SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — As Sioux Falls Police Chief Matt Burns looks to add four more officers to the department, there is a challenge of getting them through the training pipeline.

Right now, there are 260 sworn officers on the street of Sioux Falls. The department is allowed to go up to 269 sworn officers. If the city council approves the four new positions, the number of officers on the street could be 273 in 2020.

However, a limited number of seats at a training academy in Pierre is creating a gap in getting new officers from recruitment to on the streets of Sioux Falls.

“If the (City) Council said right now ‘we’re going to give you 10 more officers,’ based upon the number of open seats I have… I can’t get them through,” Burns said. “That’s nobody’s fault, that’s just the system as we find it.”

How certification works

Every new law enforcement officer in the State of South Dakota has to go through a basic certification course in Pierre.

This requirement has to be met within one year of hire.

“Technically they can work without that certification before they would go to the academy. We really don’t do that in Sioux Falls,” Burns said.

Given the complex calls received in the city and the variety of population bases, Burns said the department feels its best to get certified before going out onto the streets. It’s part of a multi-phase training plan for new officers in Sioux Falls.

In Pierre, there are three certification sessions per year. Each is 13 weeks.

Law Enforcement Training is a division of Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s office. Tim Bormann is the Chief of Staff at the AG’s office. He said there’s a lot of different agencies trying to get in the seats.

“The optimum number of seats per session is 40, but for the last five years, we’ve been running over and above that average, classes are around 48,” Bormann said.

“We have been fortunate over time, given the number of recruit officers that we need on a regular basis to secure about an average of eight seats,” Burns said.

On any given session, the George S. Mickelson Criminal Justice Center, is filled with officers, deputies, troopers and agents from a variety of agencies across South Dakota.

“It’s a challenge to try to match everybody’s needs,” Burns said. “They have agencies all the time asking ‘hey can you get me in.’”

The next session begins next week. It will have 48 students from across the state.

“We understand the concerns of every law enforcement agency in the state,” Borman said.

Bormann said for this latest session Sioux Falls had eight students and all eight were seated.

The makeup of this next session includes students from each of these agencies:

Sioux Falls PD Aberdeen PD Spearfish PD Spink County Sheriff’s Office
Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office Tripp PD Belle Fourche PD SD Highway Patrol
Rapid City PD Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office Watertown PD Game, Fish & Parks
Pennington County Sheriff’s Office Huron PD Mission PD Division of Criminal Investigation

“Unfortunately it’s a side effect of the world we live in, there’s an ever-increasing need for officers, law enforcement and training for those individuals,” Bormann said. “It’s something that our office, DCI, the Attorney General and Law Enforcement training are all looking at.”

What are the solutions?

To fix this, it would likely take legislative action. However, Bormann said it’s much more complex than just putting money at the problem.

“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Bormann said. “It’s a matter of square footage of space. It’s a matter of finding the instructor.”

Adding more students per session?

This would be a tight squeeze.

“20 years ago, you were looking at training that consisted of eight hours of sitting in the classroom and giving lectures for the training process. It’s now a lot more reality-based. There are a lot more scenarios small groups and a lot more hands-on experience,” he said.

The evolution in teaching means the space needs are different than what LEC was designed for, making a tight situation.

Adding more sessions?

The number of people to teach is limited. LEC relies on a combination of part-time instructors in Pierre, and adjunct instructors from across the state.

“It takes 100-120 individuals to provide instruction and assistance to run through a basic academy class,” Bormann said.

The sessions run from August to November, November to February and March to June. The only gap in that schedule is the summer.

“It’s tough to do it over the summer, all these people have their own lives, their own work that they’re doing. They have family and vacation time,” Bormann said.

The cost

Then, there’s the cost. The average cost of each session is $200,000, according to Bormann. He said that number doesn’t include salaries, computers, vehicles to practice emergency driving and furniture.

It costs the state about $6,000 per student for basic training. That includes room and board. The agency that hired them (such as Sioux Falls PD) will pay salaries.

“It isn’t as simple as here’s the price tag and what we need, but it is something that is being looked at and being examined because there are a lot of intricate parts that go together,” Bormann said.

Burns said he and fellow law enforcement leaders would support any growth for LET.

“Law Enforcement Training does have a desire, I believe to match the need across the state and many agencies that are covered,” Burns said.

“I just want to make sure that they know that we support that and make sure our local legislators know that we support that.”

Chief Matt Burns, Sioux Falls Police

Taking the long view

As the population continues to grow in South Dakota, so will the crime.

“The need is only going to grow,” Burns said. “The population in our state continues to grow, the needs and the call volume across the state, I have to believe, continue to grow. So it only makes sense we’re going to need more capacity for certified law enforcement officers as we go into the future.”

Burns has the data to back it up. In Sioux Falls, the population continues to grow and so is the crime.

“With that, our crime has grown, but what we have seen over the past several years is that the rate that that is occurring, is roughly matching the population growth, it’s certainly not exceeding it,” Burns said. “So that’s very good news for us in law enforcement and for the citizens.”

Hiring to meet the needs of a growing city

To meet these needs, however, Burns has to keep hiring. The department recently moved to a new process of recruitment. The department interviews and hires monthly.

“Just to make sure that we’re interviewing often enough and keeping that pool as full as we can,” Burns said.

It can be a challenge, as well, to recruit. There’s a limited number of people wanting a career in law enforcement. Sioux Falls is also competing against the sheriff’s offices, communities in the area, in Southwest Minnesota and Northwest Iowa and state agencies like South Dakota Highway Patrol.

Officers gather for crowd control near a massive police presence set up outside a house as they investigate a shooting in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

There are also stories in the news from deadly attacks on law enforcement to police misconduct.

“Candidly, the media exposure and scrutiny that we have seen across the country that puts downward pressure on that,” Burns said. “It doesn’t deter our efforts.”

Plus, the unemployment rate is at 2.4 percent in Sioux Falls.

All of those factors make it a unique hiring landscape. Still, Burns is trying to take the long road.

“We need to make sure that we’re projecting for the future,” he said. “Even if you’re comfortable today, or think you’re comfortable. That’s not the responsibility. Today’s already taking care of itself.”

So that is why, despite being nine officers below the authorized strength, Burns is asking the City Council to add four more.

Burns credits the current and previous administrations for making public safety a top priority in Sioux Falls.

He believes it will have no problem getting passed because the city council and Mayor Paul TenHaken’s administration are supportive of public safety.

“They’ve really been good stewards to make sure that myself and the fire team are well resourced, well equipped, well trained. They get it. They’re listening to their law enforcement leaders,” Burns said.

Despite the challenges in getting officers certified, Burns is optimistic about the state of safety in Sioux Falls.

“We hear about challenges in our city and there’s no doubt that we do (have them), but by and large and far and away, Sioux Falls has so much going for it. There’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of promise and we will in public safety meet those challenges, meet those demands,” Burns said.