Local law enforcement says social issues are contributing to candidate shortages

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In the mid-1990s, Texarkana Texas police candidates filled the Southwest Center gymnasium to take the civil service test. The whole room could compete for one or two positions.

These days there are more openings and only a handful of people who even want to take the test.

“This gym was full when I took my test,” said Wake Village Police Sgt. Todd Aultman. “We have two openings right now and we’re not getting any interest,” he said.

“Ten years ago we might have seen 50 or more people take the civil service test,” said Shawn Vaughn, spokesman for the Texarkana Police Department in Texas. “However, we only had 20 when we last tested a few months ago.”

Texarkana Arkansas Police Chief Kristi Bennett said when she took the civil service test in 2004, there were probably more than 80 people who also took the test.

TAPD just passed a civil service test. “Guess how many people took it?” Bennett asked. “Four.”

According to a study in late 2020, nearly nine out of ten police departments in the United States have experienced staffing issues.

The National Police Foundation reports that 86% of law enforcement nationwide is experiencing a shortage.

“It’s been a struggle for everyone,” Vaughn said. “While this period seems more pronounced than others I have seen before, there have always been ups and downs in police recruitment efforts. In my 35 year career, I have noticed that these trends tend to be cyclical and are influenced by many larger economic and social issues that are completely beyond our ability to do anything in policing.”

The written test is only the first step to becoming a police officer. Other steps in the hiring process include a physical assessment, thorough background investigation, psychological examination, medical examination, oral jury interview, and polygraph examination.

“Issues or concerns that come to light about an applicant’s suitability at any of these stages will result in disqualification. Only a small percentage of applicants make it into law enforcement employment,” Vaughn said.

The TTPD has 91 budgeted police officer positions, five of which are currently unfilled, one recruit at the basic academy and four completing a field training program.

“We would obviously prefer to see all positions filled, but that, quite honestly, rarely happens due to normal staff turnover. As these openings happen, we sometimes have to temporarily move post officers specialized (such as traffic enforcement or neighborhood area coordinator) to make sure we have enough officers to respond to calls for service,” Vaughn said.

One of the challenges in law enforcement is the time it takes to train new officers, Vaughn said.

In Texarkana, Texas, it takes almost a year after a person is hired before they qualify to work independently as a police officer. The basic police academy lasts just over six months, and the field training program provides each new officer with an additional four to five months of on-the-job training working daily with a senior officer.

“A few years ago we were able to start offering a side entry allowance (up to five years) to any experienced officer and a $3,000 sign-on bonus to any new officer who is already a certified peace officer in Texas. This allows us to significantly shorten the initial training period as the new officer would have already gone through the police academy. They could immediately enter the field training program and be able to work on their own in within a few months,” he said.

Texarkana, Arkansas has 82 police stations, 72 of which are staffed.

“It’s tough because it’s a 24/7 operation and we have to continue to provide city coverage even when we’re down,” Bennett said.

The scrutiny of police officers in recent years likely plays a role in people not wanting to get into policing, Bennett said.

“The difference is that we have tremendous support here from our city and our community,” she said.

Miller County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mark Lewis said the MCSO is no different when it comes to the lack of applicants.

“You see it on both sides of the house, deputies and corrections officers,” he said. “And we’re having trouble retaining officers.”

Shortages affect the budget due to money being spent on overtime pay for agents to fill shifts.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Lewis said.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson recently signed into law two bills that open the door to a more than $11,000 increase in the starting pay of state police troopers and a one-time allowance for several thousand local and state law enforcement officers.

Bennett and Lewis said the bills are a positive incentive.

“It’s good for recognition as well as allowance,” Lewis said.

Wake Village, Texas is a small department compared to the TTPD or TAPD, with only nine officer positions assigned. An empty position or two is deeply felt by the rest of the force, Aultman said.

Aultman said his department had openings but declined to disclose how many.

Police work has never been the most financially rewarding career. But most departments in the Texarkana area believe they are on par with many other cities when it comes to payment.

“I don’t think it’s the money,” Aultman said. “I think fewer people want to get into law enforcement.”

Aultman thinks there are several factors in the lack of candidates, including social ones. One of the main ones being the high profile cases of alleged police brutality in some cities.

It also refers to the tendency of the younger generation to want a better work-life balance than previous generations.

“Millennials just want different things,” he said.

Bowie County Sheriff Jeff Neal also believes national views on law enforcement have influenced younger generations.

“While our community has supported and continues to support its law enforcement personnel, I believe the negative national sentiment towards law enforcement has led our younger generations, who would have chosen a profession in law enforcement, to choose a different career path. We are also seeing certified peace officers leaving law enforcement altogether for civilian employment,” Neal said.

Vaughn said the bottom line is that there is now a lot of competition at all levels for government and business to try to attract the best candidates. However, TTPD is committed to providing public services and regional leadership that serve both our residents and visitors while providing a safe and welcoming community, he said.

“Despite the challenges of recruiting officers, we refuse to lower our department’s hiring standards simply to fill vacancies. Our success as a law enforcement agency depends on the ability to have the best people available working as police officers. We simply cannot afford as a community or department to compromise those standards,” he said.

Police work is consistent work, Bennett said. This is not a career where layoffs are a concern. But at the same time, people considering a career in law enforcement need to be in it for the right reasons.

“You have to have the right mindset. It’s a calling. Not just a paycheck,” Bennett said.

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