More officers needed

High standards make city department a 'target'

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— In the five years the Steamboat Springs Police Department has been understaffed, they have never faced quite the shortage they are facing now.

With the recent departure of two Steamboat Springs Police officers to the Routt County Sheriff's Office, the department currently has 21 officers, said Assistant Chief Art Fiebing.

Although the department is employing 21 officers, they really have 19 because two of the officers are going through 16 months of field training. To be fully staffed, the department needs 24 sworn officers.

"This is the most we have been down, which is a whole shift," said Fiebing, who has been with the department for about six years. "When the two officers get done with their training, it will help, but this is the worst it has been since I have been here."

Despite the staffing shortage, Fiebing does not believe the city's safety is being compromised.

"The level of service and the quality of service will suffer," Fiebing said. "But this does not make the city less safe. If we receive a 911 call, we are going to go to that call."

With the current staff, the department has at least two officers on duty on each if its three scheduled shifts.

"If we have a busy weekend, it is a struggle with two uniformed officers," he said. "The priority has been placed on calls that deal with public safety, and then we go from there."

The staffing shortage the police department is experiencing is nothing new to the Routt County Sheriff's Office. Undersheriff Daniel Taylor said he believes it has been at least 10 years since the office has been fully staffed.

However, with the addition of former Oak Creek Police Chief Dan Kelliher and former Steamboat officers John Chapman and Garrett Wiggins, the sheriff's office is close to being up to staff, Taylor said.

The sheriff's office is currently in the process of hiring three additional deputies to work in the detention facility, Taylor said. He expects for these hirings to take place in the next 10 weeks.

The police department and the sheriff's office have been unable to get fully staffed for a number of reasons that include the shortage of quality officers, the standards of both agencies and the fact that Steamboat is a resort town.

Taylor and Fiebing agree that they could fill their vacant positions if each agency lowered their standards.

"We have not lowered our standards, and we are not going to," Fiebing said. "I want to hire police officers the community is going to be proud of. Not embarrassed with."

Taylor agrees.

"I don't believe there is a shortage of employees," Taylor said. "I believe there is a shortage of acceptable employees. There are a lot of people out there who are certified to be a police officer, but there is a shortage of good quality people."

Taylor also believes the high standards both agencies have set for themselves contributes to employee turnover.

"We are on a hit list," Taylor said. "Other agencies hire our employees because of the type of people we train. We have set and kept a standard."

Along with having high standards, cost of living in Steamboat is also a factor.

"Many people we want to hire just can't afford to live here," Taylor said. "It is really hard to draw someone from the outside when they can't afford a house here."

Fiebing agrees.

"The cost of living is probably the number one factor," he said. "We have had people look into coming here, but when they try to find a home they tell us they can't afford it."

Fiebing also believes the weather can be detrimental.

"The winters can be long," he said. "This can be a rough environment to work in."

Fiebing and Taylor believe the city and the county are being proactive in trying to make these jobs more attractive.

"The council, the city manager and the director of human resources have been very supportive," Fiebing said. "They are doing everything they can to work on the problem."

City officials have also supported the department's overtime costs in recent years.

"I would rather pay overtime to the good cops we have, than pay someone who is substandard, going to harass the public and embarrass the department," Fiebing said.

In recent years, the city has agreed to raise the pay for police positions. Currently, the starting salary for a police officer is about $33,000. The city is also willing to pay for moving expenses for a person moving to take a job here, Fiebing said.

The county has also raised the pay for deputies. The starting salary use to be at $25,000 a year but has been bolstered to about $32,000.

"The commissioners have reached down deep into the coffers to help us out," Taylor said. "The commissioners have a limited pot of money."

Fiebing does not hold any ill feelings toward the sheriff's office for the loss of Chapman and Wiggins.

"All the agencies in the state are competing against each other," Fiebing said. "You lose officers to other agencies, and you get officers from other agencies. We have hired three from the sheriff's office. Everyone is struggling to hire good cops."

Fiebing is hopeful the city will be able to fill some vacant positions soon.

"After five years, we could start to burn officers out," he said. "Then it could become a morale issue."

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