UPDATE 3:30pm to add a statement by Sheriff’s Detective Jeremy Johnson (added at bottom below).
Former employees of the La Paz County Sheriff’s Department say management and lack of funding for the department are the reasons they left, coming after after the department’s low salaries were highlighted in a meeting of the Board of Supervisors on June 6th. Sheriff Ponce tells Parker Live the situation is frustrating.
During the meeting’s ‘Call to the Public’, current Sheriff’s Department employees told the Board that their workplace has some of the lowest salaries around for law enforcement agencies, that morale is low, that the situation is unsustainable and that people have left to work elsewhere.
C.J. Markel told the Board that only 6 of the 30 detention officers that he started with are still there and that 64 percent of the detention officers live at home with their parents because they can’t afford to move out. Whitney Lopez, who works in 911 Dispatch, said she knows 10 people who have left the department. Ricardo Rodriquez said there is low staffing causing higher stress, low coverage and low morale. Others used the phrase, “overworked and underpaid.”
Minor responded, saying, “I feel for every person who works for La Paz County Sheriff’s Department. I don’t know how to indicate verbally any more how I support and appreciate the difficult jobs you all do.”
But he said the problem of low county revenue is affecting every department.
“La Paz County has been run very poorly for a very long time. And unfortunately part of the problem has been that when things like this comes up, we just make up money out of the blue and pretend we have money that we don’t have, and then we give raises, and then we dig the hole deeper. So we are on a mission to bring this County out of that hole.”
Minor said he wants to have a work session with the Sheriff, and implied that the department is avoiding structural changes that would pave the way for more equity in the department’s wages.
“One of the things that your Sheriff’s Department needs to address through its management is relooking at the Sheriff’s Department with potential restructure,” Minor told the meeting. “The Sheriff’s Department has been top-heavy for a long time, at least a few sheriffs back.”
At least one former employee agreed with that assessment. The employee told Parker Live that the ratio of supervisors to staff is off.
“The Sheriff’s Department’s ranking officials are living off the backs of its younger workers who don’t make much,” the former employee said. “The administration is notorious for creating positions to give promotions instead of managing its budget to provide to the younger employees who struggle financially and don’t see pay increases or steps within their career. The department gets a lot of funding from grants that require their workforce to burn themselves out to help pay for equipment and overtime. Soon they will lose funding for not having enough staff to work those grants.”
The former employee said that the department recently gave rank to detectives, making them corporals, rather than giving chances to deputies who are lower in the hierarchy.
“The Sheriff, Chief Deputy Sheriff, Commander, Administrative Lieutenant, Boating and Safety Lieutenant, Patrol Lieutenant, Lieutenant, Staff Sergeant and Administrative Secretary are certified peace officers or certified detention officers who have had step increases, while younger employees are forever at a standstill at Step 1 or 2 and get frustrated when they find out fellow coworkers are at higher pay despite their years of service with the department. How did the Sheriff find funds for his supervisors but not his younger employees?”
The employee also told Parker Live that these members of the administration do not step in to help cover districts, despite being certified to do so.
“Why do certified patrol lieutenants and sergeants drive patrol units at the county’s expense but can’t work shift or take calls for service when needed?” the employee asked. “Can you imagine patrolling on bare minimum with hundreds of Hell’s Angels in town but your support staff who are also deputies are nowhere to assist? Can you imagine being a single boat deputy working the infamous Tube Float as a solo officer by yourself on the river? Can you imagine seeing a new deputy being hired for a specialty position within your department without being given the opportunity to test such as the new School Resource Officer position? Can you imagine seeing people being hired who bypassed basic field training and being promoted or working specialty positions?”
Sheriff Ponce spoke with Parker Live Thursday to talk about the issues raised by employees and former employees, and said he largely agrees with them.
“Our pay scales are off. We are the lowest-paid in the county, both Parker and Quartzsite pay more, and we’re on the bottom end of the counties within Arizona. And yet we’ve been asked to cut our budget multiple times, and we have had to do it. The budget is tight countywide, so we’ve cut $500,000, which in turn creates struggles here. Some of our employees have been with the department for 7 years or even 10 years and have never had a cost-of-living increase in the entire time they’ve been here.”
Asked whether he believes the department is “top-heavy”, Ponce said he did not create any new command-level positions, that the current administration structure was in place before he arrived. But he said he agrees that some restructuring could possibly help.
“I’ve been trying to restructure since I got here,” he said. “I believe that the way the department is structured, people could be moved into other areas to facilitate better layers of supervision. I’m trying to do that, but it’s rather difficult in the midst of staffing issues, it makes it hard to maneuver personnel to where they need to be. When someone retires, we can modify, sometimes we can combine positions which I’ve done in many places within this department. I’m looking at all these things.”
Ponce said his biggest frustration was the way the budget constraints affect coverage of the county and staffing around the county’s jurisdiction. He said he doesn’t believe his department is currently able to provide the service citizens deserve. When asked if people in the administrative ranks could step in and help patrol, Ponce said they sometimes do.
“That does happen, I can tell you. Those people have been involved more in helping our deputies, but there are also a lot of responsibilities that are put upon them to get their administrative duties done too.”
