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The City Journals

Officer shortage prompting need for resident involvement

Mar 12, 2018 05:05PM ● By Carl Fauver

Unified Police officials say the shortage of officers across our state and country should prompt more Taylorsville residents to become active in neighborhood watches. (Carl Fauver/City Journals)

The steady stream of controversial police shootings seen in the news in recent years is just one of the reasons why qualified men and women in blue are becoming harder to find, train and keep on the job.  

“I believe this (officer shortage) will get worse before it gets better,” said Unified Police Department Taylorsville Precinct Chief Tracy Wyant.

He is quick to praise the Taylorsville City Council for always approving the funding appropriations he feels are necessary for additional officers. But that doesn’t make finding those officers any easier.

“They have always been very supportive,” Wyant said. “The trouble is, a lot of different agencies across Utah are all facing challenges trying to hire and keep good officers.”

Case in point, the Taylorsville UPD precinct was authorized to hire its 51st officer in January but still had not found the person more than a month later.

“UPD is the largest police department in the state,” Wyant said. “In December, we were down 24 officers. To his credit, (former Salt Lake County) Sheriff Winder helped move us ahead with some aggressive hiring before he left. But it’s a constant challenge.” 

An already-difficult situation became even worse a couple of months ago, when the Salt Lake City Council voted to approve 50 new officers for its department. Salt Lake homeowners are expected to feel the squeeze later this year, with a property tax hike to cover the anticipated additional cost of $5 million per year.

In the meantime, other Wasatch Front police departments are feeling pressure to hang on to their personnel. 

“Ogden and West Valley City have both recently approved shift differential pay raises in an effort to keep their officers from leaving,” Wyant said. “That means officers working less desirable swing or graveyard shifts get paid a little more. But it’s all intended as an effort to not lose personnel.”

In addition to negative media coverage impacting the number of people striving to become police officers, Wyant said another cause of the problem in Utah came courtesy of the state legislature a few years ago.

In 2011, lawmakers approved a new retirement “tier,” in a cost-saving move. Wyant said it is much less desirable than the one more tenured officers enjoy.

“Officers hired after July 1, 2011 now have to be on the job 35 years to earn the same benefits officers hired before that date receive, after 20 years,” Wyant told the Taylorsville City Council. “The ramifications of that change have been dramatic.”

Officers hired on prior to July 2011 are eligible for half their pay, as retirement, after working 20 years. The newer officers are only eligible for 37.5 percent of their salary, after 25 years on the job.

“When I applied to be a police officer (in 1997), I competed with hundreds of applicants for my entry-level position,” Wyant concluded. “But those days are over.”

Nationwide, other reasons cited for the shortfall of police applicants include low officer salary, an improved economy, more rigorous background checks and a general loss of respect from the public.

With all of these factors impacting police officer recruitment, Taylorsville City officials have said this is now a better time than ever for residents to become more active in protecting their own neighborhoods.

Council Vice Chairman Dan Armstrong has been active in his neighborhood watch program for 15 years.

“We have monthly meetings, block parties in the summer and a Labor Day breakfast among other activities,” he said. “But more importantly, we organize night and weekend patrols to help the police keep an eye on our property.”

Armstrong is aware of three active neighborhood watch programs in his council district. But he said more would always be beneficial.

“We have a great police department, but they can’t be everywhere at once,” Armstrong said. “Neighborhood watch groups are one way to help. People should also keep their yard lights on at night and keep an eye out for unfamiliar cars cruising through.”

The council vice chair added the challenge police face in hiring new officers may never go away.

“Especially here in Taylorsville, officers have told me they feel love and support from the public,” he said. “And I believe they have high morale in our precinct. But it’s up to us as citizens to do more than just praise them. I think neighborhood watch groups are a good place to start.”