As staffing shortages continue for the Leadville Police Department and Lake County Sheriff’s Office, local law enforcement officers are reporting more responsibilities and longer work days as department heads ramp up recruitment efforts.
In recent months, a slew of officers have resigned from their positions in Leadville and Lake County, including three employees with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) over the last few weeks. Presently, LCSO is operating with five deputies, while the Leadville Police Department (LPD) has only three officers. Although both departments have managed to cover shifts with LCSO sometimes responding to LPD calls, officers said the job was particularly taxing during this summer’s busy months.
According to John Ortega, a sergeant with LPD who said his work hours nearly doubled this summer before slowing down in the fall, the most pressing barrier to deputy recruitment and retention is affordable housing in Leadville. Ortega, who has lived in or near Leadville his entire life, said local housing costs are well beyond what an early-career officer can afford.
Since beginning his career locally in 2005, Ortega said the majority of turnover he has witnessed, which is ample, has been because officers can’t find a place to live. In some cases, officers with LCSO have commuted from Buena Vista, where there is more housing stock. Ortega added that while salary bumps are helpful in addressing the issue, they don’t solve the problem. “There needs to be overall change in housing,” said Ortega. “We just need homes that are priced affordably.”
Caleb Cramer, a sergeant with LCSO who also said his work hours have increased, echoed many of Ortega’s concerns about housing. Cramer added that the lack of a jail in Lake County has also contributed to officer resignation within the department, mostly because the logistics of booking arrests are extensive. LCSO’s staff has to transported inmates to various jails across Colorado since the old jail in the Lake County Courthouse closed in 2019, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses and countless hours of driving for transporters.
“It’s also a matter of pride,” said Cramer. “What kind of sheriff’s department doesn’t have a jail? Who would want to work like that?”
Cramer added that Senate Bill 217, which was passed by Colorado’s legislature last year as a law enforcement accountability measure after the death of George Floyd, is also partially responsible for local resignations, even though the law won’t kick in until July 2023. Sheriff Amy Reyes said most of the officers who have quit recently are no longer pursuing a career in law enforcement, citing a “change in how law enforcement is perceived.”
Senate Bill 217 set up a variety of reforms for law enforcement in Colorado, including giving alleged victims of police violence the ability to sue officers in state court for wrongdoings, shifting responsibility from departments to individuals. The bill also mandates that law enforcement officers wear body cameras and activate them during most interactions with the public. Although LPD already had body cameras prior to the bill’s passing, Reyes, whose department did not have body cameras, said the mandate has been costly.
But while staffing shortages persist for a variety of reasons, both Reyes and LPD Chief of Police Hal Edwards are actively seeking officers. Reyes, whose department is advertising throughout Colorado and particularly on the Front Range, said she would like to hire an additional seven officers by January. Reyes recently attended a hiring fair in Denver that she called “disappointing.” The sheriff added that there are currently two viable candidates who have responded to LCSO’s hiring advertisements.
Edwards, who currently has five individuals undergoing the application process, is taking a more localized approach to hiring. After limited success in advertising outside of Lake County and high turnover rates for officers who are unfamiliar with the area, Edwards began advertising locally. For applicants who have not gone through the police academy, LPD is offering to pay for that training while also employing individuals in a civilian capacity while they are at the academy. LPD has also increased salaries by about $4,000. Of the five applicants under consideration, all live locally.
“The idea is that local applicants are already invested in this community and have a place to live, which can be tough for new officers moving to Leadville,” said Edwards, who said he would like to increase staff numbers as soon as possible. “We are taking our time and doing this right. Hopefully that will yield quality officers who truly care about this community.”