Is it a matter of leadership style, simple economics or reflective of a national trend?
The rate of turnover within the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office is shaping up to be a key issue in this year’s race for the county’s top law enforcement post.
Incumbent Sheriff Rick Besecker has announced he will not seek re-election. Two candidates have emerged — Democrat John Gallowich, a reserve officer with the Mt. Crested Butte Police Department, and Republican Mark Mykol, the current undersheriff.
While Besecker has said morale at the Sheriff’s Office has reached a new high under the leadership of Undersheriff Mykol, Gallowich has expressed concerned about the number of officers who have left the agency in recent years and a lack of experience among current officers.
Figures provided by Gunnison County Human Resources show that between 2012 and April of this year, there were 19 separations and 18 hires — compared to 2006-2011 in which there were 11 patrol hires and only four separations. Separations consist of resignation, retirements and terminations.
For 15 detention positions, there have been 34 hires since 2012 and 30 separations — double the number of positions. Yet, for detention positions from 2006-2011, there were 10 hires and only two separations.
Gunnison County Human Resources Manager Cheryl Seling noted that when a detention deputy moves to patrol, it is considered a transfer — not a separation. She also said there are other factors that the numbers do not reflect, such as officers who transferred from another county department, or changed jobs within the Sheriff’s Office either through reorganization or promotion.
Similar numbers were requested from the Routt County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s operations in Routt County include administration, investigations, patrol records and animal control.
For sake of comparison, Routt County currently has 51.25 positions budgeted in the Sheriff’s Office and detention center — compared to 35 in Gunnison County. Since 2012, Routt County has experienced 34 total hires and 38 separations. Gunnison County had 52 total hires and 49 separations.
Is turnover an issue?
Undersheriff Mykol enumerated a variety reasons for why turnover occurs in his department.
Chief among the reasons, he said, is salary and the cost of living in Gunnison County — including housing.
Mykol said during a recent conference he learned Gunnison County ranks 56th out of 64 counties for Sheriff’s Office salaries. Yet, he notes that Gunnison County employees received a 5 percent raise this year at a time when many law enforcement agencies nationwide are freezing or cutting salaries. Still, soaring rents and property values are making it difficult for employees to make a living in the valley, he said.
Gallowich, however, expressed doubt that salaries were the real cause of turnover in the Sheriff’s Office. He called Gunnison County’s salaries “competitive.” However, he did say if elected he would review salary charts and if they’re found to be deficient, would approach Gunnison County Commissioners during budget time.
“When you get into law enforcement you don’t get into it to be rich,” Gallowich offered. “You do it out of the desire to help people.”
Gallowich maintains that while turnover is an issue for any agency or company, experience and training is lost with each employee who leaves.
Operations are further affected with high turnover, he said. Response time is slower with new officers, and confidence is not as high. Gallowich suggested that experienced officers are less likely to become the target of a lawsuit because they are better acquainted with laws, procedure and community members.
The Sheriff’s Office has been the subject of several lawsuits in recent years.
Yet, Mykol believes his field officers have all the resources they need through senior staff. He believes a key to retaining deputies is through wise hiring decisions — not necessarily the candidate who scores the highest, but the one with the personality to match the office and community.
He gave an example of one officer who recently returned to the Sheriff’s Office after leaving for another position. Mykol offered that sometimes turnover is a good thing; if an officer doesn’t “fit” the agency, he may be happier in another position.
‘Every agency in the state is experiencing turnover’
Additionally, Mykol said officers may leave for personal reasons, such as career advancement with another agency, or to relocate closer to family. He said turnover has always been an issue with which the office contends — and is due in part to greater stress put on smaller agencies in rural areas and the very nature of the job.
“Just about every agency in the state is experiencing turnover. It’s nothing new. Depending where you are it could be a 10-35 percent turnover,” said Mykol. “The trick is to recognize it and take care of your people, and (realize) not everyone will stay with you forever, and that’s OK.”
Still, Gallowich believes strong leadership can stem the tide of turnover. He cited studies that show employees leave companies because of a lack of support.
He said when he was in charge of Support Service with the Wheat Ridge Police Department, few officers left the agency. Gallowich said he would attempt to understanding an officer’s reasons for wanting to leave the agency.
“I would sincerely want to know,” Gallowich said. “Is it salary, housing, leadership?”
Both candidates agree that strong leadership is essential to retention.
“An important thing as a leader is to give your employee feedback — not everyone wants feedback depending on what kind it is, but you’ve got to give it to them,” Mykol said. “You’ve got to give them recognition and you’ve got to get them trained.”
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)