Police group rejects hiring compromise proposed by Fort Smith police chief

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 1,358 views 

Fort Smith Police Chief Nathaniel Clark and the Fort Smith Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 39 (FOP) are at an impasse when it comes to finding a compromise on the issue of hiring external applicants for command-level positions within the city’s police department.

The department has used a “promote from within” philosophy when it comes to selecting candidates for management-level positions. This is a common — though not exclusive — practice within departments that utilize a Civil Service Commission. A major issue Fort Smith and its police chief face is that it employs only three African-Americans, seven Hispanics, and 18 “Asian or Other” officers out of the 143 sworn officers on staff. Ideally, a department’s makeup should mirror community demographics. Using the African-American population as an example, the demo makes up about 9% of the city’s population while the department makeup is just 2%, placing Fort Smith well behind.

Clark was hired in late 2016 by City Administrator Carl Geffken with a directive from the city’s Board of Directors to do something about it. Under the existing promotion policy, Clark could only position minority new-hires at the bottom of the employment hierarchy regardless of qualifications. He has argued this would effectively handcuff him from attracting highly qualified applicants while improving diversity within the department.  Essentially, Clark’s argument is that if a qualified African-American candidate wants to become a police officer, why choose Fort Smith and the struggle of relocation for an entry-level position he or she could land in their own backyard?

As Clark told Talk Business & Politics in a previous interview, “What I’ve found … is that we are recruiting around a certain perimeter. We’re not recruiting around the country, and that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to expand our base. We have an opportunity to grow and to enhance here, and we can do it. It’s going to happen.”

That was in January 2017. Six months later, Clark has faced major pushback from the FOP in spite of a compromise effort that would have excluded more than half of the positions for which he had initially asked. But in a rebuttal statement recently provided to Talk Business & Politics, FOP President Anthony Parkinson explained why his members do not view the proposal as a compromise.

Geffken explained the compromise to Talk Business & Politics like this: “According to the Chief, he has spoken with the FOP at least four times prior to the Civil Service Commission meeting on May 22 (during which the issue, dubbed the ‘Section 12’ amendment, died from lack of motions) about allowing external applicants and potential hires in the ranks of Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, and Major.” Geffken said there were a total of 30 positions discussed and before the compromise offer, Clark was asking for 20 Sergeants, 0 Lieutenants, 7 Captains, and 3 Majors. In the compromise, Clark switched it to 16 Sergeants, 7 Lieutenants, 4 Captains, and 3 Majors.

Nathaniel Clark, Fort Smith Chief of Police

“I’m mentioning this because at least twice during the conversations with the FOP prior to the May 22 Civil Service Commission meeting, the Chief said he offered to exclude the rank of Sergeant from being authorized to allow external applicants. That means the Chief offered to reduce the number of command level staff positions that are eligible for external applicants by 53.33%. This was rejected.”

Parkinson confirmed to Talk Business & Politics the compromise was offered in the form Geffken has described and voted down at the organization’s May 17 meeting. But Parkinson said the compromise was rejected because the FOP “has a different view when looking at the percentage of ‘command level staff positions’ we turned down.”

“While it is true that we rejected the Sergeant proposal, that proposal was not 53% of the command staff. It is 53% of all promotions, only because there are more Sergeants than any other promotional rank,” Parkinson said, adding the FOP views the 16 positions as “entry level positions or first line leader positions within our organizational rank structure.”

Parkinson continued: “We view that the newly created seven Lieutenant positions are mid-level management positions … that the four Captain positions are upper-level management positions or executive staff … that the three Major positions are command staff positions since they are division commanders. We interpreted the compromise as in return for us receiving 100% of the entry-level management positions, we potentially give up 100% of the mid-level management positions, 100% of the upper-level management or executive positions, and 100% of the command staff positions.”

Parkinson said members believe accepting the compromise could “potentially mean that an officer could work their entire career, 28-plus years, at the Fort Smith Police Department and never reach a position higher than a first line supervisor.”

“I knew the offer of keeping Sergeants internal would not be viewed as a compromise by the membership,” Parkinson said, noting that he asked about keeping Lieutenants internal as well since Clark was seeking approval from the Board of Directors to create seven new positions at the time. “I felt that keeping two supervisory positions as internal may be more acceptable to the members than only being offered one. However, Chief Clark felt that Lieutenants were executive staff and should be open to external applicants.”

Parkinson said members felt the proposal was “fundamentally unfair to those who already met the strict requirements of becoming a Fort Smith Police Officer through Civil Service testing and Civil Service interviews.”

Members, Parkinson said, believe it takes officers five years to become proficient with Arkansas law, city codes, departmental rules/regulations, and departmental policies and procedures to ensure they are prepared to be a Fort Smith Police Department Sergeant.

“Fort Smith Police Officers are grateful the community has allowed them to serve and in return for being allowed to serve they committed themselves 100% to the community. Members believe that allowing external applicants would significantly impact the recruitment of new officers, as well as retention of existing officers and supervisors who view the rule change as a potential reduction in promotional opportunities within the police department,” he said.

In Parkinson’s statement, he emphasized that opposition to Clark’s proposal is not opposition to his leadership. “Chief Clark and I have met several times after the May 22nd Civil Service meeting to focus on obtaining the necessary equipment, resources, vehicles, staffing, and pay the department desperately needs. Chief Clark provided one-on-one tours to the Board of Directors to show them the needs, not wants, of the police department. Due to many years of budgetary constraints the police department has not been properly funded which has severe consequences. We, the FOP, hope and pray that the Board of Directors will address the critical needs, not wants, of the police department and move on from the heated discussion of the Civil Service Commission and external applicants.”

The conflict between the city and the FOP has placed the Civil Service Commission (CSC) under scrutiny from the city’s Board of Directors, resulting in the recent Board-recommended recusal of chairman Chip Sexton, a Fort Smith attorney and law partner of Joey McCutchen. McCutchen has filed an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the city, and four of seven Directors felt Sexton’s participation as chair could be viewed as a conflict of interest.

McCutchen’s complaint alleges City Director André Good sent an e-mail to Geffken on May 23 to complain about the CSC decision against Clark’s request. Good noted that “progress will not happen as long as this closed system persists.” McCutchen asks in the complaint the court stop city officials from “conducting public business through a series of emails without providing the public with notice of the emails and giving the public the opportunity to provide input in the emails.”

In public comments following the May 22 meeting and the May 23 email, Good has argued the commission should be abolished if it refuses to allow Clark’s request.

Prior to the Board’s 4-3 vote recommending full recusal from the commission, Sexton had recused himself from all Section 12 matters, a fact he reiterated to Talk Business & Politics late last week when approached to discuss Clark’s compromise. “Before there was any attempt to remove me as the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission, I had already recused myself from any proceedings regarding Section 12,” Sexton said. “Because of my recusal, it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment about the matter at this time. Insofar as the Section 12 proposal is concerned, I am nothing more than a private citizen … as I will not be participating in any meetings about the matter.”

CSC commissioner Marty Shell told Talk Business & Politics he had not seen “an official request” brought before the CSC on a compromised section 12.

“I would like to see what changes have been made,” Shell said, adding the commission wants “to do what is right for the citizens of Fort Smith.”

“I try to stay neutral between the city and the FOP,” Shell added.