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Arizona Law Enforcement Agencies Face Officer Shortage

Stephanie Sanchez

Yuma- Law enforcement agencies across the state are having trouble hiring and keeping new police officers.

21-year old Arlene Martinez, a cadet at the Arizona Western College Law Enforcement Training Academy is going through the red man training, a series of realistic training scenarios that test her decision making skills under pressure.

Martinez is five foot four inches tall and weighs 120 pounds.

Her instructor, a seasoned Yuma police officer, plays the role of an aggressive and potentially violent suspect. He towers over Martinez and makes for an intimidating opponent.

Martinez is one of 12 students in the academy at AWC. this is the end of the defense training course but candidates have another six months of classes.

Martinez says it’s all worth it if she reaches her goal of becoming an officer. She wants to set a good example for her daughter.

“Being a police officer I can help. I can keep her safe and keep the community safe where she is going to grow up," Martinez said. "It was just a calling for me to come over here.”

But fewer and fewer people share that calling.

A decline of interest in police work has many law enforcement agencies across the nation struggling to recruit new hires like Martinez.

Richard Colwell, a veteran police officer and director of AWC’s law enforcement training academy said part of it may be a result of the image of police presented in the media. 

"I have to think that part of the decline in the interest has to do, is it really worth being a policemen nowadays?" Colwell said. "When you are going to be out there trying to do your job but everybody is going to question what you are doing. Some people don’t want to do that.”

Colwell said applicants to his academy in Yuma has remained steady but academies and agencies in other states has been struggling.

The December issue of “Police Chief Magazine" reports more than 80 percent of the nation's 17,000 law enforcement agencies, large and small, have police officer positions that they cannot fill.

They attribute the vacancies to an increasing number of students seeking higher education and pursuing professional positions.

Negative publicity over high-profile incidents of racial profiling and excessive use of force is also a factor.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also siphoned off public service minded people to the military, though now the trend may change with the return of veterans to the civilian workforce.

Agencies in Arizona are working hard to recruit successful applicants now that they are bouncing back from the recession and have the green light to hire.

According to the Arizona Sheriff’s Association, the department of public safety has roughly 100 open positions.

The Phoenix Police Department is looking to fill over 300 positions in the next three years.

But as hiring pools in the Phoenix metro area have become leaner, officers seeking a lateral move have an advantage, and that is impacting law enforcement agencies in other parts of the state.  

Yuma Police Chief John Lekan said in 2015, his department lost 33 of its officers and most of them left for better pay.

“What we found is that the salaries in Yuma seem to be down at the bottom, especially in cities of 50,000 and above we fall in that category," Lekan said.  "Often times we are even down towards the bottom in communities of less than 50,000 too which was concerning to us."

"So we know there is a significant gap in our salary ranges with what they’re offering in many of the communities throughout Arizona," he said.

Currently, YPD has 14 positions open. Even though the department recently hired 9 new officers, they’re still going through training and won’t be on the streets on their own until early 2016.

“We just need to close that gap," Lekan said. "We need to find a way to lower the gap and keep the people here who really like to stay here.”

Other agencies are getting creative in order to recruit and retain officers.

The City of Flagstaff will match up to 7,000 dollars for police officers who want to put a down payment on a house.

Tucson Police Department is pushing to hire more veterans.

Chief Lekan said the Yuma Police Department is working to bring back incentives like education reimbursement, night differential pay and bilingual pay.

"Even though pay and benefits is an issue to them that’s the last thing on their mind when they go out in the road.  It’s the passion of the profession that takes over for them so I guess it’s a balance to a certain extent," Lekan said. "I think that they do believe that they should be paid but it’s not going to stop them from doing their job because I think deep down it’s a value thing, it’s a heart thing  it’s soul thing for them." 

Cadet Arlene Martinez and her fellow recruits at the AWC academy are just beginning their journey into possible law enforcement careers.

Martinez said she understands both the dangers and the issues involved in police work.

But she still wants to protect and serve.

“Knowing that every day I can go home and make a difference in the city I’m living in...that’s a reward it doesn’t have to be money wise," Martinez said.