SALT LAKE CITY — Before police Chief Mike Brown was hired by Salt Lake City in 1991, he and 1,500 other would-be officers crammed into a University of Utah auditorium to begin competing for 30 open positions.
When detective David Sonntag applied with Salt Lake City in 2009, he was one of 900.
In 2016, 30 openings at the police department drew a field of just 145 applicants.
If that still seems like plenty, consider: About 70 percent of candidates who survive the gauntlet of physical, written, oral and medical tests will then fail the department's exhaustive background checks, which are modeled after federal security clearances.
Statewide, law enforcement officials report that qualified recruits are in short supply thanks to low unemployment, the public's views about officer safety and use-of-force incidents, and a diminished pension system.
It's part of a national trend: The Pew Research Center found in 2016 that 86 percent of U.S. officers felt their departments lacked the personnel to adequately police their community.
And experts say the shortage might continue until the next economic downturn, when qualified people are no longer finding it so easy to land jobs in the private sector.
Coming at a time when police actions are increasingly scrutinized on social media and across popular news outlets, it puts officials in a tough spot. If they reduce their hiring standards, they risk injuring their department's reputation and endangering community members. If they persuade their community leaders to increase wages or benefits, they risk the ire of taxpayers.
With no easy fixes apparent — and as Utah’s population surges relative to its police ranks — many are getting creative. Housing and education perks. Finder's fees. Outreach. But some say more drastic measures are needed to reverse the thinning of Utah's blue line.
How low can you go?
Not long ago, longtime officers say, it was enough to place a classified ad in a local newspaper.
When Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich signed up in 1992, he says, a human resources employee coordinating the testing announced that there were 10 open positions, and 1,600 people had showed.
“I distinctly remember standing in line thinking, ‘I don’t have a chance,’” he says.
Now, UHP promotes its hiring rounds on social media and at athletic events, colleges and work fairs, and it will pay troopers a $500 bonus for each new hire they refer.
Often, Rapich says, the turnout for testing is about one-third the number of overall applicants. Two-thirds never show despite follow-up phone calls and ride-along offers.
“A good testing day today would be to have 100 applicants show up,” Rapich says. “And you actually don’t see that that often.”
According to a May 2016 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Utah was 47th in per capita police and sheriff’s patrol officers. The number of active officers as of July 2017 was nearly 8,800, up about 2 percent from a decade prior, but the state’s population increased 13 percent over that time.
Utah’s largest cop shops aim to reverse that trend in 2018.
The Salt Lake City Council voted late last year to fund 50 new positions, in addition to offsetting the usual attrition. As the department shifted its focus to reduce crime near Salt Lake City's downtown homeless shelter, some city residents observed a lack of police presence and increasing homeless issues in their own neighborhoods, drawing the attention of city leaders.
Add in Salt Lake County (which plans to reopen its Oxbow Jail), Unified police and UHP, and back-of-the-napkin math indicates there might be as many as 250 hires at those agencies alone. If they can find that many.
Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson says that during a hiring round, his office might get 30 applicants, and after a rigorous training and vetting process, “We’re lucky to (hire) one or two out of the 30.”
When larger agencies like Salt Lake City are hiring, it also increases pressure on smaller locales to retain their homegrown officers. According to a 2016 study, Salt Lake City’s officers were paid 134 percent of local market value, or an average of $61,000 (about on par with other U.S. cities, factoring in Utah's low cost of living). They also get take-home cars and a variety of specialized crime-fighting roles that are only offered in larger departments — like dedicated narcotics and gang units.
Before Weber County increased its pay in 2016, Thompson says, it had lost nearly three dozen employees in two years over pay-related issues. At its low point in 2014, it had 14 unfilled positions. A half-dozen of Thompson’s officers are now testing for a move to Salt Lake City, he says.
The Ogden Police Department has a similar story: Of nearly four dozen nonretirees who left the city in the last three years — equal to 40 percent of Ogden's current force — 12 went to Salt Lake City. Four were known to be pursuing employment with Salt Lake City as of late December.
Says Brown, with sympathy: “I’m sure Salt Lake City is a cuss word in some of those departments.”
Nelson Lim, an adjunct senior sociologist at the nonprofit RAND Corporation, says police hiring shortages like this one are very predictable.
Utah’s situation reflects a nationwide problem that Lim says is predicated on two factors: low unemployment (3 percent in Utah) and military recruiting drives (a priority of President Donald Trump).
The same conditions created a shortage of qualified police recruits before the Great Recession and amid the Iraq War surge, Lim said.
Unless compelled to do so by a sense of adventure or duty, there is little incentive for somebody to put themselves at risk during a booming economy, and those who are compelled by a sense of adventure or duty can be similarly attracted to the military.
“You can’t really compete with Marines in terms of brand,” Lim said.
Also: Law enforcement deaths are often harrowing and well-publicized, as when a gunman opened fire on officers serving a warrant in Pennsylvania in January, killing a deputy U.S. marshal. That contributes to the perception that policing is unsafe.
Says Unified Police Lt. Brian Lohrke: “There’s a lot of other professions that are a lot more dangerous than law enforcement: loggers, line workers, farmers, ranchers. But we’re still under the microscope whenever something bad happens.”
Even though nationwide officer fatalities actually fell 10 percent last year, 42 percent of officers told Pew in 2016 that they nearly always or often have serious concerns about their safety.
And some police feel they are increasingly cast as villains by the media. A June 2017 Gallup poll found that confidence in police had returned to a 25-year average after falling to a historic low in 2015, amid protests about police shootings of unarmed black people in Missouri, South Carolina and New York City. Among Hispanics and people under 35, though, confidence had continued to dip.
