Northwest Arkansas police departments are beginning to see the national trend of declining applicants.
“Our big problem is recruitment and retaining officers,” said Keith Foster, Rogers Police spokesman. “The fact is there’s only a small portion of the population that wants to be cops right now. You have to really want to do this job.”
Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville and many of the smaller departments in the area have some vacancies, spokesmen said. Springdale had six last week. Staffing levels change daily. Bentonville returned to a full staff of 74 in late September, spokesman Gene Page said.
Northwest Arkansas departments are doing better than some metropolitan areas, such as Dallas, which may cut 500 officer positions from this year’s budget because of vacancies.
“We live in a bubble in Northwest Arkansas, and we know it,” Foster said.
Police departments across the country face manpower shortages because of low pay, baby-boomer retirements and recruitment troubles, according to Pew Charitable Trusts Research and Analysis.
Departments in Northwest Arkansas have averaged a 65 percent increase in officers since 2012 to keep up with the increasing number of calls they get from a growing population, according to data gathered from Washington and Benton county police departments.
Some of the smaller departments can’t keep up with the growth. Little Flock has had six full-time officers for more than five years while its call volume continues to increase. Calls almost doubled from 2013 to 2016, going from 742 to 1,230 calls for service.
“Last year was our highest call year ever for the Police Department. I would like to add at the very least one more full-time officer to our roster,” Chief Jesse Martinez said.
Police officials expressed concern that a variety of factors could burst the bubble, not the least of which is the number of qualified applicants.
“We’re not getting the choices that we used to,” Page said.
Rogers has had fewer applicants who meet basic qualifications, Foster said. A few years ago, it was common for 100 people at the written and physical tests. The latest had 30, of which 17 passed and only two or three were eligible for hire.
Applicants must be 21 years old.
Candidates must pass demanding physical and psychological tests, a rigorous background check and have a drug-free history. Officers say drug use is one of the most common disqualifiers in recent years.
Recruiters said their departments are unwilling to modify the criteria, even though the vast majority of applicants are rejected or drop out.
Many departments around the country require two years of college or military service. A high school diploma is sufficient when applying in Northwest Arkansas, although some departments offer salary incentives to those with higher education.
Bentonville and Rogers increase the pay for higher education attained up to a master’s degree. Those cities and Springdale also pay more for officers who are bilingual.
The annual average wage of police and sheriff patrol officers in Arkansas is in the range of $31,430 to $45,700, which aligns with many Southern states, but is on the lowest end nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data.
Sheriff’s offices tend to pay less nationally and locally than police departments, though the comparison isn’t exactly apples to apples as duties for a deputy can vary from a police officer’s.
Northwest Arkansas’ larger police departments pay officers $34,816 to $52,499 annually. They pay for all uniforms and equipment and offer health and dental insurance. Springdale has a take-home car program as part of its benefits package.
Public-sector employees in all jobs in right-to-work states, such as Arkansas, earn 14 percent less in wages than private-sector counterparts. Factoring in benefits, public-sector employees get a 10.4 percent wage gap when compared with private-sector counterparts, according to an analysis of 2010-2013 from the American Community Survey by the Economy Police Institute.
Police departments in the region face competition among themselves and from nearby metropolitan areas. The Tulsa, Okla., Police Department has 200 openings and recruits in southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas.
Larger departments offer higher wages and education incentive pay. A Tulsa police officer’s salary range is $49,207 to $52,807 and Dallas pays $49,207 to $75,656.
Better pay, holidays off and a speedier hiring process can entice candidates to consider the private sector, police officials said.
TESTING THE NEXT
The door to the Northwest Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy in Spring-dale shut at precisely 9 a.m. one recent morning. The determined dozen or so young men and women in workout gear focused on Lt. Jeff Taylor with the Springdale Police Department.
Do their best and don’t be a show-off, Taylor and other officers advised the applicants. Concentration quieted the room. Vertical jumps began. Officers joked and encouraged them to relieve the tension.
“You want to breathe,” one officer repeats during the one-minute pushups.
In a little more than an hour, they complete — or attempt to complete — a 16-inch vertical jump, 25 pushups, 29 situps, a 1.5-mile run in 16 minutes 28 seconds and a 300-meter sprint in 71 seconds.
Elizabeth Detter clocked in under time for the mile and sprint. She works at the Springdale City Jail and applied because she likes the way the Police Department is managed. She was one of two women who took the physical fitness test Sept. 12.
Word of mouth and individual recommendations seemed to be one of, if not the, biggest recruiting asset among the departments.
Springdale has six officer openings in a department of 208 employees, Taylor said. The department focuses on filling patrol slots and leaving specialty positions open and using civilians to fill out traffic reports. Many applicants said the written test and interview process made them more nervous than the physical fitness.
Kyeh Reh had one of the highest jumps and ran like a machine. He didn’t train much — soccer keeps him in shape — but he studied hard, worried because English isn’t his first language.
“I’m Burmese, and I just want to make a difference in our community. I’m excited,” Reh said.
Springdale had 95 people apply for the latest test. Of those, 45 showed up to take the physical fitness test, 36 passed it and 26 of them passed the written test, Taylor said.
The remaining candidates moved on to civil service interviews. Not every department in the area goes through this step, but most requirements are the same across the larger departments and all must follow state standards for physical and written exams. Twenty-one remain in the running, according to the civil service certified list posted on the department’s website.
Detter made the list, but Reh didn’t.
The academy is used by multiple departments for testing and training and is part of the state academy. The main training center is in Camden. The other regional training facility BRTC Law Enforcement Academy at the Black River Technical College Pocahontas campus.
