HELENA — Helena’s police chief says the department is preparing to be significantly shorthanded going into next year.
Chief Steve Hagen says the police department currently has three open positions, with six more set to leave by the end of January. Four new officers have been hired, but are still in training and aren’t working on their own yet. That means the department would effectively be operating with 13 vacancies after January.
The Helena Police Department has 53 full-time equivalent positions.
Hagen, who’s been with HPD for 30 years, says the most vacancies he remembers at one time has been six. He said the department will be redirecting some resources from non-emergency services, but patrol staffing will be maintained. If this continues, Hagen said officers may have longer shifts or mandatory overtime.
“We will be answering emergency calls,” he said. “We will always be there, always prioritize emergency calls – it just may be delays or different types of service on non-emergency calls.
Hagen said HPD is just one of many places that’s finding it hard to hire people right now. He said he can’t point to a single reason for the rise in departures. Some are retiring, some are leaving law enforcement and others are moving to different agencies. However, Hagen said many of the decisions are tied to family.
“I think a lot of what’s happened is, over the last year or two, a lot of people have really reflected on what’s important in life, and a lot of people are going back to be near family,” he said. “That’s the number-one theme.”
Hagen said he doesn’t believe any of the officers are leaving HPD for competitive reasons.
“I have not had anyone say, ‘I’m leaving because the working conditions or the money is better somewhere else,” he said.
The Helena Police Protective Association, which represents HPD patrol officers, said in a Facebook post last month that they had been trying to bring attention to this issue for some time, but that it has “gone largely unaddressed.”
“For some time now, there has been very little emphasis put on recruiting new officers, retaining existing officers, and increasing our local police force proportionally to Helena's population growth,” the post said. “The result has been an increasing work load for existing HPD officers--many of whom have chosen to go to work for other law enforcement agencies or leave law enforcement all-together.”
The HPPA said in the post that they were concerned about periods when only three officers are on patrol in the city. They noted that, because of the time needed to train a new recruit, there won’t be a “quick fix” for departing officers.
“Without decisive action to hire enough officers to keep up with local call demands and account for turnover, the staffing situation at HPD will continue to degrade, and officer retention rates will continue to fall,” they said.
Hagen disputed the idea that administrators hadn’t taken action to address the staffing issues. He said they’ve brought on a new civilian crash investigator to take some of the caseload and they’re part of a broader conversation about the best way to respond to mental health situations.
“Hopefully, that can take away some of the calls,” said Hagen.
He said the number of vacancies will drop again starting in March, as the newly hired officers finish their training. The department is also recruiting for applicants with law enforcement experience, who can start sooner than those getting their first job.
“We’re getting applicants from out of state – some we’re hiring, some we’re not,” he said. “We have a very unique niche in law enforcement here. We’re looking for officers that work well in the community; not everybody can do that. So we’re going to keep focusing on hiring the best candidates we can hire, even if that means working short until we get that staffing.”
Hagen said it takes about seven months for someone new to law enforcement to finish their training – about three months at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy and 14 weeks of field training with other HPD officers. Someone coming from another department only has to do the field training.
Hagen said there are limited times when only three officers are on patrol in the city – usually between 2 a.m. and 10 a.m., which he said is the time of lowest call volume. He said that is due to a new shift schedule implemented for officers several years ago.
The vacancies also extend to the city-county 911 dispatch center, where Hagen said they are short five employees, with two in training.
Hagen himself is retiring at the end of the year, after staying on two months longer than he originally planned. City leaders are still finalizing a transition plan.
The police chief position will be opened for applications after January 1.