Fort Smith police chief touts crisis response efforts, budget savings

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 427 views 

During what many considered another trying year, the Fort Smith Police Department managed to accomplish many positives, included the addition of mental health support, Police Chief Danny Baker told the Fort Smith Board of Directors during his recent annual report.

Early in 2021, the department became the first agency in Arkansas with a co-response Crisis Intervention Unit.

“That is, we were able to obtain grant funding (a portion of the almost $200,000 in grants received for 2021) for a mental health professional to accompany our CIU-trained officers to ensure individuals experiencing a crisis have the support they need following critical incidents. Our officers’ commitment to de-escalation was demonstrated day-in and day-out with 1,235 hours of Crisis Intervention Training logged,” Baker said in his report on Tuesday (May 10).

FSPD is one of the only agencies in Arkansas that reports use of force data to the FBI, Baker said, noting that the co-response crisis intervention team has helped highlight the department’s commitment to reducing the need for force whenever possible.

“Actions like these, as well as implementation of text notifications in district and circuit court to reduce failures to appear, helped us continue to reduce incarceration rates in 2021 while still addressing crime trends. We were able to show that, yes, you can be stalwarts of community policing while being tough on crime,” Baker said.

There were 2,300 failure to appear warrants issued in 2021, Baker said. With the upcoming implementation of the text notification system, he said the department hopes to reduce that number by 25% in 2022, which he said will align with the department’s goals of reducing incarcerations for non-violent offenders.

The department also added a fleet coordinator position to efficiently maintain and maximize the useful life of fleet vehicles, resulting in a 40% reduction in vehicle maintenance costs, Baker said. He said the department also recently implemented FSPD’s first patrol take-home vehicle program, which will help with vehicle maintenance even more.

The FSPD Criminal Investigations Division (CID) assigned 5,036 cases in 2021 and cleared 4,521 for an average clearance rate of 89.77%, the report said. Overall, Fort Smith saw a 5.78% decrease in Group A offenses, which includes homicide, kidnapping, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, arson, burglary, motor vehicle theft, shoplifting, theft from motor vehicle and all other larceny, the report states.

There was an increase in three crime categories last year: murder/homicide, motor vehicle theft and theft from motor vehicle. Of the 11 homicides in 2021, two were determined to be self-defense, the report said.

“The overwhelming majority of our motor vehicle thefts continue to be a result of vehicles left running while unoccupied or leaving keys in the vehicle. With the increased adoption of keyless ignitions, thieves are able to easily steal vehicles when people leave their key fobs inside. Key fobs are easy to forget when placed in a cup holder or on a seat,” Baker said in the report.

The vehicle recovery rate for 2021 was 72.96%, higher than the national average. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 56.1% of all stolen motor vehicles were recovered in 2019.

“The rise in theft from motor vehicles is primarily from leaving vehicles unlocked or leaving valuables in plain sight. To address the specific rise in motor vehicle theft and theft from motor vehicles, the Crimes Against Property Unit was reorganized. Two detectives are now assigned as partners to investigate motor vehicle thefts and two detectives are now assigned as partners to investigate theft from motor vehicles. We conducted bait car operations in an attempt to catch people in the act of stealing a vehicle or entering it to steal property that was left in plain view. We also engaged in a public awareness campaign utilizing social media and press releases. The public awareness campaign encourages people to always remove keys from the ignition, lock doors and windows, and park in well-lit areas. The campaign also encourages people to remove valuables or make sure they are out of sight and not left on seats, dashboards, or on the floor,” Baker said in the report.

Like most law enforcement agencies in the country, FSPD is working to recruit, hire and retain officers, the report said, noting that in 2021, the department faced a shortage of 20-30 officers at any given time. To help combat this shortage, the department requested and was granted rule changes from the Civil Service Commission that enabled more frequent police testing and streamlined some of the processes involved.

The FSPD 2021 approved budget was $17.017 million, which was $846,059 lower than the 2020 approved budget. However, total spending for the year came in at $14.603 million with most of the savings coming from salary accruals in vacant positions. There was also a 43.58% three-year reduction in vehicle maintenance costs, Baker said.

“We are hopeful that renewal of the 1-cent sales tax by voters in 2022 will create a dedicated funding stream for the first time in the (FSPD) history. Should this occur, we have plans to aggressively raise salaries by 23.87% in an effort to attract, keep, and retain officers who have more options to choose from in our profession amid competing agencies both locally and nationwide. Starting in 2028, we also plan to add 25 positions over a five-year period to place us in line with national recommendations for a metropolitan area of our size,” Baker said.