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Small towns improving on officer retainment

Police officers aren't running from the law in small towns anymore. According to some police chiefs in southeastern South Dakota, retaining officers in rural communities has been an issue. The problem, they said, was officers would work at a smal...

Chamberlain Police Chief Joe Hutmacher, left, and Patrol Officer Catland Landegent stand outside the Chamberlain city offices building. Chief Hutmacher said the city once had a problem with officer retention but the city worked to make the job more appealing and keep officers around. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Chamberlain Police Chief Joe Hutmacher, left, and Patrol Officer Catland Landegent stand outside the Chamberlain city offices building. Chief Hutmacher said the city once had a problem with officer retention but the city worked to make the job more appealing and keep officers around. (Matt Gade/Republic)
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Police officers aren't running from the law in small towns anymore.

According to some police chiefs in southeastern South Dakota, retaining officers in rural communities has been an issue.

The problem, they said, was officers would work at a smaller station while also undergoing certification training in Pierre. The small-town stations were paying salaries to the officer in training, but after receiving their certification, the officers would bolt to a larger station.

"We had one guy, four days after he graduated from the academy, he left," said Freeman Chief of Police Richard Cummings.

Cummings said that happened frequently during the nine years he spent in Martin in western South Dakota, where he served as assistant chief.

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"Ninety percent of people would leave within a year or two of being certified," Cummings said.

Nearly two years ago, Cummings moved to Freeman, a town of 1,300 in Hutchinson County, and he brought some lessons he learned in Martin to ensure officers remain in Freeman for the long haul.

The problem stretched throughout rural South Dakota, but police chiefs say changes are being made to keep officers interested in working in rural communities. Those changes include better pay, contracts that have penalties, and longer shifts for fewer days scheduled.

And keeping long-tenured officers in rural communities isn't just beneficial for the station.

Yvonne Taylor, executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League, said it's important for law enforcement officers to feel connected to the community.

The South Dakota Municipal League mission is the cooperative improvement of municipal government in the state, which includes city police forces.

"Community policing is more than just a buzzword," Taylor said. "Law enforcement and the community need to see each other as being on the same side, and I think that takes some tenure to develop that."

Getting certified

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Law enforcement agencies in South Dakota often hire non-certified officers. Although certified officers may apply, Cummings said that isn't a deciding factor.

"Just because someone is certified doesn't mean they're going to get the job," Cummings said.

Cummings said every police station trains its officers differently, but when a new hire is not certified, he or she must attend a Basic Certification Course at the Law Enforcement Training academy in Pierre within a year of hire, which ensures all officers are taught the same standards statewide.

About 108 people have completed the course each year on average over the past 10 years. Each course lasts 13 weeks and is offered three times a year. Officers attend class for an average of nine hours a day, according to Training Coordinator Greg Williams. They are allowed to go home to work on weekends.

Each Basic Certification Course is supposed to be limited to 40 students, but Williams said this number is often higher.

The cost of the course, including meals, lodging, materials, ammunition, adjunct professors and more, is $4,000 per student. The cost of Law Enforcement Training is covered by the state's Law Enforcement Officers Training Fund, but the local police department must continue to pay the officer's wages throughout the 13-week course. With starting salaries often around $13 or $14 an hour, this means a department could pay a new officer more than $7,000 in this time.

Williams said the current class, which began on Aug. 16, is one of the most diverse he's seen since he started working there in 2008, with 24 different law enforcement agencies from around the state represented.

The course is broken into three areas: non-emergency response, emergency response and investigations.

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Throughout 13 weeks, officers learn standards and gain experience in about 70 topics including firearms, pressure point control techniques, simulators, traffic law, vehicle pullovers, building searches, RADAR, child abuse and testifying in court. Then, participants take a 200 question test.

This gives new officers the background to handle most situations, but Cummings said that is not where training ends for police.

"Every department has different field training protocols and what they train on," Cummings said. "After coming from the police academy, you have to continue training. There's always training, and it's always different."

Signing contracts

Cummings said the city of Freeman requires all officers to sign a two-year contract from the day of certification to stay with the force. The Freeman Police Department's newest full-time recruit was hired in April 2014, was sent to the academy later that year and is signed on until 2016. This contract doesn't have a buy-out clause, so that officer is free to leave without penalty, but Cummings doesn't foresee that happening.

"The officer we did put through academy is local resident, so I'm not worried about it," Cummings said, adding that the contract was established by the city mostly for legal reasons.

Wagner Chief of Police Tim Simonsen said he goes to conferences and often hears officer retention is a problem occurring in rural communities.

Simonsen has been in Wagner since 2011, and he said four or five officers have left since that time, but those individuals either took promotions in other places or retired. None left simply to work in a larger town.

Wagner officers, like in Freeman, have to sign a two-year contract. If this contract is broken, however, the officer must pay a fee.

"A lot of smaller towns are trying to go that way," Simonsen said.

With penalties like these, small towns are able to recoup some or all of the money given to an officer during his or her certification training. Simonsen said he has been lucky to find applicants with some experience - studying law enforcement in college, for instance - but they usually still have yet to receive their certification.

