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‘Hope for the best’: Experience down, turnover up in SD law enforcement

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‘Hope for the best’: Experience down, turnover up in SD law enforcement

Dec 08, 2023 | 4:48 pm ET
By Makenzie Huber
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‘Hope for the best’: Experience down, turnover up in SD law enforcement
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Sioux Falls Police Officer Kasey Lanning drives around downtown Sioux Falls on Nov. 30, 2023. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

The Corson County Sheriff’s Office in north-central South Dakota is constantly cycling through open positions.

The five-man agency has about two open spots a year and struggled to get applications for the latest position, said Sheriff Alan Dale. In years prior, he’d get about a dozen applicants for one position and fill it quickly.

The shift has happened just in the last five or so years and has affected departments across the state and country, law enforcement officials say. Fewer people are applying for jobs. Burnout and turnover is high, meaning less experienced officers are filling public safety roles.

While staffing problems aren’t as concerning as other parts of the country, officials are worried the trend is here to stay.

Migrant officers flock to South Dakota police departments

All of that can lead to the “degradation of a community,” said Steve Allender, former mayor of Rapid City, former Rapid City police chief and member of the South Dakota Law Enforcement Standards and Training Commission.

“In a time where business is up, we have the least experienced staff and smallest staff per capita that we’ve probably ever had,” Allender said. “That’s a bad recipe.”

While 2022 crime reports were comparable to years prior, crime is generally up in South Dakota over the last two decades, including murder, rape, simple and aggravated assault, theft from a motor vehicle, drug violations and vandalism. Arson and burglary numbers are lower than 2000 numbers.

Local departments are trying to find ways to recruit and retain officers and deputies. But what can be done is limited by funding and resources, with cities like Sioux Falls and Rapid City better off than rural areas of the state.

Ensuring standards: ‘insurance to the taxpayers’

When there are fewer applicants to choose from and more turnover in departments, it creates apprehension, said Andy Howe, Clay County sheriff and member of the South Dakota Law Enforcement Standards and Training Commission.

“Being frank, some agencies don’t have a field officer to give new hires 10 to 16 weeks of training. Who will train them when there’s just one other officer?” Howe said. “At some point they’ll just hand them the car keys and hope for the best.”

It’s something that worries Staci Ackerman as well, who serves as the executive director of the South Dakota Sheriffs’ Association.

“We have safeguards to deal with individuals who shouldn’t be in law enforcement,” Ackerman said. “If we start getting to the bottom of the barrel — the people we don’t want or wouldn’t consider applying previously — what would that do to our landscape? We’re not there yet, but the applicant pool is getting pretty low.”

Officers in South Dakota must complete 13 weeks of basic training in Pierre within their first year unless they have reciprocity from another state or educational institution. Additionally, officers must have a minimum amount of training in use of force, domestic violence, mental illness and firearms before they hit the streets. The state requires officers receive a minimum of 40 hours of training every two years.

A couple of years ago, it took Howe a full year to fill a deputy position. That’s because law enforcement officers in the state are held to high standards, he said. He’d hire a person, put them through psychological evaluations or find background issues and let the person go.

Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe (Courtesy of Clay County Sheriff's Office)
Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe. (Courtesy of Clay County Sheriff’s Office)

It’s not uncommon to have a handful of applicants yet not hire any of them, he added.

“I believe it’s appropriate law enforcement police ourselves and only get good people,” Howe said. “We’re going to hold out for the good applicants. You work short-handed for a lot longer; you don’t just hire the first person through the door.”

In Rapid City and Sioux Falls, new police officers won’t get on the street by themselves for nearly a year.

“They’re run through the ringer, tested and evaluated in every possible way,” Allender said. “That’s good, it’s insurance to the taxpayers. Some departments have had to drop their standards, and I think that creates a bit of liability for the taxpayer.”

