Reading news reports of the incident involving Adams County sheriff deputies and rancher Jack Yantis reminds me of some troubling challenges to county law enforcement in Idaho.
There are at least two serious structural problems with county-level law enforcement throughout much of Idaho. The first is that for many rural Idaho counties, there is nowhere near enough funding for sheriff’s departments to hire, train and promote the best law enforcement officers.
In many cases, rural county sheriff offices find it difficult to fill vacancies. They cannot compete with more urban counties and cities in terms of pay level. The pool of available recruits is limited by the small population of the county; in addition, eligible candidates from other counties may not be aware of the opening or may not be willing to relocate to the more rural county (due in part to the low budget for law enforcement in those rural counties). As a result, rural law enforcement agencies may be forced to accept less-than-ideal candidates.
The second structural problem is that in Idaho, county sheriffs are elected. Your first reaction might be: What can be fairer, or what can be wrong with this great American tradition? City police chiefs in the state of Idaho must be certified through training at the Idaho Peace Officers Standards and Training facility in Meridian. This requirement ensures that city chiefs have been trained, tested and certified as competent law enforcement officers before even stepping into their roles as law enforcement leaders in their communities. But that is not always the case with a local sheriff.
This is not to say that all county sheriffs are bad. To the contrary, I have met and admired many bright, competent and admirable sheriffs in Idaho. I have also met many admirable deputies from throughout Idaho. However, that does not negate the fact that for rural counties in particular, finding, training and retaining competent and responsible law enforcement personnel is a significant challenge.
From my perspective, fixing this perplexing problem requires two structural changes at the state level:
▪ Changing the way county law enforcement is funded, thereby leveling the playing field for counties so that they can recruit new officers as effectively as the cities. Counties should not be hampered by accepting lower performing recruits than cities. Proper funding levels can make rural counties much more attractive to new recruits from within and outside the county.
▪ Setting a higher standard for those seeking the office of county sheriff. Excellent leadership at the top can elevate the quality of public service delivered by all officers in the county.
While we should not forget about the results of this tragic event, Idaho must also look for meaningful measures to ensure we can have the highest standards for public safety in every Idaho locale. The residents of Idaho’s rural counties deserve that.
Richard Juengling worked for 15 years in Idaho state government. He was a manager at the Peace Officers Standards and Training academy, which is an arm of the Idaho State Police in Meridian.