Law enforcement agencies have long had challenges recruiting. The nature of the job and a lengthy hiring process can make it difficult to bring on skilled candidates.

But the current sociopolitical climate and the challenge to keep salaries competitive are causing local agencies — which often compete for the same job candidates — to re-evaluate their pay structures.

The Tucson Police Department just raised its starting rate for officers to $26.21 an hour. That’s concerning to the Sahuarita Police Department and the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, which start at less.

Studying the market

SPD Chief John Noland has been involved with recruitment efforts in Arizona and California. He said today’s recruitment challenges are some of the biggest he’s seen.

“It’s always been somewhat difficult to recruit for law enforcement positions but it’s more difficult now than it has been my entire career. So, 37 years later and I’m saying this is about as difficult as I’ve seen it,” he said. “If somebody came up with the perfect plan that really recruits people, I think they would be selling it and I’d be glad to sit in that seminar and take it in.”

The department has 52 sworn officers and 10 civilians. SPD picked up six positions in the budget to bring them up to 55 officers and 13 civilians starting July 1.

Though it’s enough for what they need currently, Sahuarita is growing and that will bring with it a need for more staffing.

“The council would like me to report back on what we may need over the next three years, taking in what we can estimate growth at and what policing resources we may need,” he said. “Currently, as we step into July 1 with 55 sworn officers and 13 civilians, I don’t think that will suffice a year or two or three from now. Those numbers will have to grow as the town is growing.”

Noland is in the process of projecting needs over the next three years and said the council and town manager approved a market study to evaluate salaries in the department.

“What competitive salary and benefits within local agencies does is it stops people from moving from one agency to another because they can commute to work,” he said. “I’m sure every law enforcement agency in the country right now would probably agree. We want officers that, once hired, want to stay with us and are not looking at something else because it pays $2 more an hour, that type of thing.”

SPD is not the only agency studying salaries. Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos said he is advocating to the Board of Supervisors to look into pay raises.

“My plea to my Board of Supervisors is we need to stay competitive because if I plan to get my numbers up to the levels that they should be at, even by today’s standards, to get those people to the standard today it’s going to be nearly impossible to recruit against an agency out here,” he said.

Nanos said when he took office in January, the department had 1,362 employees, including staff and officers. They are down about 11 people.

“Attrition is not too bad right now but we are understaffed everywhere,” he said. “Our IT Department has a staffing level of one support person (per 137 employees). For perspective, downtown, the IT section — which handles all other county employees — is at one for 30.”

Nanos is focused on three staffing areas: Officers in the field, corrections officers and dispatchers.

“I learned our dispatchers are probably at a level of 58 to 59% of where we were in 2016,” he said. “Our corrections officers aren’t as bad but it’s going to get worse, and our patrol division is not doing too bad.”

The county has 32 dispatchers and is authorized for 47. They are losing four to Pima Community College, which pays dispatchers $22 an hour compared to the county’s $18. The county dispatches for several law enforcement agencies.

Nanos said “the numbers are the numbers,” and he’s focusing on making the resources work.

To work within their current resources, Nanos advocated for a new substation in Vail, another in the San Xavier District and has moved people around to better manage service calls. But a big concern for Nanos is a significant pay increase at neighboring Tucson Police Department.

A recent staff study showed more than 80% of City of Tucson employees were being undercompensated in comparison to the area. That brought significant pay raises, including the police department.

“The problem it makes for me is that before people would say, ‘Well, Phoenix pays this much more than Pima County,’ but most deputies aren’t going to just pack up their families to leave Tucson and go to Phoenix to work,” Nanos said. “The problem here isn’t my current staff leaving me, even though that may happen. The bigger issue is recruiting. How do I recruit against someone who is in my backyard recruiting from the same pool of applicants if they are offering, sometimes, $5 to $6 more an hour.”

Money talks

TPD spokesman Sgt. Richard Gradillas said the pay increase is one of their biggest selling points for recruitment now.

Prior to the increase, the starting salary at TPD was $47,132 a year; it’s now $54,516.

“The initial 80% is what we’re promising for the first full year and it will probably take effect in June,” Gradillas said. “In July 2022, we’re going to see the other 20% kick in so it’s going to increase again. One of our recruiting methods is we’re competitive at the $54,000 mark and wait one more year and we’ll become even more competitive. I think that pay comes up to around $56,000 a year.”

That makes the starting hourly rate at TPD $26.21. By comparison, SPD’s starting hourly rate is $23.21, and PCSD is at $25.50 an hour, after 18 months as a deputy trainee at $22.62.

TPD has been authorized for 850 staff. As of January they have 813.

“There are certain calls we’re not responding to and beginning to phase out, and part of that is due to the staffing levels at TPD,” Gradillas said. “When I started we were at upwards of 1,000 back in 2007, so we have a slight decrease. We’re trying to do more with less right now and I don’t think it’s enough to provide the service we are accustomed to providing for the citizens of Tucson.”