Pennsylvania lawmakers recently passed a bill lowering police academy fitness requirements, and Illinois department chiefs admitted in a survey they were lowering standards for education and criminal records to achieve bare minimum staffing, according to The Washington Post.

The South Dakota Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Training Commission amended its rules earlier this year to allow someone younger than 21 to be an officer in the state — something officials say wouldn’t have been considered years ago.

Current shortage isn’t unique

When Sioux Falls Police Chief John Thum applied as an entry-level patrol officer in 2005, there were roughly 600 applicants for 16 positions, he recalled.

Sioux Falls Police Chief John Thum (Courtesy of SFPD)
Sioux Falls Police Chief John Thum. (Courtesy of SFPD)

“Now we don’t see that many applicants a year, maybe even a couple of years,” Thum said.

Between 2017 and 2021, applicants dropped to between 350 to 400 a year for an average of 28 positions a year. Last year there were just under 300 applicants.

While applications have ticked back up to end the year around 400 this year, according to the department, those numbers are significantly lower than they were a decade ago.

Thum connects it to the political climate across the country, especially after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd with unreasonable force during an arrest.

Thum recalled a similar drop in application numbers after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and he assumes there was a similar impact after Rodney King was severely beaten by Los Angeles police officers during his arrest in 1991.

“You’ve got that pendulum swinging back and forth. We’re hoping the pendulum will swing back,” Thum said. “We’re doing better than some of our national competitors, but we feel the strain of not being able to reach that full staff number or get close to it.”

Law enforcement isn’t the only industry to take a hit in recruitment and retention, Thum said. The pandemic stressed several professions, and they’re struggling to rebuild their workforce — especially while the state grapples with record low unemployment rates.

“I think we as a society have to understand when it comes to not only law enforcement but other professions that have taken a beating — teaching and nursing, for example — that we have to support these professions in a variety of ways to keep them desirable for young people to stay in them,” Thum said.

Recruitment and retention in urban departments

All it took to keep officers in the department decades ago was a pension plan, officials say. That’s not cutting it anymore.

Most Sioux Falls police officers know their retirement date down to the day, and most will leave the profession shortly after. Ackerman said many law enforcement officers across the state retire right after they hit eligibility rather than working toward a promotion like they would years before. 

Departments used to abide by the “rule of 75” retirement plan, which meant officers were eligible for retirement when their years of service and age added up to 75. All law enforcement officers who earn retirement through the South Dakota Retirement System and were hired after 2017 reach retirement age at 57 no matter their years of service. 

“For some, a retirement pension was the dangling carrot so to speak,” Thum said. “Work enjoyment or workplace comfortability are becoming bigger drivers that we’re seeing in this current generation.”

Burnout is one of the main retention problems for law enforcement today, Ackerman said. Howe has seen the same with his department. Most of the deputies that have left under his watch in the last few years have left the field entirely rather than moving to another agency like he’d seen before.

The Sioux Falls Police Department has hired a wellness coordinator and therapy dog to combat burnout. The department also implemented a $5,000 bonus for officers who make it through their 15-month probationary period. 

And as the state increases wages for its Highway Patrol troopers, other departments across the state have to compete with that and higher salaries in surrounding states, Thum said.

In Rapid City, the police department has retooled wages and benefits and added retention programs, including more paid time off, gym memberships and a sabbatical every few years. The city’s public safety budget, which includes firefighters, accounts for a little over half of the city’s entire budget.

“We’re becoming a very expensive law enforcement entity,” Allender said. “It’s going up faster now than it has in the past.”

Early evidence shows those programs are working though, Allender said. The department is hiring more and keeping people longer.

“We have early hope that it’s working,” he said, though he did add that sustaining such programs would come at the expense of other city services. “Public safety is a priority and it’s a priority over and above many things the government does, so that’s why it will perhaps result in changing some priority programs.”

Efforts and limitations in rural South Dakota

Most departments across South Dakota can’t offer sign-on bonuses or sabbaticals for officers.