Ponce told Parker Live that he has considered and implemented other ways to make the most of the budgets his department has, including combining various funds together to replace aging patrol vehicles so that it doesn’t come out of the county’s general fund – “a substantial savings” – and speaking to U.S. Senators, the U.S. Marshall’s Office and others to try to get back some of the federal inmates that the county can be paid to house.
“When I arrived, we were at maybe ten federal inmates or so, and now we have about thirty,” he said. “Nothing like it used to be many years ago, when we may have had a hundred. But we’ve been trying to keep those lines of communication open where we can.”
Ponce said he welcomes all work sessions with the Board of Supervisors, but he also knows that there is a limit to how much talking can accomplish.
“We all know what the financial status of this county is,” he said. “We can talk but if there’s no money, we’ll have to go without it, and that’s a hard reality.”
In the meantime, a former employee told Parker Live that the situation puts a lot of strain on existing employees of the department.
“Imagine working in 100-degree weather with full gear in a unit that’s blowing hot air and you haven’t had a day off in a week,” the employee said. “It’s physically and mentally exhausting and then you’ll get written up for making an error under conditions without support staff assisting. Imagine getting in trouble for leaving your patrol unit on because you can’t cool down, meanwhile your supervisor is driving a newer unit that has adequate air conditioning to take them to their nine-to-five job and get to sit in a clean office. What’s sad is the employees are accustomed to this and they think this is normal.”
The employee acknowledged the financial constraints countywide are real.
“Every department within La Paz County has a budget. You can’t use funds you don’t have and public servants are no more important than the rest of the county employees who also receive lower pay during times of inflation. I no longer work for the department and I hope to see the change needed and their employees being cared for.”
UPDATE: Statement by Sheriff’s Detective Jeremy Johnson
I read your article and observed numerous false misleading statements from the unidentified former employee who I still can’t understand why they want to be unidentified if they no longer are employed with the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office. What repercussion could they possibly be worried about other then the public knowing the false misleading statements came from that individual. I’d like to address the following false misleading statement, “The former employee said that the department recently gave rank to detectives, making them corporals, rather than giving chances to deputies who are lower in the hierarchy” which came from the unidentified former employee of the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office and was included in your article. It pertains not only to me but the other hardworking Detective’s assigned to the Criminal Investigations Unit and Narcotics Task Force who serve this county. This former unidentified employee has either never worked in the investigations unit in any capacity and/or clearly has no understanding of rank structure or the inner workings of the investigations division.
Since the history of the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office specifically, there has been detectives employed by the department and assigned to the investigations division. The position of detective has been a tested, ranking position since at minimum during former Sheriff Hal Collette’s first term in 2001, which was 21 years ago. As far as insignia on uniforms goes and establishing rank, that was introduced in 2019 during the middle of former Sheriff William Risen’s administration which was 3.5 years ago. These shoulder patches with no monetary increase in salary were used as insignia on uniforms of detectives which are rarely worn being we are often dressed in business, business casual and plain clothes attire.
They were only introduced after Sheriff Risen and former La Paz County Sheriff’s Office Captain Curt Bagby created a corporal position in the patrol division. These corporals were given a rank above deputy with no monetary increase and would act in a supervisory role in patrol in the absence of a patrol sergeant or were delegated supervisory duties. Under the previous administration their was four corporal positions created. One of those corporals left the department to a much larger law enforcement agency for more money, that position was never filled under the previous administration. One of the other corporal’s was fired under the previous administration and that position was also not filled under the previous administration. The two other corporals were promoted to patrol sergeant, one under the previous administration and the other under the current administration and neither were filled under both administrations.
A detective not only at the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office but also in majority of Law Enforcement agencies across the nation the merit ranking system is as follows: deputy/officer, corporal, detective, sergeant, lieutenant, etc. When a detective responds to a crime scene, he or she is in charge and responsible for that scene. He or she is not under the supervision or directive of a patrol sergeant and certainly not a corporal or deputy. The former administration refused to acknowledge the rank structure and in doing so created numerous issues over and over with in the patrol and investigations division. This issues carried over into the current administration under Sheriff Ponce, which he corrected and in doing so upset some of these “former employees”.
Several deputies had been promoted under the previous administration and having only 3-5 years total of sworn experience handling preliminary investigations or simple calls for service. None of them had ever been assigned to the investigations unit handling major violent crimes which this county has seen an increase of. Just last year alone we had 4 different homicides in this county. These inexperienced supervisors have never worked these in-depth cases which includes but not limited to, physical and electronic evidence collection, crime scene processing, both basic and advanced forensic interviewing, providing expert testimony in a jury trial setting, very detailed report writing, etc. They were promoted to a patrol sergeant position and were put into positions of supervising and guiding deputies who the citizens interact with in this county on a daily basis. In the above statements alone, you can see where the problem lies.
But again, it goes back to the money topic, if the Sheriff’s Office was able to pay its employees more money we would have a better selection pool of supervisors to choose from because we would attract and retain long term employees”.
– Detective Jeremy Johnson