Photo by Hubble Ray Smith.
After a year in office, Mohave County Sheriff Doug Schuster can point to a few accomplishments and occasional setbacks, but overall he’s making progress in restoring the public’s faith in the sheriff’s department and boosting deputies’ morale.
Schuster, who came out of retirement last year at the request of colleagues to run for sheriff, said one of the most pressing issues for him was fixing salary “compression,” or the difference between pay for a new recruit and that of a tenured officer.
Another issue was staffing. There were seven more deputies on the streets when Schuster joined the department in 1989 than today, even though Mohave County’s population has doubled and calls for service have tripled, he noted.
“I had a vision of where the department should be. I made goals with some covenants and followed through and saw success,” Schuster said during an interview in his Kingman office.
“This has been a great first year. We accomplished a lot in a short time and I look forward to continue to make an impact. I want this agency to move forward,” he said.
Mohave County Sheriff’s Office starts its deputies out at a comparable pay with law enforcement in the area, around $19.50 an hour, and they’re promised raises over the years – nothing big – but they never got their raises, Schuster said.
Now they’re 30 percent to 50 percent below the pay of their peers in Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City.
“What’s happening is they get to the point they can’t do this, and they trade in their green uniform for a blue one,” Schuster said. That costs the department $75,000 to $100,000 in training for each officer lost.
The department had 18 openings when Schuster took over last year, and morale was low. He went to the Mohave County Board of Supervisors for $1.5 million to fix the compression issue, and was successful in getting about $500,000.
“We were able to give raises, but not at the level we wanted,” he said.
Another of Schuster’s top priorities was to focus on improving the sheriff’s department relationship with the public.
Based on negative media coverage of police shootings across the nation, Schuster noticed a general opinion that the public had no faith in law enforcement, but that was coming from a vocal minority, he said.
“I expect them to be professional and courteous at all times,” the sheriff said of his deputies. “I know it’s working because I received tremendous feedback from the public for officers going beyond their duties.”
MCSO has no body cameras for officers because of massive problems with digital storage, but Schuster said he thinks they’re good for both officers and the public, and he hopes to have them in the future.
“We’re going to accomplish this (public relations) one contact at a time,” Schuster said. “We’ve got officers coaching their son’s football team, coaching their daughter’s basketball team, involved in clubs, so we’re all in this together.”
MCSO had no canine units when Schuster started, and now has five that are supported by the MCSO K-9 Foundation.
Schuster said the foundation raised money to buy the dogs, train them, and provide food and veterinary care. It costs about $12,000 to send each dog and handler to training.
The county doesn’t have a line item on the budget for K-9 units, so the nonprofit foundation was formed solely for the benefit of the K-9 program.
The sheriff has received requests from Kingman schools to bring the drug dogs through for locker checks, and from the Mohave County Jail to make sure prisoners aren’t bringing in illegal contraband.
Mohave County Board of Supervisors approved 11 new Chevy Tahoe patrol vehicles for the sheriff’s department at a cost of $657,000 in November, and Schuster took exception to a citizen’s comment that he should look into refurbishing the old vehicles.
The sheriff’s annual budget includes replacing vehicles that have outlived their use expectancy, which is five years or 100,000 miles.
Each month the vehicle is used, money is put into a replacement fund for that particular vehicle, which is a pretty solid plan, Schuster said.
“Some years I get more vehicles, sometimes not as many. It’s not costing us excessively to be in this plan,” he said.
And it’s important for MCSO deputies to take assigned vehicles home for faster response to service calls in the county’s rural areas, Schuster added. They take pride in their vehicles, and it saves the department about 15 cents to 16 cents a mile. Also, shift cars are used three times more than assigned cars.
“Any second, a deputy could get called out and if they had to come in to pick up their vehicles, it could be a very bad situation,” Schuster said. “Lives matter, and you have to be able to rely on your equipment. If I have a car that’s not mechanically sound, that could be a disaster.”
Schuster wants to use inmate labor for a variety of community services, wherever it’s needed, specifically trash pickup by low-level offenders.
He’s also determined to increase staffing and take advantage of retired law enforcement officers in the community to form a reserve deputy program. Anyone who’s been retired for less than seven years can sign up for the reserves.
“We still need help on the streets,” the sheriff said.
Schuster said his budget is service-based, with 85 percent of it going toward salaries, so it’s all about saving pennies.
“I don’t have a lot of fat on the bone,” he said. “I really don’t. For example, I had a $10,000 training budget for less than 24 hours of training for 87 officers.”