Chief says Fort Smith Police Department ‘refocuses’ effort in 2022 after pandemic, flood

A sign outside the Fort Smith Police Department is seen on Friday, May 13, 2022, in downtown Fort Smith. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

FORT SMITH -- After years marked by floods and the covid-19 pandemic, 2022 was time for rebuilding and renewal for the Police Department, according to Police Chief Danny Baker.

Baker said the department was able to refocus its efforts on several issues and gave examples as part of the department's annual report to city directors Tuesday.

Baker said the department received 144,789 calls in 2022, 64,098 of which were 911 emergency calls. He said these calls included 5,813 patrol requests, 6,773 animal control requests and 15,227 Fire Department requests.

Baker said the department was within five positions of being fully staffed in early 2020, and then George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police.

"Anti-police sentiment nationwide was at the highest that I've seen in my 25 years in this profession," Baker said. "The pressure, whether real or perceived, resulted in another mass exodus of police officers from our ranks. The creation of several other small police agencies within our city limits also contributed to the loss of officers from our department." The department was down 40 police officers, he added.

Baker said the department stepped up to the challenge and revamped its recruiting and hiring process, hiring 38 police officers in 2022 and reaching full staffing. He said the department is continuing to attract and retain officers, which he thinks is due in part to its intense focus on officer health and well-being.

"We've taken a number of intentional steps to ensure that we protect our most valuable investment and resource: our employees. Supervisors are trained and admonished to make sure officers and dispatchers who had been exposed to critical incidents receive timely, professional counseling and wellness opportunities," Baker said.

Baker said the department saw an over 10% decrease in serious crimes, which includes homicide, sexual assault, robbery, arson, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft. He said the department reduced the number of people incarcerated by over 50% and noted the number of foster care children in Sebastian County dropped by 38%.

"Aggravated assaults, sexual assaults and motor vehicle thefts continue to dominate our crime stats in 2022, but I think it's important to note that the vast majority of those assaults are domestic, familial or drug-related, they're not assaults by strangers," Baker said. "Vehicle thefts by and large result from owners leaving their vehicles unlocked with the keys either in the ignition or in the vehicle and most generally the suspects have been juveniles."

Baker said traffic incidents slightly decreased from 3,061 in 2021 to 2,928 in 2022. He said the criminal investigation division was assigned 2,727 cases and cleared 2,529 for a 92.74% clearance rate.

Baker said narcotics continues to be a significant concern for the department, and it is committed to combating drug-related offenses.

"We work very closely with state and federal partners to disrupt the international drug trade," Baker said. "The top three illegal drugs seized by the narcotics unit in 2022 were methamphetamine, fentanyl and marijuana. This is consistent with drug trends in our region of the nation."

Ward 4 Director George Catsavis recalled 10 to 15 years ago when the Police Department was short roughly 50 officers and had many vehicles out of order. He asked Baker why the department has come such a long way.

"For one, we live in a very supportive community," Baker said. "People love their Police Department. I think that a lot of internal changes that needed to happen. As a younger officer coming up through it, it certainly wasn't pleasant to experience some of the things that we went through, but if I've learned anything at this point in my life, nothing good comes from being comfortable, and out of discomfort there's always growth."