BISBEE — With the departure of its deputy chief, the Bisbee Police Department has made some marked changes that focus on putting more cops on the street.
Similar to what other law enforcement agencies around the country have been experiencing over the last couple of years, recruiting for police officers has become a challenging undertaking and one that Bisbee is trying its best to overcome, said Bisbee Police Chief Albert Echave and City Manager Steve Pauken.
“We’re taking a very deliberate approach to see how things transition,” Pauken said in a recent interview with the Herald/Review. “(There are changes) not just in Bisbee or at Bisbee Police, but also in law enforcement in general. We’re talking about recruiting difficulties in police and fire and even in public works. If you’re around the profession nearly everyone who has a law enforcement agency has a recruiting issue.”
Bisbee Police is budgeted for 15 officers. The starting salary is $37,500, Echave said. The department currently has four vacancies.
Instead of replacing their deputy chief who left in October, Echave decided to hire a third sergeant in order to help boost the patrol division. Hiring a deputy chief in the future is not out of the question, Echave said, but now the focus is on patrols.
“The change (the third sergeant) was to make sure we have the coverage for supervision on the road,” Echave said. “The focus is on patrol. We’re not going to take away from patrol. We want to add to patrol. Worrying about filling a command level position can wait until later.
“We’re going to move forward deliberately and slowly and we may go back to having a deputy chief some day, but we’re not going to do that right now. Our focus right now is getting patrol back where it needs to be.”
Filling the cop roster has been challenging and Bisbee Police is not alone.
According to an eight-page study published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2019 titled, “The State of Recruitment: A Crisis for Law Enforcement,” about 78% of the country’s roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies reported having trouble recruiting qualified candidates. Another 65% reported having too few candidates apply, and 75% of the agencies reported that recruiting was more difficult in 2019 “than it was five years ago.”
Additionally, 25% of the law enforcement agencies reported having to “reduce or eliminate certain agency services, units, or positions because of staffing difficulties.”
Pauken said Bisbee does not have the financial resources to compete with the higher salaries offered by the Sierra Vista and Tucson police departments, for example. But even those agencies have reported difficulties in recruiting.
The IACP study mentioned a handful of obstacles standing in the way of law enforcement agencies’ recruitment efforts: generational differences, hiring process challenges and the public image of law enforcement.
The study says: “Agencies strongly believe that public perception of law enforcement limits interest in the profession and is a sizable barrier to effective recruitment. Scrutiny of the police, cellphone recordings of interactions between the police and public, media coverage, and popular entertainment portrayals of police have led many young people to view police differently than their parents may have.
“Overall, a majority of police officers feel their jobs have gotten more difficult since high-profile use-of-force incidents have dominated the national conversation,” the study shows.
Pauken echoed that.
“You’re looking at an atmosphere where the way people interface with law enforcement because of some of the social unrest has changed to the point where it is very uncomfortable to be a police officer,” Pauken said. “You don’t know how someone is going to react to your command or request.
“Because of that you’re seeing more dangerous situations and more incidents, regardless of who the aggressor might be. I think that’s driving a lot of it and really it’s a sad commentary.”
The constant barrage of information on social media about all topics also has played a significant role in how society views law enforcement, Echave said.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t just come down to the community you live and work in because of social media,” Echave said. “We feel things that happen all across the country.
“Thirty years ago we would have to watch (events) on the 10 p.m. news or read it in the newspaper. Today, we have it in the palm of our hand in our phone and we see it 24-7. ... I think that overall as a nation people are feeling it and maybe it’s turning them against wanting a career (in law enforcement.)”
Echave and Pauken said recruiting for the police department is handled by Bisbee’s human resources division. Pauken said the city advertises in law enforcement publications and participates in public safety job fairs. Echave said there’s also a lot of “word of mouth.”
Pauken said one feature the city is presenting to job candidates is Bisbee’s fledgling workforce housing program. According to Pauken, the latter involves the city taking over a house, renovating it and making it livable, putting it back on the tax rolls, and selling it to an employee “at a reasonable enough price that they don’t have to pay 50% of their take-home pay for the mortgage. Their cost of living will be such that it makes it difficult to leave (Bisbee).
“We’re in the process of selling house number two right now. We can’t limit it to just city employees, we have to sell them by lottery. But we’re picking up houses that have been sitting vacant for years.
“I’ve got two more houses starting right now and three more I can do after that. But once we reach a certain point, we can say, ‘OK. We have houses for sale and if you come work for us you have a really good chance of owning one of those houses and your house payment might be $500 a month instead of $1,000 a month.”
Echave said he has mentioned the housing component when recruiting.
“We start our officers out at $37,500,” he said. “We don’t have the deep pockets to increase that to $45,000 to compete with other agencies. But if there’s anything we can do to lessen their (the officer’s) monthly output of funds like for rent or mortgage, then that’s still money they’re keeping in their pockets.
“We have people who care about public safety who are stepping up and doing their thing to help. That’s a big deal for a small town like Bisbee. Those are selling points to a young possible candidate for police officer or firefighter to know that there are people in our community who support public safety and who are willing to donate their own time and resources to help make this possible.”
Anyone interested in applying for a job as a police officer in Bisbee may get an application at City Hall, 76 Erie St., or online at www.bisbeeaz.gov. Applications are accepted online, by mail or in person.