COLUMN: Hiring challenges remain for law enforcement in Salem area

Although hiring difficulties have eased for many employers, there’s at least one major exception – law enforcement employers like the Salem Police Department and Marion County Sheriff’s Office.

Here’s just one bit of evidence locally: Deputy Chief Brandon Ditto of the police department’s support division said in a recent interview that a few years ago it was common to receive several hundred applications for a recruitment. Now fewer than one hundred are received.

Ditto, a Salem officer for 18 years, joined the army after 9/11 because he “wanted to serve.” Chief Ditto met a lot of former police officers during his Army duty, and becoming an officer when he returned to Salem was a natural.

What the deputy chief and his counterparts in other law enforcement agencies are facing in keeping fully staffed is described in an August 2023 study done by the Police Executive Research Forum as follows:  “The harsh public scrutiny of policing in the current climate is a major reason for today’s staffing crisis.”

There is another challenge. 

Local governments, such as the city of Salem and Marion County, provide services such as fire, schools, libraries and law enforcement, and these services are mostly paid for by property tax collections. As population has grown, the money to pay for needed services hasn’t kept up.

A major reason is a statewide ballot measure, passed in 1990, that limits property tax increases on most properties to 3% a year. Property tax revenue makes up more than half the city of Salem’s general fund.  And people provide services. Salem Police Chief Trevor Womack, in a March presentation to the city council, said that 73% of the department’s $64 million budget is personnel.

Hiring difficulties for law enforcement personnel aren’t just in Salem or Oregon. They’re nationwide.  especially in big cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago. The city of Salem at 180,000 residents is considered a medium-sized city, but local law enforcement hasn’t escaped recruiting difficulties.

Analyzing Oregon Employment Department labor market information for law enforcement occupations is a way to begin to understand the problem.

Law enforcement salaries are above the average. Three law enforcement occupational titles, police officer, sheriff’s deputy, and state trooper, pay entry level salaries between $60,000 and $70,000 a year (see table below). These annual wages are considerably above the entry level wage for all occupations ($31,387) and also above the median wage for all occupations ($49,400).

Law enforcement wages are above average for jobs requiring similar education. (Pamela Ferrara/Special to Salem Reporter)

The percentage increase in openings over the next ten years for these occupations also exceed the average number of openings. The Mid-Valley will need 840 officers, deputies and troopers, a ten-year increase of 12.2%. That’s considerably higher than the increase in overall occupational need of 9.6%.

The minimum educational requirement for these enforcement occupations is a high school diploma or GED. However, according to OED occupational projections, a two-year degree makes an applicant more competitive. Of Oregon’s 17 community colleges, nine have two-year criminal justice programs, including Chemeketa Community College.

The occupation of security guard warrants a brief discussion. According to OED, the four-county area of Linn, Marion, Polk and Yamhill had 905 police officers and sheriff’s deputies at work in 2023, and 843 security guards. Over the next ten years, openings for security guards will outpace those for officers and deputies. And if nationwide trends hold up, the use of security guards will likely increase. As National Public Radio put it in an analysis that aired in March of 2023, “This uptick (in the use of security guards) comes as police departments across the country are struggling to find recruits.”

What about recruiting?

Ditto says that there’s been a lot more recruiting outreach – some 18 recruiting events over the last year. Commander Jeremy Landers of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in a recent interview commented that their office is doing recruiting outreach as well, updating recruitment materials and the recruitment website, and developing an ad campaign. 

Recruiting difficulties are fairly recent. But police officer staffing hasn’t kept up with population growth for nearly 20 years, Womack said in his March City Council presentation.

Landers says that keeping up with population growth is just one piece of the staffing picture in the county. Sheriff’s deputies patrol 1,194 square miles of Marion County, including the Willamette River (from September through May), Detroit Lake, large rural areas of the county, two densely populated areas east of Lancaster Drive, and small towns in the county, such as Sublimity, that don’t have their own local law enforcement.  

So, what does all this mean?

Firstly, this brief analysis of the staffing difficulties facing law enforcement is barely scratching the surface. It’s not just local law enforcement having recruiting problems. There are severe staffing shortages at Oregon state prisons and at the federal prison in Sheridan as well.

Secondly, there’s some evidence that recruiting and staffing difficulties may be easing up. 

Megan Gonzalez of Chemeketa’s criminal justice program reports that 48%of their graduates have been hired by criminal justice agencies, and 7% of them by the Salem Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.

Ditto is hoping to hire enough new officers to reach the department’s authorized number of 196 officers within the next year, and the sheriff’s office is currently undergoing a “public safety assessment” by an outside firm to focus on making their operations more efficient.

Congress has taken notice of law enforcement shortages. In early May of 2024, legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would double the amount of federal grant funding available to local police departments to help with staffing shortages.

And finally, recent research indicates that, across the country, as in the Salem Police Department and Marion County Sheriff’s Office, attention to recruiting is paying off with increased numbers of applicants for job openings. 

How long budget difficulties will persist is anyone’s guess.

Pam Ferrara of the Willamette Workforce Partnership continues a regular column examining local economic issues. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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Pamela Ferrara is a part-time research associate with the Willamette Workforce Partnership, the area’s local workforce board. Ferrara has worked in research at the Oregon Employment Department, earned a Master’s in Labor Economics, and speaks fluent Spanish.