Chief Baker tells Fort Smith Board the department made many changes in response to pandemic

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 943 views 

The Fort Smith Police Department had to rethink its approaches to policing and implement changes quickly during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, but it was able to do so while upholding its commitment to serve the city with professionalism, Police Chief Danny Baker told the Fort Smith Board of Directors during his annual report Tuesday (May 25.)

“When the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Arkansas on March 11, 2020, the department had already implemented a three-phase plan designed to keep officers safe and on the job, so that services would not be interrupted,” Baker said, noting that on March 13, 2020, the COVID-19 Contingency/Operational Plan was adopted and the department entered into the COVID era. “Throughout the year the plan was revised and updated to reflect best practices, and one year later, the department is still operating under this guidance. “

Baker said the department established partnerships and worked in cooperation with the public and private sector to make sure officers had plenty of personal protective equipment and to promote wearing facemasks in efforts to help “flatten the curve.”

“As apprehension rose among the public about mandatory directives that were being issued across the nation and in Arkansas, the department was committed to gaining compliance without the need to engage in punitive measures. The result was widespread compliance within the community without sacrificing positive relationships,” Baker said.

Those relationships were tested with the murder of George Floyd and ensuing protests throughout the country. Fort Smith had over a half dozen protests over the summer with thousands of participants, he said. Fort Smith police worked with residents in those demonstrations, resulting in situations without a single act of violence or property damage, he said.

Dealing with events that left many unsure of the police and the world was only one thing FSPD accomplished in 2020. The department also implemented several new initiatives, including Crisis Intervention Unit, the first of its kind in the state designed to assist those persons that are experiencing some form of mental, medical or other crisis in hopes of decreasing incarcerations through intervention. That unit assisted with more than 60 legal referrals for mental crisis and aided in 31 diversions from prosecution. It also launched the Pre-Arrest Diversion Program, designed to give minor offenders the opportunity to avoid arrest and prosecution.

“Criminal incarceration was reduced by over 40% in 2020, saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lives were improved, service was rendered, and excellence was obtained,” Baker said.

Last year, the Crimes against Persons Unit, which investigates domestic cases and violent crimes including homicide, rape, robberies, aggravated robberies, aggravated assault and battery, was assigned 1,718 cases and cleared 1,613 for a clearance rate of 93.88%. The Crimes against Property was 1,760 cases and cleared 1,570 for a clearance rate of 89.2%.

Special Investigations handled 858 cases with 822 cleared with a clearance rate of 95.8%. And the Narcotic Unit made 195 drug-related arrests and drug seizures of 2,864 grams (6 pounds 5 ounces) of methamphetamine with an approximate street value of $115,000; 47 pounds 1.6 ounce of marijuana with a street value of approximately $165,500; 260 opioid pills with a street value of $5,200; 152 grams of heroin with a street value of approximately $25,840; and 89 grams of cocaine with a street value of approximately $9,790.

“I am proud to serve as the chief of police for the Fort Smith Police Department. The diverse group of women and men that make up this department continually renew my faith in the profession of policing and are among the best in their business,” Baker said.

Director George Catsavis applauded Baker and the department but said he would like to see the city do more to help the department in the near future, including adding a substation in the eastern part of the city and have a 1/8-cent sales tax dedicated to the department like what is dedicated to parks that would help ensure higher salaries, more positions and new equipment. FSPD has authorization for 164 sworn officers and 56 non-sworn personnel. Catsavis said the FBI standards say a city the size of Fort Smith should have 180-190 officers.

“I’d like to see that happen,” he said.

Baker noted that the department has 20 vacant positions.

“One of our biggest challenges is recruitment and retention,” Baker said.

Catsavis noted that higher salaries could probably help with that.

“(An) Officer should not have to work a second job when they’re off duty just to make ends meet. If they want to work one for extra money, that’s fine. But not just to cover the basics,” he said.