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Law enforcement in Durango, La Plata County below recommended staffing levels

Police and Sheriff’s Office weigh in on recruitment issues
Officer Ethan Anderson prepares to exit his squad car for a daily briefing at the Durango Police Department. (Nicholas A. Johnson/Durango Herald)

Corresponding with national trends, Durango Police Department and La Plata County Sheriff’s Office are dealing with staffing issues that cause them to operate at shift minimums and outside of recommended personnel levels.

The recommendations the Durango Police Department adhere to come from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the International City County Managers Association.

“We at the Durango Police Department have used both of these models to validate what our concerns are, which is that we do not have enough officers and staffing to provide the service levels that our community deserves,” said Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer.

Brammer said the ICCMA recommends what is called the Rule of 60, which means that 60% of the police force should be allocated to patrolling. Under the ICCMA’s recommendations, Brammer said the DPD would have to add 14 officers to come into compliance.

The IACP recommends that 30% of the department’s time should be operational, 30% should be administrative, 30% should be uncommitted and 10% should be flexible. Under the IACP’s model, Brammer said the department would need 11 additional officers.

Considering both models, Brammer said ideally DPD would like to increase its staff by 13 officers.

He said increased staffing would allow proactive policing.

“That’s us going out and doing security checks, walking downtown, walking the parks and trails,” he said. “All the things we’re supposed to be doing that we can’t do.”

Brammer wants his officers to have 60% of their time committed and 40% uncommitted. Currently, the split is closer to 80% committed time and 20% uncommitted, based on the department workload, he said.

“Having that proactive time will actually influence our committed time,” he said. “If we have that time, we’ll be less responsive to the radio, because we’ve already dealt with issues upfront. We can come up with strategies to bring those crime rates down.”

Brammer said the nationwide labor shortage has had a huge impact on recruiting new officers.

“It’s not just law enforcement that’s having trouble finding people,” he said. “Everybody is having trouble filling jobs at the moment.”

Brammer said applications to the DPD are down about 50% this year compared with previous years.

The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office is down 10 positions out of 118 deputy positions – seven in its detentions divisions and three in its patrol division, said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith.

Being down on patrol deputies forces the Sheriff’s Office to operate at shift minimums, Smith said. The Sheriff's Office splits the 1,700 square miles of La Plata County into four patrol districts. If ideally staffed, Smith said there would be six or seven patrol deputies spread out over those four districts.

“Our minimum staffing is one person for each district,” he said. “When we’re running at minimum staffing, often a deputy will be pulled from one area of the county to assist in another area that requires more than one deputy.”

Smith said operating at minimums doesn’t allow the Sheriff’s Office to act as proactively as he would like.

In 2020, the Sheriff’s Office received 92 applications for patrol deputy positions. Smith said the majority of those applicants were not certified to apply. Of the few who were certified to apply, some turned down jobs because they felt compensation wasn’t enough to accommodate the cost of living in the area.

“By the time it was all said and done, we were able to hire four positions out of those 92 applicants, and one has already left,” he said.

Smith said money will be made available in the county’s 2022 budget to develop a new pay system to bring La Plata County to competitive rates of compensation with other law enforcement agencies across the state.

“It’s a skill-based progression program that plots a path for deputies based on what they want to do in their career,” he said. “If they hit certain thresholds, their compensation will go up.”

The Sheriff’s Office has lowered the required age for jail staff applicants from 21 to 18.

“We hope to work with the local high school intern programs to look for kids who may not be college bound, but are looking at law enforcement,” Smith said. “They have local ties to the community, and we can develop a career for them right out of high school.”

Director Doug Parker with the Southwest Regional Law Enforcement Academy in Mancos said he’s noticed fewer students in his recent classes. Parker said he usually has around 16 students in a class, but had only 12 in his last.

“I think there’s a couple issues with recruitment, one is just the national environment around law enforcement right now,” he said.

However, Parker said the numbers for his upcoming spring class are back up to where they’ve been in the past.

“(I) think that maybe the pendulum is starting to swing back a bit,” he said. “Agencies are just having a hard time getting people to apply that can meet the qualifications more than anything.”

Speaking to national conversations about the roles of law enforcement that were spurred by events such as the murder of George Floyd, Parker said he thinks changes need to be made.

“We need to look at this from a different perspective from when I got into the business many years ago,” he said.

Parker said communication training should be a main focus at academies.

“We have three skills that the state mandates us to teach: driving, firearms and arrest control,” he said. “I contend that the fourth skill, the pole that holds up the tent, is communication. We don’t spend nearly enough time training people in that.”

About six weeks ago, Smith said he and a number of other heads of law enforcement across the state met with Gov. Jared Polis to talk about staffing challenges in law enforcement.

“Everybody in the state is looking at it differently,” Smith said. “Other agencies in the state are looking at hiring bonuses.”

Parker said he’s been surprised with the incentive programs that agencies he works with are offering. He he recently spoke with a recruiter from the Albuquerque Police Department who said the agency was offering a $15,000 signing bonus plus relocation costs.

Smith said he hopes to work with Fort Lewis College to develop a program that allows students who are interested in going into law enforcement to become certified to be a police officer while also pursuing their degree.

“It would be ideal to get some people who are interested in this line of work back in from our local university as well,” he said.

njohnson@durangoherald.com

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