JACKSON — With the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some new police officers are ready, but not able, to take to the streets.
In an uncommon move, the academy — the training entity in Douglas, Wyoming that every police agency in the state relies on to train their ranks — closed its doors in March, leaving leaders like Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith short-staffed even though three of the five open positions in his department had been filled pre-pandemic.
And that took the better part of six months.
“I already had four police officer vacancies for quite some time,” Smith said.
It’s a problem sending a ripple statewide as other agencies wait for the academy to open its doors to newly recruited officers and dispatchers, and one that has the director of the academy working to make new arrangements.
“I’ve been in law enforcement for 36 years and this is one of the most difficult things we’ve had to deal with collectively,” director of the academy Chuck Bayne told the News&Guide. “This is totally new.”
Though three officers had been hired prior to the closures that became commonplace, Jackson Police Department was still shorthanded as it headed into the coronavirus outbreak. Now the agency finds itself in a challenging situation facing additional budget cuts and a hiring freeze.
“I have two positions that we’ve frozen,” Smith said.
With a force that includes 27 full-time staff, seven part-time employees and wages accounting for roughly 80% of the department’s budget, Smith has also made cuts in hopes of avoiding layoffs. There is no longer money in the coffers for dry cleaning uniforms or new patrol cars, for example.
Officers are also absorbing some of the work of the frozen positions, picking up some code and taxi enforcement. But while Smith filled a few of his open positions with entry-level officers, his recruits are unable to receive the academy training needed to become full-fledged officers.
It took him six months to fill the three positions he did, and “we were in the middle of the background checks” when the pandemic hit. Two of the officers have been brought in for in-house training; one remains at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy but should graduate by month’s end.
When the academy shuttered in March, the recruit class was a mere two weeks shy of graduation. Gov. Mark Gordon’s office has agreed to allow that class to return with physical distancing to complete their coursework this month.
The newest recruit class, due to begin next week, remains indefinitely on hold, sparking worry about a growing waiting list and, in turn, a statewide police officer shortage.
“I am concerned about those numbers coming in for basic training classes for the last part of the year,” Bayne said. “What will that mean for 2021? We were already having to turn some people away. It’s a nerve-wracking and stressful time.”
The academy isn’t used to having to shut down. When a water main busted four years ago, it stayed open despite the facility lacking running water for nine days. They hauled in buckets to get by while continuing to work.
Bayne said the effects of the academy’s closure could be widespread. With dorm-style living and cafeteria meals, health officers have concerns about the safety of academy operations during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We developed protocols related to social distancing by working with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the State Department of Health,” Bayne said. “We usually do double occupancy. They will have to be single rooms, but I only have 56 dorm rooms.”
To prioritize basic training, Bayne has canceled all instructor and advanced training indefinitely, he said. Courses at the academy are not only state mandated, but they have to be completed in a certain amount of time.
“Under state law right now if you are hired as a law enforcement officer and you start tomorrow you have one year from that start date to get your basic training,” he said. “That’s the same for detention officers and communications.”
As they wait for the academy to reopen, Smith is having his new recruits do as much online training as possible and shadow officers and dispatchers.
“They are learning ordinances and studying case law and shadowing,” Smith said.
For the foreseeable future the Jackson Police Department might have to work with the bare minimum staff: two officers working the streets in town and one at the Jackson Hole Airport.
If things get dire a lieutenant will throw on a uniform and hop on patrol, Smith said.
The Teton County Sheriff’s Office staffing levels are steady, Sheriff Matt Carr said, and they’re less impacted by the closure of the state academy, with only one detention officer waiting to attend.
But that department cut all capital expenses from its fiscal year 2021 budget to meet the county’s budget slashing demands.
Carr cut vehicle purchases, phone software upgrades, body camera purchases for jail staff, a dispatch radio consultant and some other Teton County Search and Rescue equipment purchases, which lowered his budget by $500,000.
He also cut over $100,000 from this year’s budget mostly by scaling back planned trainings and conferences. The sheriff’s office had planned to bring on two more full-time employees next year, but that’s no longer feasible.
“We are OK for now but it may change when call volume starts to pick up,” Carr said.
The town’s next steps are layoffs and incentivizing early retirements.
Smith said only three people at the Jackson Police Department are currently eligible for retirement, himself included. But there haven’t been any decisions on that yet.
In the meantime he’s doing what he can with small savings here and there to try to avoid staff furloughs.
“We have to step up and pitch in,” Smith said. “We will be fine. We will make it work and we will come out stronger on the other side.”
The Jackson Police Department and Teton County Sheriff’s Office are looking to the Teton County Sheriff’s Auxiliary and Jackson Hole Police K-9 Auxiliary to help with equipment and program expenses in the coming year.
“Tough times call for tough decisions and no one likes it, but everyone in the world is having to do this,” Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith said. “Government is not an exception.”
Fortunately those auxiliaries — nonprofits designed to prop up their specified organization — are designed to support local law enforcement already.
“The sheriff’s auxiliary has pledged their support,” Carr said. “They have new members, and their mission originally was focused on equipment and training and they are broadening that if needed.”
Those departments are going to be leaning on the auxiliaries harder over the next year or so.
“We are blessed because of the auxiliaries,” Smith said. “Because of them I don’t think we will go without something that’s critical to our operations.”
Dr. Dan Forman, a veterinarian at Spring Creek Animal Hospital and founder of the Jackson Hole Police K-9 Auxiliary, said he’s happy his organization can step up and help.
“The reason I started the organization is because I had a law enforcement officer who came in with her dog who needed X-rays and she was going to pay for the X-rays out of her own pocket because she didn’t want to burden the department,” Forman said. “I love that we can truly make a difference.”