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Sheriffs and police chiefs say they are seeing fewer people choose law enforcement and experiencing staff shortages after the police-custody death of George Floyd sparked weeks of protests and prompted the Colorado legislature to pass a sweeping reform bill last year.

Data from police departments in Colorado’s three largest cities initially paints varied pictures about the departments’ experiences with retention in 2020.

The Colorado Springs Police Department lost nearly 10% of its officers to resignations, early retirements and terminations in 2020, according to data provided by the agency. The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office lost about 13.5% and Denver lost just over 2.5%. The Aurora Police Department had a turnover rate of nearly 20% in 2020, according to reporting by Sentinel Colorado.

But insights from agency heads reveals that officers’ concern about the public tone toward policing has been motivation for leaving. A recent report about a survey of the County Sheriffs of Colorado and the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police showed 65% of respondents cited concerns about Senate Bill 20-217, the reform bill, and 60% cited concerns about the future of policing as reasons for officer departures. Sixteen percent cited safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our attrition rate has nearly doubled since mid 2020. There are varying reasons, but numerous exit interviews suggest that public perception and risks of civil litigation are among the top concerns,” El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder said in the report.

Among the most common reasons officers left the Colorado Springs Police Department were retirement, finding another job in law enforcement, not passing the academy, moving for a spouse’s job or realizing “that law enforcement is not the job for them,” spokeswoman Natashia Kerr said in an email, following The Gazette’s request for an interview.

The increase in departures coincides with the department’s goal to have 800 uniformed officers by 2022. Last year, the department hired 33 people compared with 71 in 2019 and 98 in 2018.

CSPD Chief Vince Niski previously said social unrest had hurt the department’s recruitment efforts, making it more difficult to fill vacancies and to hire Black officers. He said one of the biggest challenges to attracting minority officers is “convincing their families that this is still an honorable profession” because of the national tone toward policing. The May 2020 death of Floyd, a Black man, while in custody of white Minneapolis police officers, triggered nationwide protests and calls to reform policing, especially related to race.

Among officers leaving the Denver Police Department, the agency experienced the most noticeable increase in early retirements in 2020 over 2019, according to four years of data provided by the department. The department recorded nine early retirements last year compared with three in 2019, and had 27 resignations in 2020 compared with 32 in 2019.

Although the number of officers that left the Denver force of well over 1,500 officers in 2020 is smaller than what Aurora and Colorado Springs saw, Chief Paul Pazen told the Denver Gazette last fall that officer resignations, including new recruits, jumped after May last year. According to data the department provided, seven officers resigned by the end of May, and the number had climbed to 25 by the end of October.

The Denver department also struggled with hiring in 2020, bringing on just over 40 new officers as of Dec. 31, according to data provided by the department, compared with a four-year high of 138 in 2019.

Pandemic impact

The decreases in hiring seem to be at least partially attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, data show. Denver originally planned two classes of lateral hires – veteran officers coming from other departments – and two classes of new recruits in 2020, but once the pandemic hit the department held one of each.

El Paso County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Jaqueline Reed told the Gazette that COVID-19 had the most severe impact on the agency’s staffing. As the Sheriff’s Office saw dozens of employees retire between March and December 2020, it were unable to hold academies to fill the positions, she said.

“We do have a shortfall that we have to make up for because COVID absolutely stopped us in our tracks,” Reed said. In 2021 the Sheriff’s Office will hold five non-certified academies and two POST-certified academies, to help fill the shortage. To become a sworn officer in Colorado, all recruits must pass the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) exam, while jail deputies, do not.

Despite the barriers caused by COVID, Reed said staffing is “always” an issue. In 2019, the Sheriff’s Office lost 13.7% of its staff, data show.

Sheriff Bill Elder was not available for an interview about staffing levels, Reed said.

New State Law

Mesa County Sheriff Matt Lewis, the president of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, cautioned against pinning agencies’ challenges with recruitment and retention last year solely on the state’s reform bill. He said officers’ choices to leave the profession could also be due to pressure from family members because of the portrayals of policing shown on the news, a general shift in their perception of their careers because of how the profession has changed over time, and concerns about the risks of COVID-19 because of their front-line roles.

“I don’t want to connect that people are leaving law enforcement because Senate Bill 217 passed — I think it’s much more than that,” Lewis said. “I don’t think you can connect it to any one single thing, nor can you put it in any one age bracket or experience bracket.”

Among other changes, the law passed requires officers in Colorado’s local agencies and the state patrol to have body or dash cameras activated during interactions with the public or while responding to service calls. The mandate carves out a few exceptions, such as to avoid recording information not related to a case or if an officer is working undercover. The mandate goes into effect July 1, 2023.

The law also includes new reporting requirements for use-of-force incidents, officer resignations because of policy violations, contacts with residents and unannounced entries. It prohibits chokeholds by officers, limits the use of chemical agents and less-than-lethal projectiles during public demonstrations, and allows civil lawsuits against officers for violating a person’s state constitutional rights.

And it creates a duty for officers to intervene when another officer uses unlawful physical force. Under the law, failure to intervene results in decertification by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.

County Sheriffs and even the most conservative state senators haven’t signaled intentions to significantly roll back Senate Bill 217. Instead, legislative work since the bill passed is focusing on tweaks that add definitions and clarify portions of the law.

Republican Sen. Paul Lundeen introduced Senate Bill 21-183 last week that adds language to portions of the law. Fellow Republican Sens. John Cooke and Bob Gardner, key conservative supporters of the version of Senate Bill 217 that became law last year, have also signed on as sponsors.

The bill would clarify officers’ duty to intervene to prevent illegal use of force by other officers. It also expands the law to include Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents in body-worn camera requirements and allows civil actions against Colorado Bureau of Investigation and state patrol officers for deprivation of rights.

It also says that any suspension or revocation of a peace officer’s certification wouldn’t take effect until the officer has exhausted all internal, contractual, and legal rights to review, challenge, and appeal the underlying decision.

“What we’re seeking, really, is clarifications to make sure that we’re … implementing it the way it was intended by the legislature, and that it’s being implemented consistency consistently across the state,” Lewis said. “As we go through the implementation process, some things that maybe none of us considered earlier on, but are very important right now so that we can do it right.”

Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod said the House has a version of a bill clarifying portions of Senate Bill 20-217 that hasn’t yet been introduced. She said while it has small differences from Senate Bill 183, Herod doesn’t see the Senate Republicans’ bill as trying to significantly roll back the reform bill. She plans to work with legislators across the aisle to get to a version of the bill they can move forward on together, she said.

“We’re going to work in good faith to try to get on the same page, ideally, and not have a Democrat versus Republican bill but instead have one that we can all move forward with together,” Herod said. “I don’t see much in their bill as an attempt to roll back the work of Senate Bill 217. I do see it as providing that needed clarification.”

Pazen said he’d like for conversations about tweaking Senate Bill 217 to include more of a “voice” about what the law’s impact on crime and public safety may be, but said the direct legislative work has been done for the most part by the police chief and sheriff associations.

“I think that we can get there with accountability; with improving policing. We also have to realize that you have to keep our community safe and these things are not mutually exclusive.”

This content was originally published here.