Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

TOP STORY >> Police are understaffed

Leader staff writer

Nationwide law-enforcement agencies are seeing shortages because of tough economic times, which has forced many cities and counties to delay hiring officers. Some layoffs have also occurred.

To help, the federal Justice Department has reauthorized the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) program in efforts to put 55,000 new officers on the streets as soon as possible.

There are shortages locally, too. Sherwood is down nine officers, Jacksonville is down three, Cabot is down two, while Lonoke County is even. The local shortages have nothing to do with the economy.

Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim made it very clear at last week’s council meeting that even though there are openings, all of the city’s police positions are fully funded.

Both Jacksonville Police Chief Gary Sipes and Sherwood Police Chief Kel Nicholson said the problem is with background checks.

“Most applicants do well on the civil service exam and the psychological evaluation, but are dropped because of something in their background check,” Sipes said. That something is usually a run-in with the law when the applicant was younger.

Sherwood has nine open spots on the police force, but seven of those are positions that the city council recently approved and budgeted for, bringing the total number of slots for certified officers to 83.

The chief adds that he is losing three more officers soon, and has another three deployed fighting the war on terrorism. “We may have 12 openings to fill by testing time,” Nicholson said. “But our prospects are good.”

The chief said the city has scheduled its police testing for next month and there are already 172 applicants. “We normally only get about 75,” Nicholson said. He thinks the poor economy is actually helping.

“People are looking for something stable and a career with good benefits. Many of these applicants, if the economy was good, wouldn’t be thinking about law enforcement,” he said.

Nicholson said even though his certified police force is down about 15 percent, the city has not cut down on patrols. “We’ve pulled officers from different areas in the department to make sure we have them on the streets,” he said.

Jacksonville has 75 positions funded and three openings. “We had two deployed,” said April Kiser, spokesperson for the department, “but both returned last month.”

Cabot has 36 funded positions for certified police officers and is currently trying to fill the two vacancies it has. The department has one officer deployed and two in the academy, set to graduate in a few weeks.

Even though Lonoke County has all 24 of its positions filled, it’s in a unique situation. “Based on the federal standard for the population of our county we are actually down 30 deputies,” said Chief Dean White of the sheriff’s department. “But we work with what we have.”

The chief said five years ago the county had a call load of about 10,000, and last year that number was up near 20,000.

“But during the same time period we only added one deputy,” White said.

“Last year we asked the quorum court to fund eight positions, but they only gave us two,” he added.

Under the COPS grant program, the federal government will pay salaries and benefits of new officers for the first three years, then the cities or counties would have to take over.

Both Sherwood and Jacksonville are looking into the program.

Jacksonville Alderman Gary Fletcher thinks it’s a great idea. “Let’s say the cost for an officer is $45,000 a year, that means we can budget $15,000 a year for the first three years and have that fourth year covered. That’s a good investment.”

Under the Omnibus Appropriation Act signed by President Barack Obama on March 10, the COPS funding includes $187 million to update law enforcement technology, $39.5 million for increased meth investigations and enforcement, $20 million for Indian nation law-enforcement agencies, $18 million to aid in child-sexual predator elimination, $16 million for the Secure Our Schools program and $4 million for community policing development.

This is in addition to the $1 billion appropriated for the COPS hiring-recovery program under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.