The Jackson Police Department is so short staffed it has contracted with out-of-town deputies to help with coverage.
“We are having to think outside the box and get creative,” Chief of Police Todd Smith said.
The department has lost several officers in six months and hiring people to fill those positions can take anywhere from nine months to a year because recruits must attend the police academy and undergo training.
“If you lose an experienced officer and replace them with an entry level officer it is not apples to apples,” Smith said.
In a mutual aid agreement, Smith hired Lincoln County deputies to help fulfill the department’s Jackson Hole Airport duties.
It isn’t the first time Smith has contracted with Lincoln County to fill staffing gaps. Lincoln also helped cover the town’s airport shifts in 2017.
“The assistance provided by officers from Lincoln County was invaluable in meeting our obligations and reducing overtime burnout from our current cadre of officers on our team,” Smith said.
The Jackson Town Council approved the temporary assistance at its regular meeting Monday night.
The cost of the agreement will depend on how many hours the Lincoln County deputies work. But Smith said because the town has a contract with the airport to provide services, he doesn’t expect a “negative impact” on the town’s budget.
“The airport pays for five positions,” he said.
The Lincoln County deputies have jurisdiction only at the airport. Once they leave a shift at the airport, they don’t have jurisdiction again until they get to the Lincoln County line, Smith said.
The mutual aid helps fill coverage at the airport, but even with the help the department is at minimal staffing in town.
Smith and his right-hand man Lt. Roger Schultz admit it’s a Band-Aid fix.
“We’re bringing on a reserve officer,” Schultz said. “It’s another body to work patrol.”
The staffing shortage is due to the department losing four of its longtime personnel in the last six months.
Three of the town’s most experienced law enforcement officers have signed on with the Teton County Sheriff’s Office.
The fourth was fired this week after allegations of domestic abuse.
By Smith’s estimation, he’s lost a combined 50 years of law enforcement experience to the office across the parking lot.
“Some have chosen to go to the sheriff’s office,” Schultz said.
Detective Andy Pearson joined the sheriff’s office last week after 26 years with the Jackson Police Department.
Longtime cop Forrest Spence worked as a town officer before taking a bailiff’s position at the Teton County Courthouse.
Sgt. Trevor Aitken worked as a patrol sergeant at the police department for 16 years before joining the sheriff’s office in February. He now works as a training sergeant.
Aitken said the decision was for his well being.
“Twelve-hour shifts are really hard on your health,” Aitken said. “Plus you have to factor in commuting hours. They were 15-hour days, and that was when you aren’t staying late.”
At the sheriff’s office, Aitken works 10-hour days Monday through Friday.
“It’s flexible,” Aitken said.
The sheriff’s office has also allowed him to work with deputies and members of the public on firearms training and active shooter trainings.
“Those are my skillsets and my interests,” he said.
Aitken said he enjoyed his work at the police department, but because salaries are decided at the town administration level and rely on taxes the pay wasn’t always consistent.
“We went years and years with no raises,” he said.
Smith said he believes more of his officers are considering jobs at the sheriff’s office.
“It means less coverage on each shift,” Smith said. “Ideally we have five people assigned to each shift. Now we might operate with two at a time. I have to redistribute people around.”
Schultz said it’s becoming more difficult to find qualified applicants.
“We’ve lost training and experience, and then you have to start from scratch and hope that other agencies don’t attract them elsewhere when we’ve put in time and effort into getting them where the town needs them to be,” Schultz said. “It affects the whole town and the quality of police work the community expects.”
Smith is brainstorming with town officials on ways to recruit and retain officers.
The town is competing with the sheriff’s office step plan, under which deputies are able to see what future pay increases will be.
“The town is handicapped on being reliant on sales tax revenues and not having other alternate sources of revenues to stabilize the budget,” Schultz said.
Until the police department can hire qualified officers to fill vacancies, sworn office staff like detectives will have to put on a uniform and go out on patrol.
“We did that last week,” Schultz said. “We will rotate them in once a week so our patrol staff doesn’t burn out while we run on minimums.”