It's no secret that police departments around the country are suffering from staffing shortages, and departments in Cochise County are looking to hire more police officers.
The Sierra Vista Police Department has a staff of 63, but has funding for 68. The ideal number would be 75, but it hasn't been able to meet that goal. Despite that, the shortage has not affected the department's ability to perform at a high level and public safety isn’t compromised. The issue is with the long hours officers have to work, and the lack of enough time off from a job that can be very taxing physically and mentally.
“It’s not a concern as far as providing a level of safety and service. It’s more a concern about officers being able to take time off — to take a break,” said SVPD recruiter Lillly Perry. “Having enough days off affects morale and getting burned out.”
Hiring and maintaining enough officers has proved difficult for several reasons, with retirements being at the top of the list.
“We have never been at full staffing,” Perry said. “There's a five-year period that started last year where we had 20 retirements happening. Part of the challenge is we get three people into the academy and then we have three people retire.”
The numbers of applicants at SVPD has dropped steadily over the past few years. In 2019 there were 185 applicants, in 2020 there were 173, in 2021 there were 91 and in 2022 the number dropped to 77.
Factors affecting the decline such as the pay rate and the danger inherent with police work play a role, but many point to the negative image of police that is often reinforced by the media, especially social media.
“Police perception doesn’t help,” said Eric Brooks, executive director of Cochise College's First Responders Academy. “One bad cop and everybody gets a bad reputation. The media focuses on one cop, or two bad cops. A lot of it has to do with the fact that there’s much more media presence — much more social media presence.”
In Sierra Vista, however, Perry said the view of the police force is generally positive.
“We do a lot of community outreach, and we are very service oriented,” she said. “Our philosophy is service with honor, and we provide customer service that a lot of bigger agencies don’t. We’re the right size to be able to do that and we have a good relationship with the community.”
For the applicants determined to pursue a career in law enforcement, the first thing they must do is pass a very thorough background check. Perry suggests that applicants are sincere with the information they provide.
“Honesty and integrity is huge,” she said. “Most of the people who don’t make it through background is because they failed to disclose something, and we tell them to disclose everything. Everybody makes mistakes and poor decisions, especially when you’re younger. A lot of those things are minor and aren’t an issue, but if we find out about it during the background investigation or the polygraph that they failed to disclose something, then we have an issue with integrity. We can’t have officers out on the street that don’t have integrity. Be open and honest and put it all out there.”
Making it through the police academy is challenging for new recruits. The academy is often described as being similar to a military boot camp, but with college-level coursework as well. It’s difficult, but it has to be because the job of a police officer demands mental and physical fitness.
“You have to be smart, you have to be strong, you have to be fit and you have to be willing to persevere, and you’ve done that after 20 weeks of training,” Brooks said.
The next group of recruits at the academy will graduate in late May 2023. Six will work at the Cochise County Sheriff's Office, five will work for the Sierra Vista Police Department, one is slated for Douglas and one for Bisbee.
There also is a shortage of dispatchers in the county, but help is coming and Cochise College started a Communications Officer Training Program on Jan. 17. It is a six-week program and the graduates will all be employed by SEACOM, the county communications/911 center.
Transfers of experienced officers from other agencies, known as lateral transfers, have helped to bring qualified officers to SVPD and are highly sought after. Citizen police have been helpful, and when trained can respond to situations like traffic control and minor traffic accidents.
There are people still interested in law enforcement careers, but the numbers need to increase to have a real impact.
“I don’t see anybody filling all of their slots for police officers anytime soon. I think there'll be a need for a while,” Brooks said.
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