XNA operates own police, fire units; struggles with turnover

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,783 views 

As public safety director, Gilbert Neil has led the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport police and fire departments since 2007.

Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA) in Highfill is like a small city. More than 1.4 million travelers visit annually, not including those who meet and greet them daily, and the personnel responsible for their safety work among them and behind the scenes.

Gilbert Neil, public safety director for XNA, has led the airport’s police and fire departments for more than 10 years. The police department is focused on community policing as officers engage with travelers and give more warnings instead of citations for traffic violations and incidents. The ratio of warnings to citations is 10 to one, he said.

“Public service is very important to us,” Neil said. “We’re taking care of the people here. And that may just be helping them from their car to the check-in counter. We’ll do anything and everything that people need.”

In 2017, the number of passengers that flew into or departed from the airport rose 3% to 1.439 million passengers, from 2016. Enplanements, or the number of passengers flying out, increased 3.66% to 725,284.

CEO Scott Van Laningham said Neil has done a good job of stressing the notion of community policing, and that the focus isn’t always on writing tickets. Travelers who are running late and speeding to reach the airport in time might receive a warning if pulled over by police. Or, police might help a returning passenger whose vehicle has a dead battery. And, if a flight were delayed because of bad weather, the police department offers cots for passengers who must remain overnight.

Van Laningham stressed the importance of arriving at the airport an hour before a flight, and with how tightly carriers pack flights, it’s not always a quick turnaround to get on another if one were to miss a flight. An issue is people parking their vehicles along the curb in front of the terminal. If the airport were to allow vehicles to park there, it would lead to more and more vehicles doing so, and soon, 10 vehicles would line the curb. Van Laningham said the airport makes public announcements notifying those in the terminal of the illegally parking vehicle before having to tow it.

Neil also has brought increased professionalism to the department, Van Laningham said. For example, the department ensures that its radar guns are certified annually. If an officer uses a radar gun that isn’t certified and writes someone a speeding ticket, the ticket could be challenged in court and the ticket thrown out because of the uncertified radar gun.

In 2007, Neil started as public safety director after a recruiter found and led him to the position. The Saratoga Springs, N.Y., native served in the U.S. Army for seven years and worked 28 years in Harrison as a firefighter and a police detective before accepting the XNA position. The public safety department comprises of 18 full-time police officers and firefighters and three full-time dispatchers. The department also includes seven part-time police officers and firefighters and three part-time dispatchers.

The department is fully staffed with firefighters but is looking to hire two police officers. Before XNA established a police department in 2000, it employed deputies from the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, airport director Kelly Johnson said. The airport was allowed to establish a police department after legislation was approved in 1999 allowing it to do so.

“We are professional, certified in Arkansas, firefighters and police officers,” Neil said. “A lot of people think we are security guards.”

Across the nation, agencies have struggled to retain officers, and the XNA police department is no exception. Recently, the public safety committee, which is comprised of members of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority, discussed the issue and solutions to recruit officers.

In 2017, the police department’s turnover rate was more than 50%. Five officers left, which was “highly unusual,” Johnson said.

One of the issues is younger officers want to be on the state retirement plan, and XNA offers its own retirement plan, Neil said in the committee meeting. Another issue is that people don’t want to be police officers anymore because of the “bad rap” they’ve been getting across the nation, Johnson said.

Neil said the same number of officers work at the police department as when he started in his position, and he expects the workload will rise as a result of the parking deck that is set to open in August. Public safety committee members considered whether to hire an additional full-time officer and use the overtime the police department would otherwise accumulate to pay for the position. The plan would be to hire a full-time officer as a floater to cover shifts, Johnson said.

In 2017, the amount the police department paid in overtime increased 23% to $37,000, and this doesn’t include the $29,000 spent on state troopers who also cover shifts.

The vacancies have led Neil to put on a uniform to cover shifts. On Presidents Day, Neil covered an officer’s shift starting at 3:30 a.m. and transitioned to his position as public safety director at 8 a.m. when an officer relieved him. He explained working an officer’s shift takes him away from his regular airport and Transportation Security Administration duties. As the airport security coordinator, Neil is the point of contact for the TSA.

Mike Johnson, an XNA board member, considered whether the airport could hire security officers to handle some duties the officers do. Neil said his concern is that he wouldn’t want someone who wasn’t a trained police officer to work as another officer’s backup. But, the security officer could be taught to complete inspections, which is a common duty of XNA’s officers. Officers must inspect all deliveries coming into the airport and staff going to the secure side of the airport, such as janitors who need to clean on the secure side of the airport.

In spring 2017, the public safety department started operating a 24-hour communication center to improve officer safety, and the airport hired two part-time dispatchers to handle the additional workload. Before, the communication center was closed nightly between 12:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m.

Between 2015 and 2017, the number of log entries the communication center entered increased 29.8% to 67,354 entries, or an average of 184 per day. Common log entries, which often don’t require police reports to be filed, include alarms and inspections. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of police reports filed declined 31.3% to 1,006 reports. Over the same period, traffic citations declined 95.6% to 43, warnings decreased 73.2% to 225, and parking violations fell 99.3% to six.

This summer, the department hopes to receive access to the Arkansas Crime Information Center to allow officers to check criminal backgrounds of those they might pull over in a traffic stop. Now, officers must contact the Benton County Sheriff’s Office 911 communications center to receive this information. The ability to check this information in-house would allow all officers to listen to the same information on their two-way radios and could lead officers to better understand the person the officer pulled over before arriving as backup.

With all the mass shootings across the United States, Neil said officers are always discussing and training for the potential active shooter threat. The airport recently completed training in the event of an active shooter, and also for responding to terrorism. Van Laningham said the airport has mutual aid agreements with other agencies in Northwest Arkansas, and sometimes they train together. Those are skills Neil and Van Laningham hope the airport never has to use.