Following A Tough Year, Some Colorado Departments Lose Officers And Struggle To Hire
Adam Gehrke was a law enforcement officer in Colorado for 14 years, first with the Durango Police Department and then with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, before resigning last October. Since then, he and his family have relocated to a small town in Alaska where he is still in law enforcement.
He cites a few reasons for the move: a love of the outdoors, wanting a quieter life for his young child, and frustration with protests and police reform legislation passed last summer.
“There was so much pushback on police for something that happened in a different state. I would have stayed at the agency otherwise,” Gehrke wrote in a text message. “Telling every cop they are essentially bad instantly creates an us versus them situation.”
While protests were happening all over the country, in June, Colorado lawmakers drafted and passed Senate Bill 217, a massive police reform bill. One of the bill’s provisions removed qualified immunity protections for officers, meaning that officers may be held personally liable for up to $25,000 worth of damages if the department determines they weren’t acting “in good faith.”
Gehrke disagreed with the legislation, worrying that a mistake on the job could mean losing one’s savings.
“It’s a job where things happen extremely fast,” Gehrke wrote. “People call us when things are bad or worse. If citizens truly care and are concerned, they should attend a citizens police academy or do a few ride-alongs with their local agency.”
Gehrke is one of 32 deputies who either resigned or retired from the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office last year, compared to an average of 15 per year over the previous five years.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle explained that unlike Gehrke, many who left the department got out of the profession entirely.
“They were resigning to literally move to Montana or Wyoming or go to Missouri and start a chicken farm. Those are real examples. They're just getting the heck out,” Pelle said.
Like Gehrke and others KUNC interviewed during the course of this reporting, Pelle says that a “tremendous amount” of attrition is related to the protests and legislation, particularly fear within law enforcement families of losing their savings or homes.
Others involved in police reform see this reaction differently.
“If officers are leaving because they don't want to be held accountable for their actions while operating under the color of law with the authority that we vest in them to protect the public... then good riddance,” said Darren O’Connor, the criminal justice chair for the NAACP of Boulder County.
A survey of departments across the country, published by the Police Executive Research Forum in June, showed an 18% increase in the resignation rate and 45% increase in the retirement rate from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021, compared to the same 12-month period from 2019 to 2020.
Some Colorado departments, from Steamboat to Boulder to Aurora, have reported high numbers of departures recently, but data from the Colorado Attorney General’s office does not support a statewide trend. Instead, agencies reported 2,188 “separations” last year, which is a slight decrease compared to the previous two years.
“I can't balance that difference from what POST (Peace Officer Training & Standards) gave you to what I know to be true,” Steamboat police chief Cory Christensen, who is also a former president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs, said, listing off several examples of conversations about attrition and hiring. “That's just not what I'm hearing from chiefs all across the state.”
Rep. Leslie Herod (D), one of the prime sponsors of Senate Bill 217, is skeptical that the legislation is pushing officers out because other states that didn’t pass reforms are seeing departures as well.
“And so what that says is that specific reform efforts aren't actually contributing to the attrition,” Herod said, explaining that she believes attitudes towards policing have changed. “And I attribute that to the excessive use of force cases that we're seeing in the body camera footage that we're seeing of law enforcement officers harming the community... A lot of folks just don't want to associate with that and that kind of profession.”
As calls for reform have grown louder, many police departments are starting to pursue a different cast of officers with a goal of reducing misconduct and improper use of force.
In Boulder, police chief Maris Herold has a goal of recruiting 30% women officers. She says studies have shown that female officers do not use force as often as their male counterparts. Herold stresses that she wants officers with a diversity of perspectives and more college experience; studies show the more educated an officer is, the less likely they are to use improper force.
She hopes that by publicizing her department’s reform plans, she might reach community members who want to be a part of bringing change while taking an unconventional path to becoming an officer.
“I just had a guy call me. He heard me on a town hall and he called me, and he goes ‘I'm 47 years old. I've been a professional my whole life,’” she recalled. “‘I've taken off this last year to watch my small children.’ But after hearing that policing really is a higher calling, he goes, ‘You're right. And I want to be part of a service-driven agency.’”
But Herold says these goals are getting harder to achieve because of the current climate around policing.
“The combination of the pandemic (and) the policing crisis after George Floyd’s murder, all of it adds up to it's a very hard time to attract talented people at a time where you really need top tier, service-driven, educated police officers,” she said.
In Steamboat Springs, police chief Cory Christensen has also noticed a new recruiting trend.
“I get a lot of applications for people who don't think they can get a job in another police agency and they'll think I'm desperate and they'll be like, ‘Yeah, I was fired three times for lying. But I know you need cops, right?’” Christensen said. “I'm not hiring those people either.”
Herold recently told Boulder high school students that the murder of George Floyd showed the limits of only focusing on an officer’s race, referring to Chauvin’s backup officers, some of whom are not white and are facing charges related to Floyd’s murder.
But an officer's background is important to some.
At the San Juan Del Centro apartments in Boulder, resident Sonia Sarabia says many officers who used to patrol the mostly-Hispanic community could not speak Spanish. English-speaking children often had to translate for their parents, leading to some tension.
“I wouldn't trust my child to say… ‘I saw this person with a gun’ or ‘I saw this person hitting someone.’ That child will not feel comfortable saying that to the officer,” Sarabia said.
Today, the complex is patrolled by an officer who grew up in Mexico, and he says that helps him connect more easily with residents and gain their trust.
For a period of time, attrition within the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office led to trouble preventing certain crimes, like auto theft, and deputies had to work overtime to meet minimum staffing requirements. But the department has adjusted to a slightly smaller staff.
“We also looked at a bunch of those vacancies and said, ‘OK, how can we do policing differently?’” Pelle said, explaining that the department has since created an online reporting system to deal with some minor issues, like lost license plates.
“And so our deputies aren't responding to all those calls,” he said. “That's helped as well.”
Staffing is stabilizing, Pelle says, and the department has been able to fill some positions recently.
“And we've actually had a couple of good classes come through the academies,” Pelle said. “And we picked up some good folks and really diverse groups, you know, lots of women, lots of people of color, people that look like our community. And that's important, too.”
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