TPD Recruiting Officer Roman Acosta said it’s too early to tell how much of an impact the pay increase has had on recruitment

“The passing of this increase for all employees just happened pretty recently and we were in the middle of the hiring process,” he said. “Being able to put the numbers out there was certainly helpful but to see an actual benefit in the number of applicants, I think we’ll have to give it a little time.”

Acosta said they just opened up out-of-state lateral positions for the first time since 2015, which will give them a greater gauge of how they compare nationally on pay.

Noland said the increase at TPD is concerning.

“That’s what we are competing against and that’s why I expressed to the council those are real numbers whether you want to agree with them or not, those are facts now,” he said. “As I expressed to the council, one of the primary decisions somebody makes on employment is related to salary and benefits.”

More challenges

Further complicating police recruitment is the sociopolitical climate of the last two years. The Defund the Police movement had a ripple effect across law enforcement and Noland said officers are receiving more heavy scrutiny.

“What concerns me right now the most is the difficulty we are having in convincing young folks to enter this career,” he said. “It’s on us to try to convince them to do it. Some are seeing certain jurisdictions do things like getting rid of their ability to defend themselves and watching some folks get prosecuted literally a day after an action. So, it’s a difficult uphill task and we are not in it alone.”

Noland said the nature of the job requires quick decision-making and some people are not comfortable doing that.

“With how frequently officers are second-guessed on their actions they take or decisions they make, it goes back to difficulty in recruiting people,” he said. “The thinking can be, if I’m going to get triple-guessed on everything, I don’t think I want to do this job and it doesn’t pay enough... now people are getting tracked down on social media to their homes, their work. It’s beyond difficult.”

Gradillas said while that aspect has been noticed by TPD, it has not stopped strong candidates from applying.

“The message we have to people is if you want to make change in the system the best place to make that change is to become part of the system and make that change from inside,” he said. “It’s still a large number of applicants but it’s very hit or miss. It’s hard to tell if it’s because of the climate or if people are just looking for other types of jobs.”

Marijuana

The legalization last year of recreational marijuana in Arizona could also had an effect on recruiting efforts. The Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (AZPOST), which certified peace officers, revised its policy on marijuana in April.

Now applicants can’t have used marijuana in the last two years, versus three years. Previously, applicants couldn’t have used it more than 20 times in their life and now the amount of use is irrelevant. In the past, applicants could not have used marijuana more than five times after the age of 21, and now cannabis use after 21 is irrelevant.

Noland said AZPOST invited chiefs from around the state to chime in regarding their drug use standards for police officers.

He said as a police officer there are certain things you just can’t do and one of them is using substances like marijuana.

“They are huge discussions but I don’t think allowing more leniency in drug use is the answer,” he said. “I adamantly say it’s not the answer for law enforcement because we need people that are capable of being called in sometimes 24/7. I’m not sure what the answer is other than we don’t accept that here. It will make recruitment tougher.”

Nanos said law enforcement agencies across the state are looking into standards about marijuana in the workplace.

“We don’t want someone to come in under the influence and we struggle with those policies and how to put them in place,” he said. “The state is reducing the mandates for use to two years. Is that enough? I don’t know. It should show the state recognizes a need to rethink how it looks for those using marijuana.”

Local agencies adhere to the standards on drug use set by the AZPOST.

Recruiting techniques

While SPD and PCSD work through the process of increasing wages, the departments are focusing on exploring ways to encourage people to work with them.

Noland emphasized the robust training offered at SPD.

“I hope as we try to attract people they realize they will be some of the best trained police officers and will not have to wait multiple years to get certain types of training,” he said. They are also considering hiring bonuses.

Though they post their job listings in a variety of places and have job fairs or targeted recruitment events that were slowed due to COVID-19, Noland said the best tool he has for recruitment is his staff.

“This was true when I worked in California and it’s true here in Arizona,” he said. “When our people are talking well about it and asking others to become a part of our team it’s a great resource to have.”

Nanos also considers word of mouth from his own team to be the best recruitment tool, and is hopeful to resume efforts such as job fairs, which were almost eliminated due to the pandemic.

“The best hiring process you have, the best avenue and tool to recruit, is your own team,” he said. “The guy who sits there and talks to his neighbor’s son and says you can be a deputy. The best recruiting efforts are right here from within when they talk and reach out to people they know who could make a good candidate.”

Noland said his concern is not so much about retention; it’s recruitment. When officers leave they complete an exit interview. The reasons for leaving widely vary.

Some people leave for traditional reasons such as moving from the area, changing careers or health problems. But, “some people are looking for pay and benefits and that’s a clear reason why some people move.”

Noland said they know the department has to make adjustments, and many agencies across the country are doing the same.

“Those will be connected to how we recruit, who we recruit and the pay and benefits. We’re working in all those areas and it’s a positive for me to know the council recognizes there may be a deficit there in regards to pay and benefits. They want us to look at those.”

“Considering all we’re looking at, we are in a good position to take on the challenges to push forward,” he said. “I don’t know the actual solution just yet but we will push forward a couple options.”

Jamie Verwys | 520-547-9728