10/07/2007

Police shortage hitting all of Utah

By Rebecca Palmer
The Deseret Morning News

UTAH - Keldon Arrington has wanted to be a police officer for a long time -- ever since his wife got tired of his scrubbing toilets for pay.

Following a stint in the military, a crime-free past and years of experience in janitorial management, the Utah native felt ready and qualified to do the job. He also knew what it would take -- he had watched his father's police career since childhood.

Yet despite the desire of would-be officers and a yearslong statewide shortage of qualified applicants, police forces are resisting the temptation to lower hiring standards to fill the gaps.

Every law enforcement agency in Utah has had problems recruiting and retaining qualified personnel, said Utah Chiefs of Police President Terry Keefe, who is also the police chief in Layton.

"It's not that it's hard to get applicants, the pools just aren't big enough," he said.

Arrington applied with the Utah Highway Patrol, a sheriff's agency and the Salt Lake City Police, but he was turned away. Nevertheless, he chose to put himself through the police academy at night. Eventually, Arrington was hired by the West Valley City Police Department, which is now paying for his training.

Fellow recruit Lauren Flinn agreed it's difficult being hired as a police officer. The woman, who will work for the Layton police, was one of just a few officers hired from a pool of 150 applicants, she said. She came to the table with years of experience running an event-planning business, in addition to a bachelor's degree in business.

Flinn's hiring process included a written background history, a written test, a lie-detector test, interviews, physical tests and a background check that peered decades into her past, she said. Other departments require voice-stress tests as well.

"If you're not dedicated, you're not going to make it through the process," said cadet Philip Mehrer, who has been hired by Tooele police.

The cadets are taking classes in the Utah Police Officer Standards and Training academy in Sandy. Their class, which will meet for about three months, is a testament to the claims of Utah agencies that despite widespread officer shortages, standards for new recruits haven't changed.

In some cases, benefits and incentives have changed, but according to many police agencies across the state, hiring only the best remains a top priority. Shortage problems

The Ogden Police Department has been among the most vocal in recruiting new officers. A billboard along Washington Boulevard in Ogden advertises the need for new recruits, and a funky video posted on the station's Web site sings the benefits of careers in law enforcement.

In addition, an Ogden Police Human Resources team is working on offering starting bonuses for new hires and finders' fees for officers moving from other jurisdictions.

Ogden Police Chief and state Sen. Jon Greiner, R-Ogden, said that his agency of about 400 will have 12 open positions by year's end. Problems with hiring and recruiting suitable officers have been going on about five years, he said, and have grown worse as statewide unemployment rates have dropped.

The Ogden Police Department was down 15 officers this summer, but has hired 10 and is in the middle of a hiring process. A recent initiative by Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey to stem gang-related crime will add six new officer positions in January. Six other officer positions are also planned, but haven't been funded.

Part of Ogden's shortage comes from officers leaving for better-paying jobs, other departments or private industry, Greiner said. Several of his officers also recently retired.

"(There are) too many jobs available in the work force, and not enough people able to fill them," he said. "Every chief is going through this nationwide. It is a function of supply and demand. There is a limited supply of people who will do this job, and we are not paying enough to keep them."

Police officers in Ogden have been forced to work demanding overtime shifts, which cost taxpayers time-and-a-half wages.

Greiner explained that coping with the shortages is necessary, because hiring inadequate officers is out of the question.

"You wouldn't want one of the guys just getting out of prison for rape hired," he said.

Washington County, too, is facing problems. The sheriff's department recently announced it would be offering incentives for new employees.

Elsewhere, the Layton Police Department is short about five police officers, and Iron County has just filled its vacant positions.

In Emery County, almost all officers are picking up overtime shifts to deal with shortages, said Sheriff Lamar Guymon. The county has had trouble finding qualified applicants and has had several officers leave for better-paying jobs, Guymon said.

In St. George, recruiters have taken to putting advertisements in Hispanic newspapers and using reserve officers more regularly, said St. George Sgt. Craig Harding. They have also given would-be recruits second chances on required written tests.

Other areas have been luckier. The Utah Highway Patrol, Salt Lake City, Logan and Orem police departments have not had trouble filling open positions, though they have had fewer applicants than usual, officials have said.

The starting salary for most police officers in Utah hovers between $28,000 per year and $36,000 per year.

Copyright 2007 Deseret Morning News

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