Fayetteville council approves signing bonuses for new police officers

Fayetteville Police Chief Mike Reynolds / Fayetteville Government Channel

Fayetteville will soon pay signing bonuses to new law enforcement officers.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a proposal from Fayetteville Police Chief Mike Reynolds to offer $10,000 sign-on awards for certified officers and $5,000 bonuses for non-certified officers.

The idea is to entice more people to apply and join the police department, which saw a 25% decrease in officer applicants in 2020 compared with the previous five-year average, and a 63% decrease this year.

“I’m just trying to think outside the box to try and attract qualified candidates,” said Reynolds.

Violence towards officers is one of several recruitment challenges the department faces, he said. The death of Fayetteville police officer Stephen Carr in 2019 and two other local officer deaths this year has led to morale issues within the department, Reynolds said, and has taken a psychological toll on the local workforce.

Reynolds said another problem is that crime is also up in town which has created more work for officers. For example, there were seven homicides in Fayetteville last year, Reynolds said, which ties an all-time high for the city.

Finally, an increased workload due to the COVID-10 pandemic hasn’t helped either, Reynolds said.

Thirteen officers have already left the department so far this year, he said.

“That’s roughly 10% of my workforce,” said Reynolds, who added that the department typically only loses about 10% of its officers in an entire year. “What’s even more concerning, though, is we lost 25% of our female workforce in that turnover.”

There are currently no other departments in Northwest Arkansas offering sign-on awards, but the Jacksonville Police Department and the Little Rock Police Department are currently using them as a recruitment tool, according to a staff memo.

“I just really believe that in order to keep the city safe and to keep up with the growing demand of police services, and to continue hiring and retaining professional officers, we must invest in our workforce,” said Reynolds.

The item was walked onto the agenda in order for the department to be able to utilize the new bonus program by the next hiring test period which has an upcoming application deadline in mid-August.

Retention is another challenge, Reynolds said, and he’s got some ideas for that as well.

“Four proposals that I’ve brought to the mayor are education pay, longevity pay, shift differential pay, and specialized assignment pay,” he said.

Specialized assignment pay could pertain to officers who are part of the crisis negotiation team, who are bilingual or who possess some other ancillary skills.

Those payment programs could come next year, Reynolds said, if the council agrees to add funding in the 2022 budget process.

During public comment at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, four people spoke in favor of the proposal.

One resident said he owns several local businesses and it’s hard enough right now to hire employees for himself. He said he can’t imagine how difficult it must be to hire law enforcement officers at this time.

Resident Sarah Moore said the council should take a step back and look at the problems which cause crime, such as food insecurity and the unaffordable housing. She said the proposed funds could be better used to help with those issues instead of hiring more police to respond and react to crimes.

Council Member Holly Hertzberg said she appreciates Moore’s concerns and would like to be a part of a discussion on how to handle some of those issues, but the hiring situation is its own problem that needs to be addressed now. Council members Gutierrez and Turk agreed.

Council Member Sloan Scroggin said he’s in support because he thinks the department needs even more officers on staff. He said he plans to soon bring forward a proposal for another trail patrol officer since he’s heard from residents who say they won’t use the trail system unless there’s more police presence.

Council Member Mark Kinion said the emotional trauma that Fayetteville’s officers have experienced is completely understandable given officer Carr’s murder two years ago. He said aside from the signing bonuses, he’s hopeful the new police headquarters that’s being built will also help with recruitment and retention.

Council Member Bunch said she would like to see a sobering center in Fayetteville some day and asked whether the new headquarters would include a facility like that. Chief Reynolds said while the new headquarters doesn’t have a sobering center in the plans, it does include a booking center so people who commit misdemeanor crimes don’t necessarily have to be incarcerated.

Council Member D’Andre Jones said Fayetteville’s officers have done a fine job at outreach to marginalized communities, and he believes the city’s police department is one of the most respected programs in the region. While there are several issues at play, Jones said if crime is increasing, this is a safety issue that needs to be directly addressed. Council Member Matthew Petty agreed, and said it’s clear there’s a hiring challenge. If the city is going to hire officers, Petty said it should place itself in a position to hire the best applicants possible.

Mayor Jordan said with seven open positions and several more on the horizon, the city is in danger of losing an entire police beat. He said there are a lot of issues that can contribute to crime, but the staffing issue is something that needs to be addressed immediately.

“This goes beyond politics,” he said. “It’s about keeping people safe.”

The awards will be paid in three installments.

Newly hired certified officers with previous experience will receive $2,000 after being hired, and then $4,000 after finishing a field training program. A final $4,000 payment will be made to a new officer after they complete an 18-month probationary period.

New non-certified officers will receive $1,000 after graduating from the state’s law enforcement training academy, then $2,000 after finishing a field training program, and then another $2,000 after completing an 18-month probationary period.

In order to receive the payments, the new officers must commit to remain with the department for at least three years.

Funding will come from unreserved general fund balance for fiscal year 2021. Future funding would be addressed with the city’s annual budgeting process.