MISSOULA - A lack of openings in the Montana Law Enforcement Academy has made it difficult for the Missoula Police Department to hire and train new officers, leaving it below its authorized strength, officials said this week.
Chief Jaeson White joined other department heads in presenting his mid-year budget update to members of the City Council, offering insight to future requests that could be coming in the new Fiscal Year later this summer.
The department is seeking further investment in officer wellness and training, improvements to radio communication towers, and expansion of the crisis intervention team. It will also begin examining its spatial needs as the city and county look to consolidate operations in the downtown federal building.
But the recruitment, retention and hiring of police officers remains one of the department’s biggest challenges — something it hopes to address in FY ’23.
“We’ve consistently run between three and six officers short per year,” said White. “It’s had a major impact on our budget, and it’s had a major impact on the workload of our staff. We want to continue to increase our recruitment.”
White said the department generally receives qualified candidates and has been able to hire good people. But the list is shorter than desired and the department wants to expand its ability to recruit more officers.
The department, the second-largest in Montana, is authorized 117 officer positions.
“In the couple years I’ve been here, we’ve been at authorized strength one day,” said White. “A lot of our problem has to do with the ability to get people into the state law enforcement academy, which is the only authorized academy in Montana. They only run three academics a year, and we’re only allocated between two or three positions.”
Running short-staffed has eaten away at the department’s overtime budget. As of March, White said the department has spent 102% of its overtime budget. That revenue comes from the department’s $19.4 million personnel budget.
White said the personnel budget still has an anticipated savings of $979,000, though it would be more if the department could run fully staffed and ovoid overtime.
“Because of the shortage of staff, COVID coverage and things like that, we’ve gone over in our overtime budget in order to meet the minimum staffing level to have enough officers to provide a safe environment and meet our minimum shift standards,” White said. “That pulls money out of additional savings.”
White added that the department is seeking solutions to its staffing challenges and the difficulty of getting enough officers into the academy to fill vacancies and retirements.
“Some of the hires we are able to do are post-certified officers from other departments,” White said. “It helps us bridge that gap, but it’s not a permanent solution. If we’re constantly down and can only hire two or three officers, it makes it a little difficult to get up to full strength.”