With nine new applicants set to be hired Aug. 12, the Fort Smith Police Department is on its way to having all officer positions filled. Thirty-six applicants passed the agility and written tests administered by the department May 16; nine of those made the hiring list and will be hired Aug. 12, said Interim Chief Danny Baker.
Police academy training, which is 13 weeks, will start Aug. 26.
Add those to the 18 new hires attending the police academy training to join the force, and two officers in field training with FSPD, and the department is close to fully staffed. Officers with no prior police experience require about 16 weeks of field training before they are allowed to patrol on their own. Field training for those with prior experience varies, Baker said.
“We need to make sure they know their way around Fort Smith, so they can respond to a call. And we make sure they know our polices. We provide them with a pretty extensive playbook,” he said.
Baker also said sometimes it is easier to train “brand new” officers on policies specific to Fort Smith because they are a blank slate who can be taught the “values we hold dear.” Potential applicants must be at least 21 years old with a high school diploma and no felony convictions.
“We have 29 in some phase of hiring coming on board soon,” Baker said. “We have 164 authorized position, not counting the chief’s job. This will put us at 159. … I can’t tell you the last time this department was fully staffed.”
Baker, an 18-year veteran of the FSPD, was named the interim chief following former Chief Nathaniel Clark’s resignation, which was effective April 8. A nationwide search is being conducted to fill the position.
The department has struggled for some time to fill a number of open positions, something Baker says is not unique to Fort Smith.
“Our profession, around the country is experiencing this problem. A lot of that has to do with negative attention in the last few years,” Baker said. “I asked why after so many years of not being able to get people to work for us, there has been such an increase in interest. The answer is perception. I hope they perceive us now as something they want to be a part of.”
Baker said he is encouraged by the number of qualified applicants wanting to join the force as well as the way the public seems to be responding to the department. He thinks a lot of the changed perception has to do with community policing policies started by Clark that have continued under Baker’s reign. Operation Inside-Out, an initiative to have more officers in heavy retail areas during the holidays started in 2017, led to an 18% decrease of property crime in the six targeted areas in 2018, Baker said. Operation Community First continues to have officers making non-enforcement contact with people in the community on a daily basis.
“The beauty of this is that the public gets to see us. It builds their perception of us as members of the community,” Baker said. “It also makes the officers see people in a positive light.”
Baker is so in favor of community policing that he hopes to see non-enforcement contact become a permanent part of performance evaluations for officers, he said.
“I think if we look at just the number of arrests as way of evaluating performance, we are missing something important. We need to reward positive non-enforcement if we want to change the mindset of officers,” he said.
The mind set of officers has to change to include more to policing than just enforcing laws, though laws still have to be enforced, Baker said. Police need to be able to intervene at the front end of a problem. That is why community policing benefits a police department, Baker said.
“We need to promote (community policing) to develop officers and a department that thinks with a new mindset. A modern 21 Century officer is someone people can respect and get behind. Then people want to be a part of that,” he said.
With department positions now being filled, FSPD can look at furthering recruitment outside the area, something they have not had the luxury of doing before now.
“When you are juggling to make sure all the shifts and everything is covered, you can’t really afford to send someone away to recruit. We can look at maybe doing that now,” Baker said.
The department unveiled a new recruitment video July 9 on Facebook that can be used at job fairs and recruitment events in the future.
“We’ll look at the feedback we get on it on social media. I think it can be a good tool,” Baker said. “I would love to get to the point where we had so many qualified applicants wanting to be a part of us, we had to turn people away.”