Police and sheriff departments across Colorado are struggling to hire for thousands of empty positions

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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Denver Sheriff Sgt. Stephanie Laing in front of her office in Denver’s Central Park neighborhood. July 15, 2022.

Denver Sheriff’s Sgt. Stephanie Laing doesn’t remember a time in recent years when her deputies have worked a straight 40-hour week.

Out of about 875 sworn officer positions, the agency is down more than 250 people, she said. This means the deputies, including Laing’s husband, are all working at least one extra shift a week — sometimes more.

Laing said she hasn’t worked a single year where she didn’t make more than $100,000 — much of that due to overtime pay.

“Our goal is to be out here trying to get as many people as we can to help our brothers and sisters not have to do as much overtime or really alleviate it completely, which would be nice,” Laing said, at a recent job recruiting fair. She noted that when deputies are tired, mistakes happen. “We are hurting severely.”

Law enforcement agencies across the state are struggling to find qualified people to fill positions —  sworn officers but also civilian jobs, including dispatchers and people to work in booking. 

Nearly every agency in the state is hiring, and some are trying to find hundreds of people to fill positions. The Colorado Police Chiefs Association and the Colorado County Sheriff’s Association estimate up to 20 percent of the sworn officer positions statewide could be unfilled. They plan a formal survey later this summer.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Denver Sheriff Sgt. Stephanie Laing in front of her office in Denver's Central Park neighborhood. July 15, 2022.

Officials say the increasing crime rate and skyrocketing calls for service have created a crush of work for the existing staffers.

At a recent job fair in Broomfield, agencies set up tables with promises of signing bonuses and good pensions and guaranteed checks of up to $70,000 annually. Roughly 200 people attended the fair — though organizers were hoping for double that number.

“It’s just mandated overtime,” said Sterling Police Officer Spencer Kind, who recently traveled to Denver to the job fair in hopes of filling seven open positions out of only 21 in the tiny agency on the Eastern Plains. “Just people gotta work. Crime doesn't stop.”

Those in law enforcement leadership across the state say the profession has taken a punch since George Floyd’s death in 2020 in Minneapolis and the subsequent summer of protests against police brutality.

Then came reform measures passed mostly at the Colorado legislature that they say have scared off both veteran officers — who are retiring in droves — and new recruits.

There is division, though, on whether those fears are warranted. 

Senate Bill 217 passed in the summer of 2020 and mandated body-worn cameras statewide, it overhauled use of force policies, required officers to “intervene” when they see bad behavior with a fellow officer and made it easier for residents to sue officers directly.

Subsequent police reform bills also passed the following year.

“Cops don’t like change, right? So when they hear reform, they think something terrible is coming,” said Ethan Harper of the Longmont Police Department. “One of the best things about reform in my opinion is that when you really get down and you start reading what those reform bills are, they’re meant to weed out the bad folks. That’s the idea behind it. There really was no reform bill that came out … that was a change in anything we were doing in our department.”

Sterling Police Commander JD Ross was enjoying retirement from law enforcement and living outside of Colorado Springs until he saw what he called the backlash and criticism against the profession a couple of years ago. He decided to go back to work.

“I still got some gas left in the tank, and I think good leadership makes all the difference in the world,” Ross said. “In these difficult times, it takes somebody very special to be a police officer. The demands are a lot more, it’s changed so much since I was a baby cop.”

A Denver Sheriff recruitment car. July 15, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A Denver Sheriff recruitment car. July 15, 2022.

Now, 'when people are applying, they have eyes wide open about it, right?'

Master Trooper Maurice Harris said in his 27-year career with the Colorado State Patrol, he’s seen the ebbs and flows.

“It depends on what’s going on on that seesaw,” he said. “I say we are now at the bottom of the seesaw, but it may be coming up now where people are changing their minds about law enforcement. I think it’s a career field they can lean towards — especially if the economy goes bad.”

The Colorado State Patrol is trying to hire 100 people right now.

Officer Ruselis Perry with the Colorado Springs Police Department takes a positive view of all the openings in his agency and the overall view of law enforcement these days. The CSPD is trying to hire between 70 and 100 in an agency of 800 sworn officers.

“The cool and positive thing is that when people are applying, they have eyes wide open about it, right? It’s not like they just saw Lethal Weapon 5 and they say, ‘Oh I want to be a cop now,’” he said. “It’s like, they must feel a calling to it. It’s some burden in their heart. They want to be a police officer. I’m optimistic like that.”