LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The Little Rock Police Department is struggling with what the Fraternal Order of Police is calling a “crisis in patrol.” Officers, they say, are overworked and reaching burn out. PD command staff are working to resolve the issue, but they can’t say when that will come. In the meantime, taxpayers are forced to wait on the response they expect when they pick up the phone in an emergency.
This last Monday, we had shootings, a bank robbery and a homicide,” said Fraternal Order of Police President Tommy Hudson. “And you’re already short. You’re short on patrol. You’re short in the detective division. We do the best we can, but something’s gotta break.”
Hudson, saying the frustrations for officers are mounting as they attempt to pick up more calls and cover more shifts even as the number of officers in the department continues a decline.
More Than a Man Down
According to Little Rock Police Department, there are currently 528 sworn positions filled within the department, which is certified for 590 positions. But those 528 include recruits that are currently in training, who won’t graduate and be cleared to hit the streets with another officer until August. The FOP tells us that the department also counts about 15 employees who are currently on leave in that number.
“So, really, we have around 480 officers in the department who can work the streets right now,” Hudson said. “That means we’re over 100 short, and that’s not counting 911 call takers.”
According to Lt. Steve McClanahan, spokesperson for the department, there are 34 vacancies in the civilian division. That division includes dispatchers and call 911 call takers.
Patrol is one of the hardest hit by the shortfall. According to LRPD, 57 vacancies are currently sitting in patrol, with two of the three divisions across the city recording more than 20 openings.
“Do we have enough bodies to respond to the 911 calls?” we asked Hudson.
“We don’t,” he said. “We’ll answer to the call, but it is just a matter of how long will it take us to get there. In my 31-year career, I’ve never seen us in this position.”
Immediate Response: Fill Where We Can
This past weekend, a new transfer order went into effect for the department, dissolving the standing DWI and SWAT units. Those members have been reassigned to patrol to help shore up the difference.
“That gives us a net gain of 17 officers on patrol,” McClanahan said. “If there’s a situation that needs SWAT specialized skills, those officers are ready to respond. So, you might actually have officers spread across the city to provide that response.”
According to McClanahan, the decision to transfer those officers came after commanders realized that patrol staffing simply wasn’t adequate to cover 911 response functions.
“We decided with the current manpower in patrol – it’s just not sufficient,” he said. “We had to look at what made the most sense. We crunched the numbers. None of the decision made were made lightly.”
Commanders in the PD, according to McClanahan, have been weighing options for months to cover the shortfalls. They’ve hired a consultant to analyze recruiting practices to see if there are ways to get new hires on the streets more quickly, without compromising training and quality of officer selection.
“I can honestly say we know there’s a problem. we have solutions to fix it and we’re trying to fix it ,” he said. “We’re hoping the consultant’s report will be finished by the end of the year, and that it might offer some answers. The goal is to get back to full staff.”
So, what impact is the shortage having? For one example, Hudson and the FOP point to 911 calls and the time it takes to respond. As of May, the city-wide response time across the three divisions was a total of 17 minutes. That’s about 10.5 minutes for a unit to be dispatched, and another 7 minutes for the officer to arrive on scene. That’s up nearly 2 minutes from the same time last year, although in 2016 the department received 5,000 more calls during the time period.
“Life is in danger — you should be able to pick up the phone and expect a police officer is going to be there in a few minutes,” Hudson said. “You can’t expect that now. We’re going to come, you’ll just have to give us time. You may be having an emergency in downtown, but the officer available to respond is in West Little Rock. It’s going to take them time to get to you – especially depending on time of day and weather. “
A Hiring Bubble
According to McClanahan, the issue isn’t a problem of having approval for the money to hire new officers. It’s attracting them and keeping them.
“We’re not hiring at a fast enough rate to keep up with attrition,” he said. “You have retirements, terminations and people who just leave. Our new hires aren’t keeping pace. There was a time in the department where we let go of some spots and didn’t fill them. We got into a bit of a hole, and we’re working on ways to get ourselves out.”
The PD has been authorized to fill its vacancies, but interest in applying has decreased steadily over the past few years. It’s a problem, McClanahan and Hudson both noted, that metropolitan police departments are experiencing nationwide.
“When I got hired on in 1986, there were lines out the door on testing day to become a police officer,” Hudson said. “That’s not the case anymore. And I’m not sure why, whether it’s the negative things people see on social media or the hours they hear we have to work. We’re just not getting the applicants.”
“We’re not seeing the number of applicants that we have seen in the past,” McClanahan agreed. “I’m not sure why that is. I’m not sure if it’s a generational thing. I’m not sure if younger people are choosing other career fields. But we’re looking at ways to recruit a wider range of applicants.”
According to the FOP, retention of employees is another big issue. If the city aims to keep the officers it has, they said, then leaders at city hall have to get serious about salaries, raises and updated equipment.
“All officers know when they come into a department that they may have crappy days off; they may have to work strange hours; they may have to work a lot of hours,” Hudson said. “They know that. But then couple all that with cars with more than 200 thousand miles, with not being able to take time off you’ve earned because of manpower shortages. They’re working night and day doing the best they can with what they have.”
If the exodus continues, the people of Little Rock, Hudson said, may be forced to wait even longer for a response across town when the seconds can truly count.
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