Salt Lake City received national attention for de-escalation training in 2017, but found itself at the forefront of a narrative about overly aggressive policing when a detective forcefully arrested a screaming nurse at University Hospital in July. She had declined to comply with his order to draw blood from a man injured in a fatal car crash, in accordance with the hospital’s policy.
Incidents like that (captured on a body camera) can undo years' worth of goodwill, and compromise the case for more resources.
"Their bad reputation is earned," said Dave Newlin, a spokesman for Utah Against Police Brutality, who said that police officers work to reinforce poverty, racism and unequal class dynamics. As an example, he cited the recent crackdown near the homeless shelter that has long been sought by area business leaders and developers.
"If they are interested in attracting better candidates, then we need to have a much better idea of what policing is."
Pensions vs. pay
One of the profession’s most attractive lures used to be the pension: Serve for 20 years and you’ll receive a large portion of your salary — even as you begin a second career.
Pension funds across the U.S. were hit hard by the recession, exposing the frailty of systems that were built on incorrect assumptions about when employees retire, how long they live and what level of interest pension funds could expect on their investments.
In 2011, Utah stopped offering newcomers the old retirement system in which a public safety employee could expect to annually receive 50 percent or more of his or her pay after 20 years. Instead, new officers get an option: A pension system in which they are eligible at 25 years for 37.5 percent of their pay, or an equivalent deposit to a 401(k) account.
“That is one of the worst retirements in the country,” Brown says. Thompson calls the new retirement system “the first nail in the coffin” for police recruiting.
It’s unlikely that Utah’s Legislature will roll its retirement eligibility back to 20 years, or that it will increase pension pay. But some lawmakers are open to increasing 401(k) contributions.
“Absolutely we’re talking about it and looking at it,” said Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, chairman of the state Senate’s Retirement and Independent Entities Committee, before the current session. “The challenge is always funding.”
Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who sponsored the pension changes, said he might support a 401(k) increase, but in that case, he’d like to give local governments an option to put that money toward wages instead.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Utah's police and sheriff’s patrol officers earned an average of $51,000 as of May 2016, up from $46,000 in May 2011 — roughly in line with inflation. Nationally, the average increased from $56,000 to $63,000 over the same period.
As Liljenquist pointed out, there's nothing stopping communities from taking the initiative and increasing their offerings without a state mandate to do so.
Unified Police Department announced last week that it will offer up to a 16 percent 401(k) contribution — 4 percent above the standard contribution under the state system — to officers at other agencies who are hired at Unified.
That's "a pretty big game-changer," said Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking, who said the word had rippled through his own department. "It's creating a stir."
Lim doesn’t believe that pension or pay increases alone will solve the problem.
Still, he said, decision-makers should do what they can, while they can. They can’t simply wait for the economy to worsen again.
“When the economy is getting bad, the tax revenues are going down,” he said. “During the Great Recession, they had no recruiting problem because cities were broke — they couldn’t hire anyone.”
He says departments should use data to drive their recruiting efforts — to go where the interested candidates are — and that they should re-evaluate their testing to be sure that they are scientifically measuring the qualities they want.
Salt Lake City recently lowered its required entrance exam score after discovering that qualified candidates who speak English as a second language were unable to pass on multiple attempts.
The city also instituted two $300 finder’s fees for its officers: the first if a referral is hired and another if the referral completes field training.
In 2015, West Valley City tried a “residency incentive,” in which officers could apply for $10,000 to purchase a home in the city, plus a $200 per month housing allowance for up to three years — so long as they committed to living in West Valley City for at least five years.
Last year Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, passed a bill that created a $200,000 tuition reimbursement fund for officers.
And in an effort to lock down the most qualified new officers, agencies are more frequently hiring them before sending them to the monthslong Peace Officer Standards and Training program, instead of expecting applicants to have already paid their own way through equivalent training at satellite academies (at a cost of about $6,500).
But Brown feels the current trends are “unsustainable” without significant changes to compensation.
“We’re trying to fix an arterial bleed with a lot of little Band-Aids.”
In the meantime, his department is doing what it can to fatten the slim pickings.
Two recruiting officers went to southern Utah in mid-January to drum up interest, meeting with criminal justice students at Southern Utah University and Dixie State University, and with visitors at a Mesquite, Nevada coffee shop.
And Sonntag is constantly scanning for candidates — even when he’s off-duty. He recently handed his business card to a Wal-Mart cashier who impressed Sonntag with his customer service. If a candidate will call his cellphone, Sonntag says, he’ll walk them through the application process.
Earlier in January, Salt Lake City welcomed about 100 interested Utahns at its downtown Public Safety Building, luring them with coffee, chips and sandwiches. Some were from other agencies — evident by the emblems on the patrol cars parked out front — but many were fresh recruits, eager to hear if they were eligible to become police officers.
One man showed a sergeant faded gang tattoos on his wrist and forearm that are being removed. The man left the gang at 21, he said while holding his young daughter’s hand, and is now 28. The sergeant asked if he’d ever been convicted of a felony. No. Been accused of a felony. No. Committed a felony. No. The problem, the sergeant said, is if you lie and they find out later.33 comments on this story
Across the room, Wilking tended a telescopic pole used to measure a person's vertical jump. After a man wearing dress shoes and a shirt and tie failed to tap the tab indicating the required 14 inches, Wilking suggested to the man that he put tape on his wall at home to practice.
Wilking said they’ve had a half-dozen recruiting seminars before, and this was the best turnout yet.
"We didn’t have to do these back in the day,” he added. “It was, ‘If you can’t figure it out, you’re not going to be a cop.’”