It’s not unusual for some employers in Wyoming to have a hard time finding enough workers. That can be a headache for business owners, but lately it’s the cause of some public safety concern as well. The Wyoming Highway Patrol is down almost twenty percent of its officers, and it is struggling to attract new ones.
It’s a clear morning at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy in Douglas and cadets are in the parking lot, doing drills. This one is a roadside stop gone wrong scenario--the officer to be has pulled over a car with Washington plates, and the passengers are carrying what looks like marijuana.
The cadet cuffs the passengers--a man and a woman--and sits them on the ground. Suddenly the female pulls a gun out of her back pocket and aims it at him. But he’s quicker to the draw--she goes down in a hail of paintball bullets.
After a couple more weeks of training like this these students will head out to law enforcement agencies all across the state. But of the 36 cadets here, only 4 will be joining the Wyoming Highway Patrol.
While the patrol pays well in comparison to other Wyoming law enforcement agencies, it is a tough job. If you sign up there is a good chance you’ll be stationed far from home. The minimum age for applying to the Patrol is twenty three: that’s compared to twenty one or younger for other police jobs in Wyoming. And the application process is much longer than any other law enforcement job.
“We are starting to feel some of that pain, obviously, because of the amount of shortages we have,” says Highway Patrol Lt. Kief Guenther.
Right now the Patrol is short 30 officers out of its usual capacity of 170. Guenther says it’s the worst position his agency has been in for decades.
“When we talk troopers getting called out in the middle of the night to work crashes, those troopers that are currently working are having to do that more frequently. They don’t have other personnel in their divisions to help even that load out.”
Guenther says the problem is largely a cultural one: kids just don’t grow up wanting to be cops anymore.
“When I grew up...it was quite an honor to go into law enforcement. To become a police officer or state trooper. But that has kind of gone away in our society.”
It hasn’t gone away for cadet Remington Roberts.
“My grandfather was a highway patrolman for a while,” Roberts said after training. “It is kind of just a family thing to be involved in law enforcement.”
Roberts is a classic recruit: a Wyoming native, who grew up idolizing the badge. He even has a great cop name. But Robert says he did consider a different career--following his friends into the oil fields.
“They’re making pretty good money. And it’s always been a consideration to do that. But their shifts are just ridiculous. I don’t think it’s worth it.”
But these days, that isn’t a very popular position. Byron Oedekovin, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, says these days for most law enforcement agencies even keeping officers is difficult.
“Several agencies commented that they are having current officers leave for additional pay and benefits.”
Oedekovin says those that do apply are often not cop material.
“They may have recent drug usage, alcohol abuse issues, they are just casting a net out for a job. Those kinds of people do not make good officers.”
Now the Highway Patrol wants to use social media to help solve its recruitment problem. Lt. David Wagener is the Patrol’s newly minted social media coordinator: sitting in his patrol car at the Law Enforcement Academy in Douglas, he scrolls through the Patrol’s Facebook page.
“Looks like we had 91 shares, 825 likes, and 47 comments at this point...”
Wagener says he wants to use Facebook and Twitter to reach Wyoming kids before they take an energy job, or are snagged by another law enforcement agency, although he will need some training first.
“I have never used Twitter in my life, I know our agency has a Twitter account. I have yet to utilize it yet.”
But the Highway Patrol is looking at financial solutions to its recruitment problem too. This year the officers got a raise. It was the first they’ve seen in six years.