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New Riverton police chief searches for solutions to local crime and staffing shortages

 Riverton Police Chief Eric Hurtado stands behind a podium.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Riverton Police Chief Eric Hurtado speaks to business owners and community members at a packed meeting addressing local crime and policing in June.

How does an underfunded and overworked rural police department help a community feel more supported? Riverton’s new police chief is hoping a Community Service Officer program could help.

At the Riverton City Hall in June, business owners and community members talked to the town’s mayor and police chief about solutions to local crime. At times, the tension in the packed meeting was palpable.

“This room is boiling right now – I’m sitting next to a lady that’s vibrating mad,” said one frustrated community member about 90 minutes into the two-hour meeting.

The meeting started with a meet-and-greet to give community members the opportunity to discuss concerns with city staff one-on-one. The event then transitioned to an open forum Q&A.

At the start of the meeting, Mayor Tim Hancock emphasized the need for relationship building and solutions-oriented dialogue.

“The whole purpose of this meeting is really just to strengthen the relationships between the city of Riverton, our city staff, and our business members and community members,” he said “We’re wanting this meeting to hopefully not get too divisive, and we’re really wanting to get feedback and talk and tell you some things that we’re making efforts towards.”

Attendees had a lot of concerns, including community safety, homelessness, public intoxication and how repeated crimes are dealt with.

Local thrift store owner Karen Johnson said the problems facing the community span a wide range. 

"It's from theft all the way to drug use, and it affects our businesses and affects our communities. Most recently, stabbings, you know, car thefts – these things have been going on for a long time, but they are getting worse,” she said.

In 2021, Riverton held the title of the city with the most reported crimes per capita in Wyoming and experienced a wave of violent crime in the summer of 2022. Police Chief Eric Hurtado tried to keep the temperature down as he answered questions.

“There's just different ways that we can attack the issue and that's what we're looking at, we want to find out what works here so we're not wasting our time – and I know that you're frustrated,” he said.

Hurtado started in April, and his new job isn’t an easy one. He said the department continues to receive a high volume of calls and is so understaffed that their 10-hour shifts won’t cut it anymore.

“As of July 8, we're looking at having to go back to 12 hour shifts because we don't have enough officers to cover all the shifts,” Hurtado said.

Currently, only 11 of the 20 officer positions are filled. At the meeting, Hurtado pointed to burnout and comparatively low wages as reasons why hiring has been slow.

“There is a nationwide shortage for police officers – there's some departments that are short a third or a half, and we're all competing for qualified and capable people to come step forward,” he said.

Issues around crime and policing have been dogging Riverton for years. In 2015, a white city park employee shot two Native Americans at a recovery center in town. Afterward, a community relations ombudsman position was created to investigate complaints and help resolve them – but it was eliminated after fifteen months due to a lack of funding.

After the shooting, tribal leadership lobbied for the killer to be charged with a hate crime and pointed to a local trend in discrimination against Native Americans, which borders the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Only four years later, a Northern Arapaho man, Anderson Antelope, was shot and killed after attacking an officer with a knife, leading to public outcry from the Native community.

To help make sure these kinds of events aren’t repeated and address staffing shortages, the police chief is proposing a Community Safety Officer, or CSO, program in Riverton. Hurtado likens the program to support staff in a hospital setting.

“If you had the doctor answering the phone to schedule appointments, coming in and taking vitals, checking to see what medications you’ve been taking, that doctor would be wasting about ninety percent of their time,” he said.

People in the program are part of the police department but are not sworn officers. They handle routine, low-risk calls and free up other officers to respond to more serious matters. They also don’t make arrests and don’t carry a gun but have other defensive weapons.

While the program does require a 160-hour training and thorough testing, Hurtado said the position could potentially draw in people who aren’t able to commit to the Police Academy.

“There's some people in our community that want to help out law enforcement that are just not ready to leave their families for six months and go to training, but they still want to help. And those are the people that we want to reach out and see if they will apply and are able to pass some of the testing that the officers have to go through,” Hurtado said.

Hurtado also said the CSO program could be a stepping stone for those who haven’t yet reached the 21-year-old age requirement for the Police Academy – or who aren’t sure if they would like to pursue a career in law enforcement.

Amber Freestone, the spokesperson for the Casper Police, said their department currently has four CSOs and is in the process of hiring two more. She said the program is working well.

“They back up records. They back up anybody that needs it. They know what's going on in that front office all the time – literally the bones of an operation,” Freestone said.

Hurtado has started CSO programs in departments where he’s worked in the past. At the community meeting, he played three TV news clips from Spokane, Washington, Eugene, Oregon, and Santa Barbara, California, about the cities’ respective CSO programs.

If implemented, Riverton would be following in the footsteps of many other Wyoming communities – Cheyenne, Jackson, Rock Springs, Laramie and Evansville all have some version of the program.

Some people at the city hall had their doubts about the program, though. One attendee pointed out that money would still be an issue.

“In the communities that you have implemented the CSO, where did the funds come from? Would it be similar to the SRO [school resource office] for the schools, so it would still be a city budget item?” the community member asked.

Hurtado said he’s applied for funding through a federal grant and should hear back in the next month or two.

The police chief recognized that a CSO position needs to be one of many solutions to address the challenges facing the community, especially regarding those who are unhoused. He said there are deeper problems at play for those experiencing homelessness or substance abuse that need more time and attention.

“Why? What is it? Are they going through PTSD? We have enough time to maybe spend five minutes, maybe 10. Because there's calls backed up,” Hurtado said.

Regardless, Hurtado said more community resources need to go to helping people heal the root of their mental health or substance struggles, especially when it comes to suffering veterans.

“If we have 20 or 30 people that, let's say, we're having frequent problems with, let's identify those 10 or 15 that actually have health issues that we can try to find help for them – and now we just cut that problem in half,” he said.

Perhaps the community could find some inspiration in Kwanlin Dun, an urban First Nation in Whitehorse, the capital of The Yukon in Canada. Their community safety officer program operates similarly to Hurtado’s CSO program – officers don’t carry guns or lay charges.

But there’s an important distinction – the program’s officers are all Indigenous and part of the local community. According to an article inThe Globe and Mail, the group is “trained in everything from conflict resolution, intergenerational trauma and mental health issues to critical incident stress management and bylaw interpretation.” They seem to be having positive impacts on a community impacted by colonialism, crime, and a damaged relationship with the Royal Canadian Mountain Police.

At the end of the meeting, Northern Arapaho member Nicole Wagon said it’s crucial to find solutions addressing substance abuse.

“What I'm saying is I agree with you for a solution, right? Drugs and alcohol, they don't care, right? I mean, it affects all of us,” Wagon said.

Two of Wagon’s daughters, Jocelyn and Jade, were killed in the span of a year and are victims of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons crisis. Wagon is now a fierce advocate for the issue.

Wagon personally thanked law enforcement and welcomed Hurtado to the community.

“New perspective, new solutions, new eyes, trying to work together – I stand here today applauding you guys for being here. That's the start. That's the action, being here and just having that mutual respect for one another,” she said.

Wagon said she’s committed to making things better for her children and grandchildren.

“It's tough, and it's not easy, and it's not going to go away. But hopefully, change will be coming,” Wagon said.

The Riverton Police Department will make the decision about whether to adopt the Community Service Officer Program based on funding in the coming months.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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