Some law enforcement agencies in Southern Utah forced to compete with each other in tight labor market

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ST. GEORGE — Hurricane Police Chief Lynn Excell spoke before the City Council at the beginning of July and reported that an already bad situation in many portions of Southern Utah was getting worse in his neck of the woods.

Hurricane City Police vehicle, Hurricane, Utah, June 7, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“I’ll be very candid – and I understand that this is a public meeting – but the fact of the matter is we’ve got to stop the bleed,” he said.

Excell then described how a Hurricane police officer, a veteran of seven years of service, informed the chief that he had been hired to work in Washington City.

“Unfortunately we’ve got some other communities in our own county that have done some things and have adapted their pay scales that’s enticing our officers, sheerly because of economics, to go to other departments,” he said.

The council meeting that night was held to discuss the budget for next year, and Excell asked that council members consider finding money to increase wages for police officers.

Excell said his officers love Hurricane and love serving that community, but when they can get paid more to do the same job in other municipalities, it’s hard for them to stay.

“The fact is that I’ve lost five officers in the last six months,” Excell said. “If I lose five more, that’s 30 percent of our workforce gone in one year. And that’s not sustainable. We’ve got to stay competitive.”

The scene in Hurricane reflected an issue that is impacting law enforcement throughout Southwest Utah. 

While the employment situation changes from agency to agency and from budget year to budget year, some law enforcement agencies are competing amongst themselves for a small pool of capable employees.

Cedar City Police Chief Darin Adams recently hired two new patrol officers after the City Council made room in the budget to pay for them.

In this April 2021 file photo, Cedar City Police Chief Darin Adams speaks at the unveiling of the new Southern Utah Crime Lab facility at the Department of Public Safety Building in Cedar City, Utah, April 26, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Speaking with St. George News, Adams said that over the past couple of years especially, the pool of qualified candidates for law enforcement suffered from a lack of quantity – and in some cases, quality.

“The national narrative, with the defunding rhetoric and the attack on police, made candidates second guess if the career is the right thing for them, with the pay and what they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis,” Adams said.

However, he added, in this last round of hiring he had approximately 40 applicants, 13 of which were interviewed. The two that were hired came from agencies on the Wasatch Front, Adams said, and a third hire is active military who will go through the police academy before joining the department.

“That was more applicants than we’ve had in a long time. I hope it was not just an anomaly,” Adams said. “It was interesting because it kind of invalidated the norm, especially these last couple years.”

The St. George Police Department is experiencing a similar crunch as Hurricane but for different reasons.

St. George Police Department officers at the scene of a gunshot incident at Tonaquint Cemetery, St. George News, July 10, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

While the Washington County Sheriff’s Office previously struggled with issues of poaching, losing 42 law enforcement officers between 2016-2018, in the case of St. George, the increased need for officers isn’t a result of poaching, the pandemic or increased crime. St. George Police Sgt. Tyrell Bangerter told St. George News it is simply a matter of growth.

“St. George and its surrounding areas have had significant growth,” Bangerter said.

“Our police department needs to keep up – or at least catch up to that. … Obviously more people in town can lead to a variety of issues and concerns and more calls for service.”

Fortunately, Bangerter said, the St. George City Council recently budgeted for new police officers.

“Our administration approved several new positions, so we’ve opened a hiring roster so we can fill those positions,” Bangerter said. “We’re lucky that we have the support of our city management and they understand the needs of our city and our officers.” 

Bangerter acknowledged that a common need for employees creates competition.

“We’re recruiting for the best officers. We want the best qualified candidates to work for us,” Bangerter said. “We have hired from neighboring agencies, and they have hired from ours. There can be a ripple effect.”

He added that the police department recruits from wherever it can to get the best candidates, both inside and outside the county and state.

Another law enforcement agency that is actively recruiting outside of their immediate vicinity is farther north in Beaver County. Sheriff Cameron Noel told St. George News he’s desperately in need of more officers. However, in their case, it’s particularly in corrections.

The Beaver County Jail, Beaver, Utah, July 21, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The Beaver County Correctional Facility, located at 2270 South 525 West in Beaver, is the state’s largest county contract facility, with a capacity of 400 inmates, Noel said.

“I’m having a real tough time keeping employees,” Noel said. “I’m down patrol officers, but primarily I’m down correctional officers. And it just seems like every time I turn around, it gets worse and worse. So we’re in a situation that definitely could be devastating to our county. I just can’t find anybody to work.” 

As a stop gap, Noel is rotating officers in the agency.

“A lot of my patrol officers that work out on the road, they are certified to work in the jail. So today, I had to reassign a couple of them just to cover some of the positions in the (jail),” he said.

This rotation creates shortages in other areas, however. Noel said he has had to reassign officers who normally work on interstate safety and school resources to cover jail shifts.

“What that does is take them from my community,” he said.

Noel says he hopes to attract new officers from out of town, who wouldn’t mind commuting to work from Iron County, Millard County or even farther away.

“We need to do a hiring bonus and boost our hourly rate, so if somebody in Cedar wants to commute, they’re going to be able to make enough money to make it worth their while,” Noel added.

The Beaver County Commission approved a $2 per hour wage increase for sheriff’s officers during its Wednesday meeting, Noel said.

“The commissioners really supported me, and I appreciate them doing that,” Noel said following the county action, noting that the pay increase applies to all currently employed certified officers, as well as new hires.

Besides pay increases, the county is looking at other ideas and incentives, including the possibility of offering some form of housing assistance to new officers, Noel said.

Noel said he and other sheriffs throughout the state are planning to ask Gov. Spencer Cox and the Utah Legislature for additional help and solutions.

“All the sheriffs are meeting with the governor here in the next couple of weeks,” he added. “I think that’s going to be one of our top priorities, explaining to the governor that this is a national crisis. It’s a state crisis. And my county and other rural counties right now are feeling it really heavily.”

Iron County Jail Commander Lt. Shalon Shaver (second from right) and other correctional officers during ICSO awards banquet, Cedar City, Utah, July 13, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

However, while the Beaver County Correctional Facility is struggling, this wouldn’t seem to be an immediate threat to the employment situation at the Iron County Jail, where Lt. Shalon Shaver said things have improved.

“I came on the job about two years ago, and I’ve done a lot of hiring since then,” Shaver said. “This is the first time when we’ve been pretty much fully staffed.”

Shaver said she is looking to hire a nurse, but that is the only position open. The facility is one of the oldest functioning jails in Utah. Shaver said that it has a capacity of 256 beds, and right now it is housing 145 inmates.

Shaver credited a positive work environment for the jail’s full complement of employees.

“Of course we’d love to be able to give our deputies a higher wage,” Shaver said. “That would be great. Right now we’re a good little family. I don’t know if we could do this anywhere else. We have a great team.”

Cedar City News reporter Jeff Richards contributed to this report.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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