Fort Smith Police chief touts lack of turnover, focus on community policing

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,045 views 

When Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker took over the Fort Smith Police Department in 2019, one of his top priorities was to bring stability to the department. The department ended the year with a 91.4% staffing level, seven officers higher than the previous two-year average.

Baker provided a department report to members of the Fort Smith Board of Directors during a study session Tuesday night (June 23).

“During my tenure in 2019, the department lost an average of 0.8 officers a month. This is down from a previous two year average of 1.6 officers a month. Not only were we able to reduce turnover by half, in May of 2019 the department hired 16 officers. This was the largest class of new-hires in the history of the department,” Baker said in his report.

During 2019, the FSPD hired 26 officers and nine civilians. Of the 26 officers, six were minorities or females, and of the nine civilians, seven were minorities or females. Baker said it was not up to a percentage that mirrors that of the city, but is progress in the right direction. FSPD has an authorized strength of 164 sworn officers and 52 civilian personnel. The Training Unit also held three Basic Police Academies during 2019, up from the normal two academies per year, the report said.

“We are investing in our future,” Baker said.

The department needed to get its numbers back up in areas that had suffered because of downsizing in the past, and in 2019 the department saw an increase in narcotics, K-9s and the criminal investigation department. Two new K-9 officers were purchased by the first of 2020; an intelligence unit to help address street crime and track more violent criminals was brought back; CID went from 17 detectives at the first of 2019 to 30; and narcotics was staffed, Baker said.

The department had 38 internal complaints and 40 citizen complaints in 2019, of which 24 of the internal complaints and eight of the citizen complaints were sustained. The department only had two bias complaints last year, a tie with 2014 as the lowest complaints in a year over a 10-year period.

“It is the policy of the Fort Smith Police Department that police services are delivered equitably, respectfully, and free of bias in a manner that promotes broad community engagement, trust, and confidence,” the report states.

Bias complaints can include bias because of race, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, religion, economic status, age, cultural group, or any other identifiable group.

The department also is being watched as a leader in the not using deadly force. FSPD was approached in early 2019 by Rutgers University wanting to conduct a study of the department concerning the lack of deadly force in dealing with those wielding edge weapons, Baker said, noting that most departments of FSPD’s size use more deadly force in those encounters than the department does.

“I could have summed it up for them. We value life, so we are going to do everything we can to not have to use deadly force,” Baker said. “With proper training …, it is possible outcomes like this, where you are not shooting people just because they have a knife or a sharp object.”

Even with all the strides the department made in the year, there were some not as positive moments. Fort Smith saw an increase in Group A offenses in 2019, which include homicide, kidnapping, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, arson, burglary, motor vehicle theft, shoplifting, theft from motor vehicle, and all other thefts. The majority of the increase was in thefts, burglary and shoplifting. Total of incidents in the theft/burglary/shoplifting areas was 5,221 in 2019 compared to 4,753 in 2018.

Baker said the department remains committed to transparency, community policing and guardians rather than warriors.

“Good community relations is a required part of every officer’s daily responsibilities at the FSPD. By doing so, we not only enrich our community but also our department,” Baker said, noting the department has instituted programs that specifically enhance its ability to interact with citizens in unique ways.

One of those has been redoubling efforts on social media. In 2019, the Fort Smith Police Department posted 727 times to Facebook, its primary social media channel. Those posts had a reach of 13.8 million with 20% engagement and over 520,000 unique users. FSPD CrimeStoppers posts routinely bring in 30,000-60,000 reach, with the highest being just north of 220,000.

“This wouldn’t be possible without an engaged community willing to partner with us and help bring offenders to justice. All told the department’s social media presence had an engagement of almost 14 million, making the Fort Smith Police Department not just a local but national entity,” the report said.