Police hiring processes and training can take up to a year. Departments invest a lot of time and money before they see a return by putting another officer on the street, Page said.
Public opinion of police reached a recent low point when an unarmed teenager was shot in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. Negative association with the job attributed to a decline in applicants and even of those who stayed on the force, said Bill Johnson, spokesman for the National Association of Police Organizations. The cultural shift affected departments large and small across the country. No region was unaffected or notably less impacted, he said.
“It’s never been a high-paying job, but it had respect and prestige,” Johnson said. “Now, police officers are telling their own children to look for something else.”
Elected officials — from a city mayor to the highest positions of federal government — are not as supportive as they once were, Johnson said, because criticizing police gets votes now.
“There are certainly officers that shouldn’t be officers, just like there are teachers who shouldn’t be teachers and clergy who shouldn’t be clergy,” he said. “But most officers are average men and women trying to do a difficult job. It’s also pretty dangerous. God forbid if you have to use force on the job. You are going to be judged more harshly or suspiciously than you may once have.”
The number of applicants dropped as much as 90 percent in some cities across the United States in 2015, and many still struggle to fill positions, according to several national reports. However, Johnson said he thinks the country is a little past the low point of public opinion, at least for now.
“It really does run the gamut,” he said. “After Sept. 11, the country was extraordinarily supportive. By the same token, the amount of public criticism was unusually high and brutal after these shootings. It seems we are getting back to average among the public, but still critical with politicians.”
Community relations isn’t the only factor affecting police recruitment though, and it may not even be the main one, said Nelson Lim, a sociologist who analyzes recruitment, retention, diversity and other police personnel issues for the Rand Corp., a nonprofit national public policy think tank.
Rand research concluded the lower unemployment rate and increase of military recruitment are the main reasons for the lower number of law enforcement applicants.
And it will get worse, given current trends, Lim said.
“It’s extremely predictable,” he said. “Whenever the economy is good — the country is now at 4 percent — recruitment for police gets harder and harder.”
Lim said to improve those numbers the leadership needs to take an honest look at how the process works compared to what is required to do the job. They will throw away good candidates many times, he said, because of demanding physical tests, a zero-tolerance drug background policy or homegrown written exams instead of a standard test designed by experts.
“Unions and management will say, ‘he is just trying to tell us to lower our standards,’ but no. You can have your standards as high as your want if they are validated by the job,” Lim said. “Do you need to be able to jump over a 6-foot fence to be a good police officer?”
The larger departments in the region use standardized tests created by outside national companies, such as Standard and Associates and International Public Management Association.
Once a department has improved its internal screening, it can focus on things such as a better website and community outreach, Lim said.
It’s easier to think higher wages will solve the recruitment problem, but it’s a quick fix that can be difficult on a community and by itself probably won’t solve anything, he said.
”You guys are not the only ones experiencing this problem. It’s nationwide. It’s in the air. It’s just like the flu season,” he said. “If you sleep well and eat well you have good immune system. You may still get hit but hopefully you don’t suffer as much. Some police departments can understand better and have a better system to withstand it.
“But people want a quick pill.”
RELYING ON STRENGTHS
The larger departments have expanded their reach looking for applicants, including attending job fairs. Washington County recently started running video ads in movie theaters.
Springdale has been pushing to expand. Officers were on the University of Arkansas campus handing out application information even as applicants were taking their physical exam Sept. 12. Springdale is also working on a theater ad and has billboards. The agency is running ads on the Marshallese radio station KMRW.
Departments use social media to increase their presence with millennials. The average age of officers is getting younger, spokesmen for the departments said.
Fayetteville recruitment officer Bain Potter said most hires don’t have prior police experience and are in their early 20s.
Some officers trickle in from Little Rock, Fort Smith, larger cities in surrounding states and even Los Angeles, Page said.
Benton and Washington counties sheriffs’ offices and the larger cities have good reputations, said Christopher Shields, a University of Arkansas criminal justice professor. Shields works with a university program placing students in law enforcement internships. He said many enjoy the region and the officers who mentor them and decide to stay.
Recruitment starts earlier than college for some.
The Law and Public Safety Academy is a three-year program at Springdale High School teaching children about careers in law enforcement.
The cross-curricular academy integrates the subject areas of criminal justice with history and English and incorporates project-based learning activities to prepare students to enter the workforce and/ or college upon completion, according to the high school’s description.
Summer youth police academies in Northwest Arkansas also have sparked some attendees’ interest in law enforcement and led them to apply as adults, officers said. At the very least, these efforts strengthen relationships with school resource and other officers.
Cpl. John Foster is a resource officer and helps run the Fayetteville youth citizen academy. He said it creates positive interactions with law enforcement, and he can tell it works just by the dozens of students who greet him on the first day of fall classes.
“For many of these kids, they never get to interact with a police officer, at least in a positive way,” he said. “Recruitment is just an additional bonus.”
Requirements to become a police officer in Arkansas
• U.S. citizen by birth or through naturalization
• At least 21 years old
• High school graduate or GED
• Valid driver’s license
• Medical exam proving physical fitness in accordance with state standards for officers
• Psychological exam completed by an Arkansas licensed psychiatrist or psychologist
• State and national fingerprint criminal history check
• Background investigation to establish good moral character
• Personal interview with the hiring department
Source: Arkansas Commission on Law
Enforcement Standards & Training
Ashton Eley can be reached by email at [email protected] or Twitter @NWAAshton.