. “Due to COVID-19 and other issues, there wasn’t going to be any POST training in the immediate future.”

Then the second officer resigned to leave town and go back to school, Wright said, noting that at that point, only the police chief remained on the payroll, creating an opportune time to make a switch.

“We’ve had discussions over the years with the county about the possibility of having them cover our community,” Wright said. “We’re a small community, about 2,000 people. Our crime rate is very low. The timing was right where we could just make a move.”

Wright said the city negotiated the new agreement with San Juan County, with the county agreeing to add one position and hire the police chief as a sheriff’s deputy.

“They’ll provide up to two officers to cover our community approximately 80-100 hours a week,” Wright said, noting that Monticello residents shouldn’t notice much difference, as the level of coverage will remain essentially the same. “And then certainly, they’ll be on call 24/7.”

The new contract with San Juan County begins July 1 and will be in effect for the next five years.

The cost savings to the city, Wright said, are expected to be around $100,000 per year. Instead of spending between $330,000 and $340,000 annually to operate its own police department, Monticello will instead pay San Juan County Sheriff’s Office $230,000 per year for coverage, according to the contract.

Ed. note: This article has been updated for clarity regarding the order in which officers left the department.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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