BURLEY — Where will tomorrow’s officers come from?
Lingering anti-police sentiment and a strong economy have kept law enforcement training enrollment dwindling across the state, the programs’ leaders say.
In 2016, they cited low pay, strict state standards, age requirements and anti-police culture as playing a role in the decline.
Anti-police sentiment and neighboring states’ legalized marijuana are contributing to a dramatic reduction in enrollment numbers in Idaho law enforcement programs. The decrease in new officers can leave departments scrambling to fill vacancies, especially in small communities that struggle to compete with larger cities' wages. And manpower shortages keep cops on the job more hours a day, increasing stress in an already stressful environment.
Both the College of Southern Idaho and Idaho State University revamped their 11-month programs, shortening them to a semester, in hopes of enticing more people.
Today at CSI, law enforcement program enrollment remains about half of what it was in 2014. Ten students are enrolled at CSI for the fall semester; in the spring the program had eight students.
“I believe that low unemployment and continued negative national attention regarding a few incidents has made recruitment more difficult,” said Robert Storm, director of CSI’s law enforcement program.
In spring 2014 it had 19 students enrolled; that dropped to 14 in spring 2015 and nine in spring 2016.
Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training, which offers certification for patrol officers along with other types of certifications, also shows a dip in the number of students in its patrol academies.
Prior to 2010 the Meridian facility saw an average enrollment of 200 students annually in its patrol academies. By 2015 that had dropped to 149 a year. In 2016 the academies registered 133 patrol officers, and there are 125 for 2017.
That matters to agencies trying to hire new officers.
Cassia County Undersheriff George Warrell said his department still struggles to recruit officers for patrol positions and at the jail.
Years ago, Warrell said, he’d see 30 to 50 applicants for one job.
“Now we are lucky to get five. And that doesn’t mean that they are qualified,” Warrell said.
The region’s low unemployment rate makes it difficult for departments to compete with private industry in a profession that often comes with lower pay and with work hours that include holidays, weekends and graveyard shifts.
Legalization of marijuana in surrounding states may also influence some potential candidates’ decisions on pursuing a career as a police officer in Idaho, because Idaho’s rules for admission into a law enforcement program include no use of marijuana in the past three years and no habitual use in the past five years.
Other people, Warrell said, may not want to undergo the rigorous background checks that are required.
All of those things could factor into a decision for someone teetering on the edge of whether to become a police officer, he said.
To combat declining enrollment, Storm is taking his message about the honor of the job to high schools.
“We talk about ethics, integrity, hard work, treating people well and being guardians of the Constitution,” Storm said. “I’m hoping to make a difference by painting law enforcement as the honorable career I chose, and I hope to pass those values along to the next generation.”