Chief Brian Asmus can remember a time when as many as 70 hopefuls would apply for one officer position with the Liberty Lake Police Department (LLPD).
That was over a decade ago.
When two openings emerged recently at the agency, only five qualified applicants stepped up to the plate.
The scarcity of law enforcement recruits is not unique to Liberty Lake. According to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), Seattle saw a 50-percent drop in applicants last year despite a starting officer salary of $79,000.
“There’s lots of thoughts about it,” said Asmus, who has overseen LLPD since late 2001, the year Liberty Lake was incorporated. “It’s a national issue, not just a local issue or a Washington issue. A lot of it has to do with the negative attention law enforcement has received.”
LLPD did bring on two officers earlier this year — Tuan Nguyen and Stephanie Scheurer. There will be 13 full-time staff after the latest pair of hires join the force.
Asmus said he would like to add one more officer by the fall. Within the past year, two Liberty Lake officers have left for the Cheney Police Department while a third resigned.
Early attrition continues to be a challenge for many agencies across the country, according to research by PERF. A survey of nearly 400 police departments nationwide last year found that 29 percent of officers who left their jobs had been employed less than a year while nearly 40 percent had been on the job less than five years.
Asmus is not ignoring the trends as he works to keep his team stable and emotionally well. He has implemented new programs providing mental health sick leave and conducting regular check-ins with awareness of issues like PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
Asmus stepped up to fill gaps after several departures in 2018, covering 12-hour patrol shifts himself. In 2002, the first full year of LLPD, Asmus and three officers patrolled the streets. The city’s population was around 3,500 at the time. It’s now closer to 11,000.
As for the drop-off in resumes, Asmus said he has decided against offering signing bonuses like a number of agencies on the west side of the state.
“You get people just chasing the dollar and we don’t want that,” Asmus said. “I’m looking for people who want to serve this community and be here for the right reasons.”
Asmus notes that recruiting worthy officer candidates these days resembles the work a college coach might do to sign a top recruit.
“Law enforcement is different from when I started back in the 90s,” Asmus said. “Now, you’re not only recruiting the officer, you’re recruiting their family.”
Former City Council Member Judi Owens remembers the discussions about enhancing public safety leading up to the successful incorporation vote in November 2000. She and her husband Charlie have called the community home since 1992.
“Before incorporation, there was just one county patrol car covering this area,” Owens recalls. “They were spread pretty thin. I think people realized we needed more public services, not just law enforcement, but our own road maintenance, library and more. It was a matter of keeping our tax dollars at home and funding those services.”
Owens said the inaugural City Council quickly recognized the importance of funding law enforcement and making public safety a top priority.
“We talked to Spokane County about contracting but it didn’t pan out,” she said. “I’m glad we went the way we did starting our own department. Brian has done a tremendous job and I think we have an outstanding police department.”
Asmus said he has always felt fully supported by the city when it comes to keeping his agency sufficiently staffed and equipped.
“The support has always been there,” he said.
As for the future of LLPD, Owens said there is one eventual vacancy that will be difficult to fill.
“I don’t really want to think about Brian retiring,” she said. “When you think about hiring a chief that fits in and has the community’s respect like he does – it’s going to be challenging.”