DISCLAIMER: The following story is an opinion piece, and does not necessarily reflect the views of KSL Newsradio or its ownership.
There was a quick, blink-and-you-miss-it comment in the University of Utah’s press conference yesterday that shines a light on why the police in our state are so understaffed.
The University was sharing the results of an independent investigation into the death of Lauren McCluskey, whom police say was killed on campus on Oct. 22 by convicted sex offender Melvin Shawn Rowland.
They’d prepared a list of suggestions that University of Utah President Ruth Watkins described as “a roadmap for strengthening security,” every one of which is incredibly valuable. But there’s one in particular that I want to highlight because it’s one we’ve heard again and again from department chiefs from all over this state.
In 2010, Utah slashed its public safety retirement program. And when they did, the number of people applying to be police officers dropped by more than 50 percent.
Police in Utah are understaffed
One of the very first things John T. Nielson said when he presented the review team’s findings was: “The Department of Public Safety is understaffed.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Their breakdown of the caseload for the detective assigned to Lauren McCluskey’s case made that clear.
McCluskey, as we’ve known for some time, contacted the University of Utah Police on Oct. 12th, ten days before she died, reporting that Rowland was blackmailing her.
From the start, I’ve asked why they didn’t do more when she first came to them for help. Yesterday, though, the University of Utah has made their answer clear: they didn’t have the resources.
The University had to call in an off-duty detective to take McCluskey’s case, according to the independent review team, meaning that she couldn’t formally start the investigation until Oct. 16th.
Even then, though, the detective was swamped with a massive caseload that made it all but impossible for her to focus on keeping McCluskey safe.
The detective was juggling cases involving strangulation, Primary Children’s Hospital, felony fraud, sexual abuse of a minor, and theft, all while trying to find time to help McCluskey, the review team says. She was struggling through a workload that should have split between a whole team of detectives. But because they didn’t have the staff to handle it, she had to tackle it on her own.
That lack of staff is exactly what University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy pointed to when the review team asked him what had gone wrong. He just didn’t have enough people to take care of all the cases pouring in.
But the campus police aren’t the only ones struggling to get staff. It’s affecting police departments all across the state.
The legislation that cut police applications in half
Chief Brophy didn’t just complain about his staffing problems. He told the review team exactly why he thought it was happening. As Nielson said in the conference:
Chief Brophy has described to us the difficulty he has in recruiting and retaining experienced police officers. This is due in large part to a salary and wage disparity and also changes to the state public safety retirement system.
Brophy isn’t the first police chief to complain about those changes. There’s evidence that they impacted every police department in Utah.
New police officer applications in Salt Lake City dropped by more than 50 percent between 2012 and 2015, according to a report from BYU’s Daily Universe. And when they asked department chiefs why it happened, they gave the same answer Chief Brophy gave the review team.
The report concluded, at least in part, that the reduction came from changes to the retirement plan, which affect every officer who joined the force after July 1, 2011.
Before the Utah legislature changed their retirement policy, police officers could retire after 20 years and get a pension that was equal to 50 percent of their top three salaries during the time they served in law enforcement. Now, however, officers have to work 25 years before retiring, and they only get 37 percent of their ending salaries.
That change, department chiefs say, is one of the main reasons people recruitment has plummeted so low.
St. George Police Department Captain Mike Giles has told the St. George Spectrum that, when he asked people why they wouldn’t apply to the force, they specifically mentioned the changes to the retirement system.
Other department heads have complained that it’s affected their retention, too. Roy City Manager Jason Poulsen has told the Standard-Examiner that, since the retirement program changes, he’s seen a significant increase in the number of officers who leave the force before they’ve worked a full 20 years.
A solution that works
Full disclosure: I was married to a police officer for more than two decades. He served on the force for 24 years. That might be part of the reason I feel so strongly about this.
It was extremely stressful. Part of it was our budget. Police officers don’t make a fortune; he made about $22,000 a year when we first got married, and that left our budget very tight.
But more than anything, it was the emotional and physical wear-down I saw in his face every time he came home. It’s unimaginably taxing to go out and put your life in jeopardy to keep other people safe, and it’s hard to get up and throw yourself in that fray every day for 20 years – let alone 25.
An extra five years might not seem like a long time if you haven’t lived it, but it is.
That’s something Springville Chief of Police Scott Finlayson told the Daily Herald when they asked his department was struggling to keep staff:
We have brand new officers who are working alongside officers who started before 2011, and those officers are sitting there thinking, ‘Why should I keep working and have to work five years more and get significantly less?’
The retirement program isn’t the only reason recruitment and retention has plummeted in Utah, of course. Police departments are also struggling with new business coming into Utah while they see increasingly negative press.
But changing America’s perception of the police or Utah’s economy isn’t something we can do overnight. There’s no easy fix for those problems – but there is for the retirement program.
Eight years ago, our legislature made a decision that our police departments say have devastated them ever since.
Now is the time to reverse that decision. All we have to do is bring the old retirement program back.
Debbie Dujanovic is the co-host of Dave & Dujanovic, which can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.
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