The losses from the sworn ranks represent 39 percent of the current force of 736 officers, and translates to an average turnover rate of about 7 percent a year.
That’s not high in the law enforcement world by any means, but it’s a factor the city will have to take into account as it tries to add 120 officers in the next four years to reduce crime rates and traffic deaths and improve its slow response times.
As Police Chief Vince Niski said during a Feb. 11 interview after being selected by the mayor to succeed Pete Carey, whether the city can meet that goal “depends on our attrition rates.”
While CSPD provided turnover data sought earlier by the Indy, it didn’t otherwise respond to requests for an interview.
But law enforcement nationwide has had a tough go since the Aug. 9, 2014, shooting of black 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white officer, an event that led to growing distrust of law enforcement among some segments of society.
At a recent Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police conference, recruitment difficulties took center stage, says Michael Phibbs.
As chief of the Auraria Higher Education Center in Denver and the CACP legislative chair, Phibbs reports, “The same theme brought up over and over was the challenge of recruiting.”
Attrition data show the CSPD’s turnover rate increased from 5.6 percent in 2012 to 9.1 percent in 2018. (Turnover rates are based on the number of officers actually serving, not authorized strength.)
Officers leave for a variety of reasons, with the greatest losses coming from retirements in each of the last seven years. From 2012 through 2018, 143 officers retired.
While only one officer was discharged during that seven-year period, 24 left by “mutual consent,” 48 for “personal reasons” and 24 resigned to seek a career change. While departments often argue they lose officers to higher-paying departments, CSPD data show only 21 left for another police job locally, in Colorado or out of state.
According to a December report by The Washington Post, the Police Executive Research Forum surveyed nearly 400 police departments, which reported that 29 percent of those who resigned voluntarily served for less than a year, and 40 percent more had been on the job less than five years.
The data provided by CSPD wasn’t that detailed, but one reality that plays into officers’ decisions to call it quits or never apply in the first place is the danger inherent in the job, Phibbs says.
Five local officers have been killed in the line of duty since 2006. In early 2018, there was a string of officer deaths and injuries in the state, including the shooting death of El Paso County Deputy Micah Flick, killed during an auto theft arrest that also wounded three officers and a citizen.
“I have heard some chiefs and sheriffs talking about how they have had a hard time after that terrible January with officers wanting to leave law enforcement because of all the officer deaths we had,” Phibbs says. “Some people said, ‘This isn’t for me. This is getting too dangerous.’”
In 2018, retirements at the CSPD hit a peak of 27.
But the risk officers face isn’t the only issue. Phibbs says the inability to pass a background check blocks many applicants from qualifying.
“The standards we’re trying to maintain in law enforcement in terms of character are harder for people to meet,” he says. “I’ve had people interviewing with me that were doing felony level drugs in the last year.”
Another problem in recent years comes in the form of a booming economy, which increases opportunity in the private sector without the dangers of front-line law enforcement, he says.
While the growing use of body cameras train the spotlight on officers more intensely, Phibbs says he’s not convinced that factor discourages applicants or encourages departures. Rather, he says, social media posts that point to instances of police misconduct have led many to believe such incidents are commonplace. And that deters applicants.
“It’s not encouraging people to want to get into law enforcement,” Phibbs says. “It’s definitely hard to hire people, and that was the consensus of almost every chief at the conference. We’re just stealing from each other now.”
When Niski says training academies will have to backfill losses as well as fill new slots funded by Mayor John Suthers and City Council, consider this:
• In 2015, the mayor and Council authorized adding 20 officers but the department lost 54 that year.
• In 2017 and 2018, the CSPD’s academies graduated a total of 133 recruits, but the department lost 111 officers.
Like the CSPD, the Sheriff’s Office is playing catch-up. El Paso County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Jacqueline Kirby says in an email the sheriff has accepted an average of 13 retirements and 22 resignations each year over the last dozen years.
“From the Sheriff’s Office perspective, the number of applicants has increased when we have an opening for sworn personnel, but many fail the background phase,” she says, noting up to 600 people apply for each academy class of 20 to 25 recruits.
So does all that mean that law enforcement agencies have relaxed the requirements?
“No,” Kirby says. “We will not be loosening our requirements. The thought process is to hire for character and train for competency.”
And Phibbs says chiefs aren’t easing up on expectations either. “We as a profession want to hold people to high standards,” he says. “We are given an incredible amount of power and want to be sure we’re hiring ethical and qualified people.”
It’s unclear whether qualifications have changed at the CSPD, but former Chief Carey did abolish the promotion requirement of a college education in 2015. Instead, officers can substitute two years of experience for one year of college, meaning an officer would need eight years of experience to substitute for a four-year bachelor’s degree. Carey said at the time he made the change to allow officers who otherwise would be ineligible for advancement to climb the ladder.
Since that change, turnover has increased from 5.7 percent in 2014 to 9.1 percent in 2018.