It’s happening now in Kootenai County and our county leaders are exacerbating it. Here’s the backstory.
There is a big problem with way-below-market pay at the Sheriff’s Office. The jail has a whopping 25% vacancy rate as a result of it.
It happened about a year ago. Sheriff Norris brought the pay gap issue and its repercussions to the attention of the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC).
Then in August 2021, two seasoned jail deputies told their troubling stories about the jail’s working conditions to the County Commissioners. The deputies relayed example after example of being extremely short staffed, forced to work long overtime shifts to offset staff shortages, and the eventual deputy burnout that follows. Still nothing happened. Now the proverbial “chickens have come home to roost.”
Will the Last Domino to Fall Be a Multi-Million Dollar Lawsuit?
Normal staffing at the jail consists of about 12 deputies per shift with four total shifts a week. As it stands, there are currently 14 vacancies. Currently, brand-new trainees comprise about 25% of total operations staff.
That means one in four deputies today are so new that they are still in training and require the assistance of a full-time Training Officer. This means seasoned staff resources must now be invested into training instead of regular jail operations, like searching more frequently for contraband and general inmate welfare. It’s a precarious mix of long over time hours, burnout and inexperience that can lead to mistakes and even lawsuits.
It's true. Understaffed jails tend to have poorer overall conditions. The staff get overworked, never have enough time to recover from the previous shift, and then make mistakes due to a lack of rest. This lack of rest leads to inattentiveness and mistakes. Even pilots and truckers are REQUIRED to get a minimum amount of rest. Not jail deputies. This is how people either get injured or, worse, die. Consequently, lawsuits are quick to follow. We cannot allow that to happen here.
Now It’s Costing the County an Additional $400K
Fast forward to February 2022 and our jail just transferred its first batch of inmates to a Washington county jail, because it doesn’t have enough trained staff to properly oversee them. Yes, too many jail deputy vacancies along with inexperienced trainees has led to a reduced capacity at our jail. The county also must pay this other jail to house our inmates. To make matters worse, due to the rapid growth of the area, the once slow winter season is just as busy as the summer, which means it could get even busier in the coming months.
Because our jail can no longer house all of its own inmates, the $389,000 annual contract with the United States Marshall Service has been suspended. But it gets worse.
Will You Hear Kenny Loggins Music When Calling 911?
It could happen. Right now the 911 Dispatch center is an unheard of 30% vacant. This is not like the building permit department, where work gets delayed. Instead, these are critical positions the county citizen counts on when needed. The time slots must be filled by existing staff, which means even more overtime and fatigue.
Sadly, dispatch can no longer find and hire replacements fast enough. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that a supervisor recently resigned for a $20k pay cut (YES, PAY CUT) because the amount of overtime was ruining the person’s marriage. How does this happen?
This Crisis Didn’t Happen Overnight
It’s true. It takes years of neglect for an organization to unravel like this. There really isn’t any difference between defunding law enforcement and underfunding it. If we want a Sheriff’s Office that will protect our Rights and stand up for what is right in our community, then we need a BOCC that will properly fund it.
We don’t need to have better pay than Coeur d’Alene Police or Spokane County. In fact, I don’t believe we need to be on par with them. Instead, I think we should strive to be in the 94% to 97% rate and standardize the pay matrix to properly reflect time and grade.
Further, the county already budgets for 100% staffing capacity, but are running at about 10% vacancy. I would look at keeping some of these positions open and use the unspent money on helping to alleviate the pay gap with existing staff throughout the county. But there are also the hidden expenses to being cheap.
The county spends between $100k and $150k to train a deputy. Most deputies leave within three years. Why are we paying to recruit and train deputies, with good experience, so they can leave for other agencies? One could make the simple argument it’s costing us more in recruiting and training than it is to bring the pay within the parity range I outlined. But even then, how much is experience worth?
The biggest legal target in any community is law enforcement. Poorly trained or inexperienced cops can cost communities millions. A simple way to avoid this unnecessary expense is to hire and retain quality candidates.
As it stands now, a control room operator (that is a person who monitors cameras in the jail) starts at $16/hr. A 911 Dispatch Operator starts at $19.35/hr. An entry level teller at Bank of America earns $21/hr. and works normal hours without the stress.
To add insult to injury, the Spokane Sheriff’s Office purchased a booth at our county fair last summer and advertised $10k signing bonuses and $6k to $8k raises for lateral transfers. They came into our own "backyard" to steal away the people we spent hundreds of thousands to train and accumulate valuable experience for a mere $10k bonus. Please tell me how this is good for our community.
It's Time for Change
It is clear that our county leaders are not properly funding law enforcement. They are not being held accountable by the powers that be. And the county’s liability is increasing as a result of this, which could cost us a lot more than getting the pay gap fixed.
If you want a safe community with a top-notch law enforcement agency protecting it, then this under-funding should be considered unacceptable!