Small Montana Towns Report Problem Recruiting Officers

By Beacon Staff

ST. IGNATIUS – Small towns report they are having a hard time finding and keeping police officers, and often lose them to places that pay better.

The competition for such officers is so intense that the agencies sometimes try to recruit away officers who have been through the 12-week state training course on another community’s dime.

“It is a problem,” said Wayne Ternes, executive director of the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council. “It’s been seen in small cities and towns all over the state.”

Ternes said the smaller places have a hard time paying a competitive wage. Officers are often lured away by more money from bigger agencies.

“Whether it’s a small town like St. Ignatius or Hot Springs on your side of the state, or Bridger or Fromberg on the other, they may only have enough in the budget to pay $9 or $10 an hour,” Ternes said. “How can they compete, once an officer is trained, with larger agencies that pay $20 to $22 an hour to start? What young person wouldn’t jump at the chance to earn $10 more an hour by making a move?”

Incorporated towns and cities are required by law to provide law enforcement for their communities. The Montana Law Enforcement Academy charges them $1,200 to train an officer they’ve hired.

That prompted the Montana Legislature in 2005 to enact a law allowing communities to enter into contracts with newly hired officers requiring them to repay some of the costs of training if they leave early. Still, the officers can negotiate a way out of the contracts.