Changing schedules

Officer retainment used to be a problem in Chamberlain, said Chief of Police Joe Hutmacher.

Hutmacher said it was common for the Chamberlain Police Department to hire and send an officer to the academy, and that officer would come back for a few months to a year before leaving for a different department.

Hutmacher said scheduling was part of the problem in Chamberlain. All Chamberlain officers worked eight-hour shifts. Additionally, those on night duty would end up working five or six consecutive shifts from midnight to 8 a.m. They also might only get one weekend off every month or two months.

As officers suffered burnout and left town, the department made a change.

In 2000, the Chamberlain Police Department switched all officers onto 10-hour shifts. A couple years later, when Hutmacher became chief in 2002, they adjusted again to 12-hour shifts.

That meant officers had longer days, but they worked the same cumulative number of hours, and they had more nights at home with their families. They also received every other weekend off duty.

"Nursing has done it for years. Now, law enforcement is following suit," Hutmacher said.

Hutmacher said Chamberlain was one of the first departments he knows of to take a 12-hour schedule. This model has since been copied by other law enforcement departments in the area, Hutmacher said.

Now, nearly all of Chamberlain's six officers have been at the department for at least three years and own homes in town. Sgt. Jason Handel has been with the department for more than 12 years, and Hutmacher has worked in the station since 1999.

Officer pay, duties

Hutmacher said the city of Chamberlain has also recently increased officer pay and is hoping to increase wages again in the future.

Low wages were a recurring problem cited by police chiefs on the officer retention topic. That's one of the reasons, they say, officers were leaving rural communities for larger stations.

"Cops' pay is actually worse than teachers' pay," said Wagner's chief, Simonsen.

Officers in rural areas typically earn between $30,000 and $35,000 per year, and chiefs from Wagner and Winner said they also either recently increased police wages or were trying to soon.

Those don't compare with wages in Sioux Falls or Mitchell. The starting salary for an officer in Sioux Falls is $47,500, according to Kim Stulken, human resources coordinator for the city of Sioux Falls. If an officer has prior experience, that number could be higher, Stulken said. Mitchell offers $41,500 as a starting wage, which rises to more than $49,000 after five years, according to Mitchell Chief of Public Safety Lyndon Overweg.

Sioux Falls can also support far more officers. Many of South Dakota's rural police departments have between two and 10 full-time officers. Sioux Falls has 244, with an additional 35 civilian positions, and looking to hire even more.

Last year, the Sioux Falls Police Department hired more than 20 new officers.

With a total of 279 law enforcement personnel in Sioux Falls, there is room for specialty officers such as canine units or school resource officers, among many others. In small towns, an officer may have to serve in all of these roles.

"Say in Sioux Falls, if you have an accident, you call an accident investigator," Simonsen said. "Here, we do everything. I think it makes you more rounded."

Overweg said the Mitchell Department of Public Safety has 28 certified officers and hires about one to three officers a year, and about 20 percent of new hires in Mitchell are already certified. However, he said turnover in Mitchell is fairly high. Five to eight years after certification, Overweg has seen many officers go to Sioux Falls or a state or county department, and Mitchell has instituted a penalty-based contract as well to combat this trend.

"If we send them through basic training, basically they're indebted to us for $15,000, which they work off $500 a month," Overweg said. "(If they leave early), they have to pay the remainder."

At $500 a month, it would take 30 months to pay off the $15,000, which is similar to signing a two-and-a-half-year contract.

Chamberlain Chief Hutmacher said smaller departments can't compete with Sioux Falls or Mitchell financially, but that's not where his focus lies.

"(Our goal is) not necessarily to compete with those large municipalities, but definitely to compete with towns our own size."

Finding solutions

Still, losing even one officer in a department with 10 or fewer employees is a massive loss, so Paul Schueth, chief of police in Winner, said his town found a unique solution.

"A lot of them came from larger cities and weren't able to get a foot in the door until they came to a smaller community," Schueth said. "Then they were better candidates for bigger cities."

For that reason, Schueth doesn't hire people who live in bigger cities. In fact, all of his new officers already live in Winner.

Winner holds the only city jail in South Dakota. The Winner Police Department has 10 officers, and all of them started as correction officers at the jail.

By promoting from the jail, Schueth finds applicants who already have ties to Winner and local law enforcement. That means they are less likely to leave town even without contracts and fines.

Freeman Chief Cummings has a similar policy. Cummings said he prefers to see local people apply, mostly because the town likes to see familiar faces on the police force, though that is not necessarily a determining factor when a hire is eventually made.

Beyond contracts, wages and hiring locally, Cummings has one more piece of advice for keeping officers in town.

"I think the biggest thing is in small towns, there's a lot of lack of supervision and lack of supervisors being able to work with new officers," Cummings said. "If small towns can get around that, I think they'd have a lot better retention than what they seem to have."

With these changes, Cummings said, towns are able to gain longer-tenured employees with more commitment to the community.

"The longer an officer is in a town, yes, I would say the more committed they are," Cummings said, "because they get to know people, get to know the town, and they become a part of the community."

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