Who wants to be a cop? Police departments in Utah struggling to fill their ranks

Posted at 10:25 PM, Nov 05, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-06 00:25:52-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- For generations it was considered an honored and respected career, and becoming a member of law enforcement was often a family affair. But, for a lot of reasons these days, police departments in Utah are finding it difficult to attract and keep qualified cops.

From pay and retirement issues, to the recent trend of cops being targets of violence, veteran officers say the task of attracting the best and brightest to serve and protect has never been more challenging.

Jim Winder, Salt Lake County Sheriff, doesn't hesitate when asked why it's seemingly more difficult than ever to recruit qualified candidates to become cops.

“I think the three main factors are the length of time it takes to become an officer, the nature of the work itself, and the pay and benefits,” Winder said.

And it’s the nature of the work that's dominated headlines over the past year, with the number of officers who are attacked and sometimes killed in the line of duty increasing.

Then, Winder says there's the daily grind of being a cop.

“Right now they're asked to deal with the mental illness, homelessness, juvenile truancy, ungovernable juveniles,” he said.

Winder and other veteran officers say they've seen the issue taking shape for the past few years.

"It used to be we didn't have to recruit at all, everybody wanted to be a police officer or a firefighter,” said Sgt. Robin Heiden, Salt Lake City Police Department. “And now, we don't see that anymore."

In September, Ogden PD was down 11 officers from its 112-member force, while West Valley City, Utah’s second largest city, is currently down roughly two dozen cops from their 208-member squad.

So, to fill their ranks, some agencies are hiring officers away from other agencies, while others are trying to get creative in how and where they recruit.

"We're lucky here in Utah, we have a lot of support from the community,” Heiden said. “So we have to get out into the community and recruit people and plant that seed and let them know, ‘this is a good job.’”

Part of that effort involves targeting younger adults and people of color, the changing face of Utah. Which is why several police agencies set up booths at the recent Multicultural Youth Leadership Summit in Sandy.

"That's why I’m here, to build relationships with these guys when they're young, when they are in junior high and high school, so they can see that I’m just one of the guys like them," one officer at the summit said.

That message resonated with Karen Zavala.

"Yeah I've considered it before and still am, it's an interesting field to go into,” she said. “I'm very interested in helping the community.”

So the search for more cops goes on.

Sheriff Winder says more money, and better benefits, could be part of a solution.

Winder said: "I am sick to death of the mantra of 'More for less.'  At some point we have to realize, you get what you pay for, and people will be offended by that, I’m sure, but I believe it."

Some agencies are now offering incentives to help fill their ranks. West Valley City, for instance, is offering cash rewards for officers who bring them a potential candidate who winds up joining the force.

The city is also offering incentives to officers who take up residence in the city.