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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — Little Rock Police Department headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo. ( Gavin Lesnick)

The Little Rock Police Academy began a new cycle with an incoming recruit class preparing to start and recruiters beginning to advertise for the next class.

Department officials say the ongoing covid-19 pandemic and recent criticism of police have created challenges for the new cycle.

Class 97, which will start Aug. 17 and currently has 21 applicants, will be under many of the same restrictions as the previous class, according to Capt. Ty Tyrrell, who handles both recruitment and the academy.

"It's kind of a struggle for us," Tyrrell said. "Our desks are all separated by 6 feet, so when they're in class they're separated, but there's so much of what you have to teach a police officer to do that you can't have social distancing. And we still have to do it."

The academy started checking temperatures, monitoring symptoms, practicing social distancing when possible, and instituting a thorough cleaning regimen when the pandemic began during the now-newly graduated class.

In order to teach the class, according to Tyrrell, there must be some hands-on training.

"The example I like to use is it's impossible to teach somebody how to handcuff a suspect if you don't actually let them touch another person," Tyrrell said.

The academy encouraged recruits to follow social distancing measurements as strictly as possible, but that did not prevent an outbreak from occurring in the previous recruit class. According to Tyrrell, if a recruit contracts covid-19, an outbreak is an inevitability because of all the time spent in hands-on training.

"As soon as I get one recruit sick, I'm going to have more than one," Tyrrell said. "Because as much as we try to keep them apart, we just can't."

The academy will be tweaking the program to avoid situations where recruits could contract covid-19, according to Tyrrell, including changing their physical fitness class from the morning to the afternoon later in the fall so recruits can shower in their homes.

"When we first start the academy, we realize that the new applicants won't be climatized to the heat at all, so we'll probably continue PT in the morning," Tyrrell said. "But as soon as we get the weather to break, we'll probably change the schedule and do PT in the afternoon, so that they don't have to shower here."

In addition to the scheduling change, recruits will now be expected to continue wearing masks even while sitting at their tables.

The effect of the pandemic has not just been felt in the academy's classroom. Recruitment for Class 98 at department's academy has been severely hampered, according to Tyrrell.

"Our numbers for recruiting for Class 98, which is the current cycle we're recruiting for which will start in February, are very low," Tyrrell said. "Between the pandemic and all the issues that are going on in law enforcement right now, our recruiting numbers are significantly lower than normal."

This is not a localized issue, as recruiting for law enforcement is down across the country, often for the same two reasons, according to Tyrrell.

"A lot of the traditional stuff we went to, all the job fairs, colleges and all that, they just don't occur," Tyrrell said. "No one's having them anymore, so until that starts back up, our recruiting efforts are severely hampered."

Sgt. Dewana Phillips of the training division is more optimistic about the recruitment situation.

"I guess, because I'm the glass half-full person, I'm still thinking that there's still certainly time for applicants who are actually interested in becoming a police officer to still apply and test with us and begin the process," Phillips said.

Recent criticism of police has also affected the numbers across the country, according to Phillips.

"You know we've had a negative, too, with the George Floyd incident," Phillips said. "It doesn't just affect that area; it affects the whole country."

Between the two issues, according to Phillips, the recruitment office has only two main tools left to find potential applicants: the phones and social media.

"When I talk to other departments, they're in the same rut, for lack of a better word, that we're in," Phillips said. "If it's on social media or some of the phone contacts people have called with interest, that's the only way we can actually recruit right now."

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