Near the front of a spacious room at the Little Rock Police Department’s training division, dozens of recruits on Friday sat at desks in neat rows and focused their eyes and ears on the presenter slowly walking in the center aisle.
The room, often used for physical training exercises and briefings on crime statistics, was being used as a classroom for one of the largest Little Rock police recruit classes in more than two decades, according to Lt. Rusty Rothwell, who works in the department’s Training Division.
“That’s very encouraging, especially because the number [of officers] we’re down,” he said, reflecting on the large class that, as of Friday, consisted of 39 police recruits.
The latest class started last week with 40 recruits and has since slipped to 39. Yet officials say the large class is a sign the department is moving forward on filling dozens of sworn officer vacancies within the agency.
Over the upcoming months, the department will run two concurrent recruit classes — the latest recruit class and a class that began in August and as of Friday had 25 recruits. Rothwell said this is the first time the department will train two classes that overlap by several months. In the past, he said, classes were only known to overlap by weeks.
The department, which is authorized for around 590 sworn positions, had 84 sworn officer vacancies as of Tuesday. Recruits are not counted as sworn officers because they are still in training. And after completing their training, the new officers spend 12 weeks with field training officers.
“I’m pleased with the progress that we’re making,” said Mayor Mark Stodola, who said he has pushed City Manager Bruce Moore and Police Chief Kenton Buckner to fill the agency’s vacancies.
The vacancies, he said, have hurt the agency’s community policing efforts, which help build trust between the department and the community.
“When you’re short on your staff, you’re just reacting to the calls,” he said.
The November recruit class is tied for the largest number of starting recruits in at least 24 years, according to department data. Since 1993, only two recruit classes have started with 40 people, and none have exceeded that mark, according to the data. The other 40-person class started in August 2013 and ended up graduating 32 recruits.
The department, Roth-well said, is also aiming to close the gap between when people apply and when they start their training. The process has been known to take around 10 to 11 months, he said, and the agency is trying to cut that time to six to seven months.
The November class is the first to include applicants brought in under the department’s revamped hiring procedure. Part of the recruit class was hired under the old system.
The city changed the process earlier this year after outside consultants conducted a review and recommended an overhaul of the department’s process. The report, written by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and a Virginia-based company, said Little Rock police had “severe staffing issues” and that the vacancies were being felt across the agency. According to the report, a review of data from the department and the city’s Human Resources Department indicated “a complicated and often inefficient hiring system.”
Since then, the department has made a number of changes to its hiring process. Sgt. Van Thomas, who works in the department’s Training Division, said the application process now has a point system that takes into account a variety of factors, including whether an applicant is bilingual or has served in the military.
Also, applicants who go through a structured interview process are no longer given pass or fail grades, a change officials say will help the agency retain a larger number of qualified applicants. The agency also tweaked the disqualification standards for becoming a Little Rock officer, including loosening some standards related to drug use, he said.
From mid-April through October, the Police Department opened applications under the new hiring process, Thomas said. The people who applied during that time period were eligible to start either in the November recruit class or two other recruit classes starting next year, depending on when they applied.
Little Rock has also taken steps to shore up its police recruitment efforts. Specifically, officials have plans to attract applicants through a regional multimedia recruitment campaign expected to feature advertisements on social media.
As of Sept. 13, the department had dozens vacancies for police officers within its three patrol divisions, according to a personnel document. Earlier this year, the department announced that officers would work mandatory overtime in response to an uptick in violent crime. Officials have also said the agency plans to move from eight-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts to keep more officers on the street.
Rothwell said the extra manpower supplied by the November and August recruit classes will be appreciated by the current officers, mentioning that mandatory overtime can become a hardship.
“I know they’ll all welcome the relief,” he said.
John Gilchrist, president of the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police, said its officers are complying with the extra patrol but noted the overtime can be demanding.
“Some people are glad to do it, and other people do it because they’re being made to do it,” he said. When schedules are changed, so are the other factors in an officer’s life — family time, child care, off-duty jobs, he said.
Overall, he said, the vacancies have worn on the police force and the agency has done more with less for a long while.
And although the support from the recruit classes will not be felt until they have graduated and are on the street by themselves, Gilchrist said that relief for the department seems to be on the horizon.
Little Rock police recruit Joshua Myers is fitted for his bullet-resistant vest by Paul Viner (left), with Cruse Uniforms and Equipment, on Friday at the Little Rock Police Academy.
Print Headline: Recruits train to be LR police; 39-member class among capital city’s largest since ’93