“There’s a financial component that really straps smaller communities because they simply don’t have the budget or ability to pay what would be deemed a competitive wage,” Thum said. “Some agencies in our state offer starting pay of over $30 an hour, while others are still near $18 or $19 an hour, and that’s a difficult hill for them to climb.”

Starting officers in Corson County make about $43,000 salaries (or $20.67 an hour).

A screen displays Sioux Falls Police Department officers actively responding to calls for service on Nov. 30, 2023. (Makenzie Huber, South Dakota Searchlight)
A screen displays Sioux Falls Police Department officers responding to calls for service on Nov. 30, 2023. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

Rural departments used to be stepping stones for officers to gain experience and move on to larger agencies like Rapid City or Sioux Falls. Allender started with the Belle Fourche Police Department before transferring to Rapid City. 

But with fewer applicants in those cities, that means almost nothing for rural applications, Ackerman said.

“Why would you want to subject yourself to the traumas of law enforcement when you could go to work for almost that same amount of money at McDonald’s and not carry that home with you?” Ackerman said.

Most sheriff’s offices across South Dakota have departments of five or fewer yet cover thousands of square miles in their jurisdiction, Ackerman said. She related a situation in McPherson County, where the sheriff’s department in Leola is 35 miles from the county’s most populated city of Eureka. One of the deputies was on maternity leave and another was on duty with the National Guard, so it was just the sheriff and the other deputy available. 

“If that other deputy was unavailable and Eureka had a major call for service, the sheriff would be 35 miles away. How long would that take to respond?” Ackerman said.

For Corson County, the closest jail is about four hours away in Sturgis, and a deputy transports someone to jail a couple of times a week, Dale said. At least 80% of Corson County’s inmates are shipped to Sturgis, because other, closer jails are full.

“A DUI stop now is about a 10-hour deal. We operate with one to two officers a shift. If you’re transporting to jail, you’re looking at eight to nine hours being out of the county. If another call comes in, the next closest person is at home in bed but you’re waking them up to handle the situation. That happens pretty frequently.”

Corson County Sheriff Alan Dale (Courtesy of the Corson County Sheriff's Office)
Corson County Sheriff Alan Dale. (Courtesy of the Corson County Sheriff’s Office)

Compounding Dale’s workload, Corson County has started to respond to more calls on the Standing Rock Reservation because the Bureau of Indian Affairs isn’t properly staffed and responding to calls. The Oglala Sioux Tribe sued the federal government in 2022 over police staffing on the reservation, and recently declared a state of emergency due to high rates of homicide, suicide, drug offenses, robbery, rape, aggravated assault, burglary and missing and murdered Indigenous women, according to tribal officials.

“The idea that an agency could function on one to two deputies like in South Dakota is unheard of elsewhere,” Howe said.

To make up for the lack of manpower, Dale started a multijurisdictional task force in north-central South Dakota in 2018 made up of seven sheriff’s offices and two police departments. The task force rotates operations in each jurisdiction twice a month, lending officers to a designated county to respond to traffic accidents, make arrests for drug or DUI offenses, make arrests for warrants, or search for missing people.

“It’s a way for you to get law enforcement you need into your county that isn’t costing the taxpayers of your county,” Dale said. “We work together and reach a solution together. Everyone is learning all areas of the counties so they’re familiar with it if we need to rely on other agencies for assistance.”

‘The way things are’

Thum is confident the pendulum will swing back toward better recruitment and retention trends for Sioux Falls and other departments across the state.

“However,” he said, “we are also dealing with a different workforce.”

When Thum joined the police force, he signed up “for the long haul” like other officers in his class. He picked a career and he stuck to it. But now, Thum sees newer generations trying out several jobs before landing in one for an extended period.

That means turnover is going to be higher than before if the trend sticks — and Howe fears that’ll be the new normal.

“I think this is all bad, but it might be the way things are,” he said.