HOT SPRINGS — Strategic planning has its benefits, the Civil Service Commission said as it commended the Hot Springs Police Department for articulating a plan to reduce crime over a five-year period.
Police Chief Chris Chapmond told the commission that the 2021-25 strategic plan and crime reduction strategy started paying dividends last year. The annual report the department released earlier this year documented the returns. Based on information from the department’s records management system, the report showed year-over-year decreases in aggravated assault (21%), homicide (53%), rape (36%) and robbery (13%).
“Based on our annual report in 2021, after a good 14 months of implementation and working through some of those strategies, we saw some of those violent crime numbers go down,” Chapmond told the commission. “[Assistant Police Chief Billy Hrvatin] and I are very proud of that. That’s really the first time in our career we’ve taken those kinds of steps to document and outline how we’re going to go forward, and we’ve held ourselves to that.”
Putting a plan on paper also helped distinguish the department’s application for a Community Oriented Policing Services grant. The U.S. Department of Justice granted the department’s application in full, awarding $625,000 that will pay 75% of five new officers’ salary and benefits for three years. The city is required to fully fund the positions for at least one year after the grant funding ends.
“We had a lot of support from our congressional delegation,” Chapmond said. “We also had a very strong strategy in place involving a crime reduction strategy. All of that was presented in the grant, and they took note of that.
“It was one of the most competitive grants in the country. We were fortunate to get it.”
Chapmond said partnerships with local, state and federal agencies also recommended the grant application. Since he took the department’s reins in the summer of 2020, more people arrested for violent crime offenses have been referred for federal prosecution, leading to prison commitments greater than the Arkansas Department of Corrections can mete out.
Federal inmates serve 85% of their sentences in the Bureau of Prisons before they are eligible for supervised release, whereas state inmates often serve a small fraction of their sentence. Chapmond told the Hot Springs Board of Directors in September the U.S. attorney’s office in Fort Smith convicted 17 suspects the police department arrested.
The five new federally funded officers have yet to be hired. They are part of the 12 openings in the 115 uniformed positions the city board budgeted for 2022.
Chapmond told the board last year the new hires will allow officers to be assigned to specialized roles. Two would be dedicated to patrolling the 365 units owned by Mountain View Heights LP, the partnership the Hot Springs Housing Authority formed in 2018 with The Bennett Group that converted all of the city’s public housing stock to privately owned, rent-controlled units under Section 8 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937.
Two officers would be added to the community action/enforcement team and one to the violent crime reduction team. The new, grant-funded officers will fill the vacancies. Chapmond said new officers start in the patrol division. A lack of recruits has made it difficult to backfill patrol officers promoted to new roles.
“Patrol is the backbone of your department,” Chapmond said. “You have to maintain those patrol numbers. Where you begin to see the lack of opportunity is moving officers into special assignments. You have to staff patrol before you staff anything else. Those are our call takers and first responders.”
An internal survey that helped inform the strategic plan identified staffing shortages as one of the department’s weaknesses. Last fall’s 30-day recruiting drive netted 10 applicants. Only two advanced to interviews with command staff, exhausting the list of eligible applicants.
The Civil Service Commission took action last week that allows the department to conduct written and physical exams when an eligibility list expires. The department is recruiting applicants for the May 21 testing session the commission approved. Chapmond noted new officers hired before the end of the year will receive a $5,000 signing bonus and $5,000 state stipend.
The Legislature approved the stipend earlier this month, giving a one-time $5,000 payment to full-time city and county certified law enforcement officers. Chapmond noted other legislation that increased state troopers’ starting salaries from $42,537 to $54,000. The starting salary for a Hot Springs police officer is $43,196.
“State police got a significant pay raise for starting troopers,” he told the commission. “We’re all fishing out of the same pond. It’s going to be tough for any municipality to compete with state police with their new starting salary.”