(Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on police staffing issues. Find part one, which focused on the departure of local officers from the force, at tinyurl.com/ms7uvze7.)
While officers leaving the force are on the rise, whether by resignations or retirements, police departments across the country are struggling to fill vacant roles. As more officers leave the force, more vacancies means more job opportunities for incoming officers, but it also means stiffer competition for police departments.
“Normally, I’d have an eligibility list and I can take time to go through the process,” Wyoming Police Chief Paul Hoppe said. “Our last eligibility list of six people we had established in January, now all six of those are gone.”
Hoppe said that he normally sees about 80 applicants for a single open position, “which allows us to take a broad sample and really be selective in who we bring aboard to make sure they fit our expectations,” he said. Instead, for the open position, he received 20 applications.
For some employers, seeing 20 applicants for an open position might be a good thing in today’s hiring pool; the hiring process for policing makes things difficult. Out of the 80 applicants they would see for a single position, only 50% of those make it through to the second round based on background checks or “other issues,” said Hoppe. So if the percentage holds, that reduces the pool from 20 applicants down to 10.
Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart noted that he hasn’t seen as big of an impact but is seeing departments around the state struggle to keep up.
“We’re fortunate we’re still metro, but those outstate sheriffs and chiefs of police, their pools are way down,” he said. He also added that he isn’t sure what to expect for the future. “We’re making ends meet and there aren’t any significant impacts, but that’s not to say at some point that couldn’t become more of an issue.”
Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry said that his office is also seeing a decrease in candidates applying for openings, but it hasn’t had an impact on his office to the degree other departments have.
“We’re all fighting for the same pool, but we’ve found good quality candidates,” he said. He added in 1993, there were typically 300 or more candidates for a single open position in the sheriff’s office, and now they’re down to roughly 60-80 for “a position or two.”
Back in Wyoming, the hiring process for officers typically runs six to eight months due to background checks and other testing and interviews. Instead, in order to compete with other departments for eligible candidates, Wyoming has had to speed up its process to just two months.
“It’s difficult to keep up,” Hoppe said. “As a result, we have to accelerate eight months down to eight weeks so we can get those top candidates through our process fast enough.”
Hoppe said the department has not lowered its standards on expectations and requirements, but the accelerated time frame puts more stress on current officers. A typical timeline would include two to three weeks between each step, which includes running scenarios and training with current staff, and now the department is doing three to four steps in the same day, which puts more stress on the staff because the department has to be there for those days.
Once they hire an officer, there is a 16-week training period as an evaluation as they ride with another officer, and then they are on their own in the patrols. For the next year, they are still under high scrutiny through their probationary period.
Filling the gap
The opening left by former Wyoming police officer Matt Paavola, who resigned in April, was recently filled by Jack Breitbach, a Forest Lake native and current resident, who started with the Wyoming Police Department in July. The opening created by former officer Scott Thomas, who left the department in July, is slated to be filled by North Branch native and current resident Trevor Minor, pending council approval and final approvals by a psychologist and physician.
The two positions left open during the height of the summer left the Wyoming Police Department stretched thin during one of its busiest times of the year. Out of the 10-officer department, that’s 20% of their force, and from a typical eight-officer patrol team, that’s 25%.
“Basically, you’re losing 12 hours of coverage every day,” Hoppe said.
What that translates to is more work left on the officers to fill in the gaps and a reduced amount of coverage during their shifts. When the department is at full staff, officers are asked to spend half of their time doing community outreach and non-criminal calls and the other half focused on criminal engagement. Being down officers means less community outreach and fewer service-related calls such as handling lockouts, business walk-throughs, and park checks. The biggest impact, Hoppe said, are officers are less focused on traffic enforcement, which he said is critical right now because of the increase in speeding.
“The things the community wants the most, those are the first things that are impacted when we run short,” Hoppe said.
All the meanwhile, the officers can be impacted by the added duties and extra time required to help with the hiring process.
“From a leadership perspective, it’s hard to keep morale up,” Hoppe said. “When [officers are] not getting vacation times they used to get, are picking up more overtime shifts, or when they used to have more time to do things, they have to take it on themselves — all of that affects their moral.”
A reluctance to join
Hoppe says he sees the cause of the reduced pool of candidates from the “demonization” of police officers.
“There’s a lot of good people who are thinking of going into policing, but they’re just simply hitting the pause button because they’re not sure they want to get in and be stereotyped and demonized,” he said. “Schools have seen a significant reduction of applicants, and that translates into the hiring pool.”
Washington County Sheriff Starry concurred: “I think with COVID and everything else, everything going on in society, it makes those candidates stop and think, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’”
Anoka County Sheriff Stuart said: “It’s been my personal soapbox for the last few years that we can’t make enemies of our protectors and expect that they’ll continue to pursue this path. We’re seeing that in the schools. …We need good people in these roles. Even those that aren’t fans of law enforcement. If you think it’s a broken profession, help us fix it. There’s no easier way to help us fix something than inside the walls. We need good people to help us continue.”
Debated topics regarding possible future legislation, like qualified immunity, also play a factor, both in possible future candidates and those considering leaving the force.
“The national conversations of eliminating it for our officers creates an enormous amount of anxiety, and the reason being these are very difficult jobs these officers have to do,” Hoppe said. “Just the conversation of eliminating it to go out and obtain malpractice insurance, it would devastate their ability to be able to afford it. These aren’t high-paying jobs.” In addition, officers in the force and those considering the jobs are also factoring in the burden their families carry.
“It’s creating some disenfranchising not just within our current rank and file, but those who are considering getting into the profession,” Hoppe said.
Still, Hoppe is hopeful for the future, recalling his experience during the Rodney King trials.
“What we need is for those people that were considering this profession to understand is this is just a snapshot in your career.”
He also mentioned a Gallup poll that came out last month that indicated a stronger confidence in policing than last year, and he hopes that will translate into more applicants down the road.
“Those [results] demonstrate there is community support,” he said.