It is no secret that the Pulaski County Sheriff's office has struggled to retain deputies for years due to a lack of funding, comprehensive benefits and pay, and unfavorable working conditions. Those who remain say that the relationships built within the agency makes them want to stick it out.
Craig Junginger, senior manager for the Center for Public Safety Management, conducted a study over the last year and found this sense of "family" among officers.
The study revealed that one of the most pertinent needs in the sheriff's office is funding for 38 new positions. The agency has budgeted for 175 positions, bringing the total recommended by the center to 213.
Junginger led a spirited discussion with Quorum Court members last Tuesday, during which he presented the organization's findings.
The center performed an analysis of the agency's data from 2019, made site visits, formed focus group, and documented review and operational observations. In all, more than 120 recommendations from Junginger and the center were outlined in the 194-page report.
The main points of focus for the sheriff's office were:
The department's employees enjoy working for the agency because they feel "like family."
The department is struggling to retain trained sworn deputies.
Employees are feeling the weight of being understaffed.
Lack of up-and-down communication chain with the department.
Opportunities to utilize civilians in positions replacing sworn deputies.
Lack of necessary new technology to support line-level activity.
Junginger explained that the organizational structure could be improved by eliminating the rank of major between chief deputy and captain.
The sheriff's office is not currently an accredited law enforcement agency, so he also recommended seeking accreditation through the Arkansas Law Enforcement Association Program.
Accreditation would provide objective evidence of an agency's commitment to excellence in leadership, resource management and service delivery, the report stated.
Approximately 10 deputies are deployed every hour with an average of 3.65 events per day recorded in the agency's computer-aided draft system. However, the center found that much of a deputy's time is not being captured in CAD.
"The deputies are responsible for following up on calls, report writing, submitting cases to the county attorney and other responsibilities that are not logged into the CAD system," the report stated.
The center suggested that the ratio of patrol work for deputies be divided into 60% of time in the field on calls and 40% of time spent on investigative work.
FEEDBACK FROM THE SHERIFF
County Sheriff Eric Higgins said that he submitted a report to Quorum Court officials that indicated points he disagreed with or found to be inaccurate from the Center for Public Safety Management.
"In the report, for example, they include officers that are available for services when they identify how many people are out there," Higgins explained. "They're also including deputies who are on off-duty chaplains. So it was not capturing it. Their report's capturing people that are not part of our call for services that are actually out there."
The sheriff also mentioned that the center's report divided up sergeants and lieutenants to take calls and be available for backup when they should be doing supervisory work.
The need for a crime scene unit was presented in the study, which Higgins said he recognized as soon as he became sheriff, but the funding wasn't available for the training and deputies.
Higgins also pointed out that a step-increase system for deputy salaries would greatly improve employee retention.
"I pay the deputies starting out the max I can pay them," he said. "Therefore, deputies can leave and go to other agencies and make more money, get automatic increases after one, two years, three years, five years. The benefits are better than other agencies. We still don't allow any county employees to have health insurance for their spouse [and] that impacts them. And so as a body, I ask you to really look at the benefit package, really look at opportunities for step increases, because experience means something."
Higgins invited the Quorum Court members to tour the agency's facilities, ride along with a deputy for a day and talk to his detectives so they have a better understanding of what they do.
Phil Stowers, justice of the peace for District 13, said he visited with deputies during the last four years who decided to resign from the sheriff's office due to declining morale.
"It's not spousal benefits," he said. "It's not some of the other myriad of things, it is morale. That is what I have heard over and over and over ... and that's why they chose to leave the sheriff's office and go somewhere else to work. And so I hope that as we address all of these financial things and operational things, that we can figure out ways to address the [low] morale."
Higgins disagreed and asked Stowers to look at the center's study again to see where it mentioned that deputies spoke about feeling like family.
"You can talk to disgruntled people who leave an agency," he said. "I would suggest you also talk to people who are at the agency who enjoy their job. So make it balance."
Stowers agreed and recognized that many veteran deputies showed up that night in support of change.
The center's other main recommendations for the agency included:
Adopt procedures to accurately capture individual deputy work in the CAD system.
After six to 12 months, conduct another data analysis to determine a more accurate and precise workload for deputies.
Find a third-party vendor to develop an online reporting system.
Implement a comprehensive false alarm reduction program.
Engage with available school partners to invest in five additional deputies for the School Resource Program.
Add eight new patrol deputies with two per shift for service calls.
Assess ways to reduce response time to calls for service.
Hire two new detectives for the narcotics division.
Fill two vacant positions in the training unit and perform a cost analysis to determine if operating its own academy is fiscally prudent when other options are available.
A total remodel of the agency's training academy.
'WHERE SHOULD WE START?'
Curtis Keith, justice of the peace for District 8, asked Higgins and Justin Blagg, parliamentarian for the Quorum Court, where they thought they should start on the list of improvements.
Blagg reminded him that the sheriff had previously requested a dedicated sales tax for the agency and that it may be time to go to voters for a new source of revenue for the agency's updates.
Stowers asked the sheriff what his thoughts were on using the training unit in Camden rather than having an internal academy at the agency and inquired about how much the county spends on training.
Higgins told Stowers that his agency receives a budget approved by the Quorum Court that includes funding for training, but the agency does not have a line-item breakdown of what that portion is specifically used for yet.
"We requested from the state and received permission to conduct our own recruit school, similar to [how] Little Rock Police Department does theirs," he said. "The issue when you depend on the state and other agencies -- you may be able to send one or two to a training academy -- you cannot have nine, 10 or 15 in a school. So it is better for us, we can staff better when we can conduct our own training school."
Higgins also mentioned that other agencies come in to provide assistance in training.
"You won't find a state school or any other municipal agency that can train regarding judicial work, civil processing, that the sheriff's office does," he said. "It is in our best interest -- we are producing quality deputies -- it is the best interest of this community for us to have our own school. We're doing a quality job and we're addressing issues that other agencies, other training schools will not provide for our deputies."
The department is making moves to identify each expense of training in their overall budget, Higgins concluded.
Lillie McMullen, justice of the peace for District 5, asked about how deputies could be deployed faster to service calls.
Higgins said the agency has divided the county's six large districts -- three north of the river, and three south of the river -- into zones, each with assigned deputies to ensure better coverage and reduce response time.
"We've been evaluating and looking at the efficiency of our deployment of patrol," he added. "And that's where we come in when we need more deputies to be assigned to those areas."
The real issue is that deputies who respond to calls are going in alone without necessary backup due to the lack of staff, Higgins said.
Deputy Bruce Scott said that the sheriff's office facilities desperately need to be updated and that's where the Quorum Court should start when they consider more funding. He also noted that a cadet program could help recruit more staff.
Deputy Thomas Byers said equipment, training and facility needs are just as important as personnel needs at the sheriff's office.
"We are running around with vehicles that are extremely high mileage," he said. "That can be worrisome to the community because that's the car that's getting us to your emergency. Whether it be us responding to a medical [emergency] because you may have passed out and stopped breathing, or it could be a domestic situation. I feel like the sheriff's office does need the funding to achieve making the community a better place."
Byers said that many service calls are placed on hold due to other high-priority emergencies and that's why their dispatch time is longer for certain incidents.
"There are a lot of times that we're running into these calls with just ourselves and our nearest backup is 20 minutes away," he added. "I would [also] like to see the facility be something state-of-the-art that would house and keep our training up to date as well as promote a positive public image."