With an average wait of more than six months for police recruits to attend Oregon’s 16-week basic training courses, the state academy wants to add evening classes and increase class sizes.
The state Department of Public Safety Standards & Training has proposed expanding its 20 basic police training classes from 40 students each to 60 students, adding two more 40-student classes and extending training beyond the usual 5:30 p.m. limit to 10 p.m.
It would cost $23 million for the 2023-25 biennium — about $10 million more than Gov. Tina Kotek recommended in her budget, according to Phil Castle, the Department of Public Safety’s new director.
The state agency expected to have to train more officers when police began hiring after the pandemic, but did not anticipate the continued high rate of officers leaving their jobs early or retiring, leaving more vacancies to fill, Castle told lawmakers in this week.
While a decade ago officers would typically stay on the job 20 years or more before retiring, many now leave after six to 11 years for a variety of reasons, a national trend not unique to Oregon, he said.
“The expectations and the current backlog far exceed what our capacity is at the moment,” he said.
Kotek said Friday that she supports the public safety department’s proposal and will advocate for it in the budget, said Elisabeth Shepard, her spokeswoman.
The department has historically run 16 classes of 40 students each during a second year, but at the beginning of this year it bumped up to 20 courses of 40 students for a total of 800 officers. That’s the maximum it can provide with staffing and hours now, Castle said.
But that still left more than 200 students enrolled in the program waiting about six months to get a place, he said.
That puts a strain on police agencies, which struggle to keep recruits engaged before they can begin training, he said. Newly hired officers must complete the basic police academy and then field training before they can be formally certified as law enforcement officers in the state.
Kotek’s recommended budget, which had set aside $12.8 million to continue the current 20 basic training classes of 40 students each for the next biennium, would not be enough to address the growing backlog, Castle told lawmakers’ Joint Ways and Means Committee.
“If we stay with the current number and size of classes, the backlog is expected to continue to grow,” he said.
When Castle took the helm of the agency just over two months ago, newly hired officers statewide had an average wait time of five months to get a spot in basic training, he said. By the end of April, the wait was more than six months. By the end of this year, he expected the wait could stretch up to 10 to 12 months.
For smaller police offices with 25 or fewer officers, which make up about two-thirds of Oregon’s 208 law enforcement agencies, such long wait times can cripple their departments, he said.
“They would have to stop hiring because to have officers sitting in the department and not actually working the streets, they just won’t be able to afford it,” Castle said.
The Public Safety Department’s proposal to increase class sizes and hold two more classes would allow a total of 1,280 recruits to undergo basic training over two years.
To do this, the academy proposes to offer day and evening courses and partner with state police instructors who will be trained in the basic police curriculum to teach the two additional classes.
Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, a co-chairman of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, said he likes Castle’s proposal but questioned whether the larger classes would be too unwieldy or jeopardize student safety.
Staci Yutzie, head of the public safety department’s Center for Policing Excellence, said the larger classes could be split into smaller groups of 20 students each to go to the shooting range or to practice defensive tactics, for example, but come together for classroom instruction. The center works to develop education and offers leadership development courses.
The Department of Public Safety also needs more police trainers. It has traditionally relied on instructors on loan from police agencies across the state (now numbering 18) to supplement 30 full-time academy trainers.
But many seconded instructors are being pulled back by their respective police offices because of local staffing shortages, Castle said.
A few weeks ago, for example, practice at the academy’s shooting range had to be shut down because there weren’t enough instructors available to ensure it could be run safely, he said.
“They fire 3,000 rounds each per range, and that’s several 100 rounds that a group of them didn’t get to fire,” Castle said. “That’s a concern for us.”
The Department of Public Safety is asking to hire 37 more full-time instructors and eight support staff and managers for the extra classes and larger class sizes.
Oregon State Police Supt. Casey Codding has also agreed to lend an undetermined number of state police instructors to help teach the two additional classes, according to Castle and the state police.
The Department of Public Safety looked into holding regional training to meet the demand, but concluded it’s not a feasible immediate solution, Castle said. Among the challenges, he said, would be finding locations for police vehicles and shooting range training, as well as classroom space.
It now costs the Department of Public Safety $16,400 per recruit to provide basic police training, and it costs a police agency $35,000 to put an officer through the course. Agency costs include an officer’s physical exam and equipment.
Evans questioned whether the Department of Public Safety can draw from retired officers to teach the basic academy. Castle said the department would compete with the Portland Police Bureau, which is already working to rehire retired officers to help with its own advanced training academy. Portland police provide their own advanced training academy to new officers after they complete the basic academy.
The Department of Public Safety sent a survey to all law enforcement departments in the state to assess their staffing needs and hiring projections.
The Portland Police Bureau, which contributes the most officers to the basic training academy at nearly 1-in-5 of total enrollment, did not respond to the survey, Castle told lawmakers.
Portland police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Allen said the police superintendent does not recall receiving the investigation, but will coordinate with partners from the state police academy to help it plan for the future.
Portland Police has 808 sworn officers. Of those, 98 are in training or awaiting training, 31 are on leave and 110 are not working patrol, leaving 311 officers split between the three areas responding to emergency calls, according to the agency. Portland police have 10 newly hired officers set to start basic training May 15; several have been waiting since they were hired in mid-December and others since January, Allen said.
In 2022, Portland police said they hired 80 officers and 63 officers retired or resigned. So far this year, they’ve hired 24 officers, and about 56 are currently eligible to retire.
Eugene Police Chief Patrick Skinner, immediate past president of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, said expanding the basic police academy has been the top priority for police chiefs in the state. He praised Castle for working to resolve the backlog.
“It’s simple economics, supply and demand,” he said. “There’s a ton of demand right now, so we need to increase supply.”
He said he expects police agencies to be in perpetual hiring mode over the next several years. Eugene police have authorized 230 officers and have 20 vacancies, he said.
“Chiefs in the state recognize that making sure our recruits get basic training as quickly as possible ends up being better officers for the community,” he said.
— Maxine Bernstein
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