PUEBLO, Colo. (KRDO) -- Colorado law enforcement agencies say they've been plagued by staff shortages since the pandemic. Now, a newly proposed legislation could help bring in more officers.
Colorado’s unemployment rate plummeted in 2022 following the pandemic. As of January, it sits at 2.8% — the same level as December 2019. Colorado is tied for the tenth-best unemployment rate in the country.
But despite the low unemployment rate, some industries still struggle hiring workers, including law enforcement and healthcare.
The Pueblo Police Department is currently 41 officers short, about 30 more vacancies than what the department experienced three years ago.
Pueblo Police Chief Chris Noeller believes the national sentiment toward officers and the pandemic diminished his staff. This is happening as the agency’s call volume increases, leading to longer response times.
“When you're running from call to call because of call load and personnel, it makes it a little bit more difficult to get out in front of the issues before they happen,” Noeller said.
On Tuesday, Governor Jared Polis, joined by bipartisan legislators, touted proposed legislation that would invest in the state’s workforce, especially for industries that haven’t seen the same staffing growth as others, like law enforcement.
HB23-1246 would appropriate $38.6 million to help fund in-demand short-term credential programs at community colleges, area technical colleges, and local district colleges to “support the expansion of the number of available and qualified professionals who are able to meet Colorado's in-demand workforce needs.” Any extra funds can also be used to pay for student housing, transportation, or food expenses.
“It's important that we invest in education and make sure that we have those career services that are necessary for our communities that currently have work shortages, making sure we get them the resources they need,” said Republican State Representative Rose Pugliese.
The eligible industries include elementary and early childhood education, firefighting, law enforcement, forest management, short-term nursing, and construction trades.
“A lot of these professions, whether it's fire, law enforcement, nursing — these are the backbone of our community,” Polis said during Tuesday’s press conference. “By breaking down barriers, we will enhance the skilled workforce that will fill these applications for decades to come.”
The proposed legislation builds on the Care Forward Colorado program, which is a zero-cost, short-term training program at community and technical colleges. In as little as a year, a trainee can become a certified nursing assistant, emergency service professional, or other in-demand healthcare positions.
The proposed legislation will expand the funding to include other industries in need of staffing.
“One of the bills today extends this same free community technical training to a number of other in-demand fields, namely early childhood certificates, elementary education, nursing, law enforcement, fire, forestry, and construction trades — all in-demand fields and occupations that we need more people who are trained to do if we’re going to succeed in this state.”
Pikes Peak Community College is one of several state community colleges that has a law enforcement academy. President Lance Bolton said the program used to have full enrollment until 2019. Now it runs with about 30 students — half of a full class.
Bolton said the expansion of the program would increase enrollment if the last year was any indication. He said the Care Forward Colorado program last year significantly increased enrollment for the healthcare programs covered by the funding.
If the legislation passes, Bolton said it would be an extraordinary opportunity for people interested in law enforcement to receive free education.
Democrat State Representative Matthew Martinez has family in the Pueblo Police Department. With this workforce bill, Martinez said it’s important to incentivize great officers to enter academies.
“Being able to get them trained and get them in the door as soon as possible is going to be really beneficial,” Martinez said.
Noeller said the potential program could be a lifeline for some underprivileged citizens and the department.
“Programs like this help those individuals who want to help their country, their community and be able to do that in a way that doesn't saddle them with debt,” Noeller said.
To learn more about the proposed Support In-demand Career Workforce bill, click here.