Fort Smith Embraces Police-Led Diversion

Sebastian County Prosecuting
Attorney Dan Shue and Police Chief Danny Baker alongside University
of Arkansas Fort Smith Police staff.
Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Shue and Police Chief Danny Baker alongside University of Arkansas Fort Smith Police staff.

These numbers have shifted downward significantly due to efforts and collaborations among police, social services, government agencies and the community. Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker and his department are increasingly using diversionary techniques to keep citizens out of jail and to help families solve their problems. The department’s vision includes this goal: “We will strive to improve the lives of everyone we encounter.”

Q

Rates of violent crimes and incarceration are soaring across parts of Arkansas and the United States. What’s happening in Fort Smith?

A

Baker: We saw an over 40 percent reduction in our incarceration rate by the Fort Smith Police Department from 2017 to 2021. It was significantly less than we’d seen in previous years while much of the rest of the state, the rest of the country, is seeing a phenomenal increase in violent crime – it’s literally at a crisis point in some places.

And, while we have seen small increases in certain types of crimes, there is no huge crime increase or violent crime increase in Fort Smith. In fact, we saw an overall 6 percent reduction in Group A crimes during 2021. (This group includes assaults, homicides, breaking and entry, fraud, kidnapping, vehicle theft and sex offenses.) I think that’s statistically significant and, hopefully, we can maintain it.

And that’s amid a hiring crisis. Our police department has been operating with a significant number of vacancies with police officers and dispatchers for several years now; ‘20 and ‘21 were the worst times that I’ve seen in regards to people getting out of the profession.

Myself and a lot of my peers, hopefully more every day, are starting to say, ‘Let’s think about doing policing differently.’ Some people have taken that to the extreme and said, ‘Let’s defund the police.’ Nobody expects that to happen. We’ve got to have police officers, folks who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect others and to be the guardians of the community. But we can think in terms of rebuilding faith services and using sobriety facilities and crisis intervention, things that we know work, because in every place they’re being done, we’re seeing results. Often the results come more quickly than anyone anticipated.

Q

How do you instill this vision for your officers?

A

Baker: Diversion and looking for alternatives to incarceration are only one small part of it. We encourage our officers, even though there’s less of them, to take as much time as they can in trying to solve someone’s problem the best way. And that is a huge departure from where we came from – when you have huge crime issues, you use traditional policing tactics and you arrest everyone you see, you stop everything you see.

We really encourage our officers to think through a problem and try to find an alternative to arrest whenever they can, and to be involved in the community. I think the officers are starting to see the results of their community policing efforts and are realizing that it’s more than a feel-good thing. It is actually a crime-fighting tool.

We really encourage our officers to think through a problem and try to find an alternative to arrest whenever they can, and to be involved in the community. I think the officers are starting to see the results of their community policing efforts and are realizing that it’s more than a feel-good thing. It is actually a crime-fighting tool.
Danny Baker, Fort Smith Police Chief
Q

How does community involvement become a crime-fighting tool?

A

Baker: We’ve had several violent, high-profile incidents in the last couple years that, because we had taken the time to build the trust in the communities where those incidents happened, people were willing to work with us. And so, when we have incidents, instead of being met with silence or opposition, or folks, you know, ‘I didn’t see anything,’ or, ‘I live in this neighborhood and if I tell you anything you’re not going to do anything to protect me,’ we’re beginning to have more cooperation from the public when we do have a violent crime or something that we need to get somebody in jail for.

If we have a high-crime, low-income apartment complex, and particularly one where we have difficulties with witnesses coming forward and giving us information, we send our crime prevention and community policing teams out there with a Tahoe full of sack lunches. They set up in the parking lot and give away food. And that’s it. Nobody’s asking questions, nobody’s running names, nobody’s checking warrants. And that came from our response to the pandemic in trying to address domestic abuse and child abuse that we were seeing during the quarantine times.

The officer’s job is to look for and create the opportunities to engage with the community in non-enforcement activities, non-enforcement contacts and roles. That is part of their performance evaluation.

Q

Is it challenging for officers to shift to this approach?

A

Baker: For the most part, it’s generational in thinking. Those of us who have been in the profession for a long time, it may be a little harder for us to see the difference. We require a lot more personal restraint and de-escalation.

Leadership has to be intentional and deliberate. We all have to be on the same sheet of music.

The younger officers are already looking for something different. This generation of those who want to be police officers, who are willing to be police officers, has a different expectation of what being a police officer is about than I did when I started 25 years ago.

The changes we’ve adopted in Fort Smith are attracting candidates. Candidates are telling us that is the reason they’re seeking out the department.

Q

You’ve been quoted as saying, ‘For a long time in law enforcement, we’ve had discretion but we haven’t had options for that discretion.’ What does this mean?

A

There are some things we have no discretion in, for instance domestic violence. We are required by law to make an arrest if we have probable cause that somebody has committed domestic violence on someone, and there are a couple of other areas that we have pretty clear guidance on what we do.

But in other areas, it’s baked into the law that the individual officer has the ability to determine what’s best and how to solve a problem. The answer doesn’t always have to be to arrest someone. In my experience, we’ve unfortunately had very limited options as to what else we could do other than arresting someone and putting them in jail to temporarily abate the problem.

And so we’ve been trying hard to develop options for the police officers on the street, to give them avenues for that discretion. We now have an arrest-diversion program that an officer can direct someone to. Or to the 100 Families initiative and other services that we now know exist. We’re moving toward sobering facilities in Arkansas. And our Crisis Intervention Team, they live and breathe in discretion because they are trying to find solutions for people’s problems without putting them in jail.

Q

How could diverting an arrest help the bigger societal picture?

A

At the end of the day, if you fix one individual and move them from crisis, addiction or untreated mental health, to a healthy, unaddicted, treated, functioning individual in our community, that one person is going to have a significant impact on everyone around them. The change is exponential, like a pebble in a pond. And that’s really what drew me to 100 Families, what impressed me so much about what they were trying to do.

Everyone can take a little bit of time to improve somebody else, and that’s actually part of our vision – using every encounter with another human being as an opportunity to improve lives. It takes everybody. The public, the businesses, the faith-based organizations can provide things in ways that we can’t. So we involve them in everything that we do.

IF YOU FIX ONE INDIVIDUAL AND MOVE THEM FROM CRISIS, ADDICTION OR UNTREATED MENTAL HEALTH, TO A HEALTHY, UNADDICTED, TREATED, FUNCTIONING INDIVIDUAL IN OUR COMMUNITY, THAT ONE PERSON IS GOING TO HAVE A SIGNIFICANT IMPACT ON EVERYONE AROUND THEM.
Chief Danny Baker
A

Baker: Arkansas still has work to do in mental health and the way it handles those who are in mental crisis. The criminal justice system would rather that you get people the help they need through the system. So police officers are pressured; you get them in jail, you get them in front of the criminal justice system and now the courts and prosecutors can handle getting them plugged in to the services that they really need. The problem is that a lot of times you are incarcerating people who are ill, who need some type of medical care, even if it’s mental help. That’s not a criminal justice issue.

So we fill our jails up with people who need help, and we get to the situation we’ve got now with jail overcrowding, prison overcrowding, families that are dysfunctional or nonexistent, kids in foster care.

What we’re doing is not fixing the problem, and we’ve been doing it a long time. What we do see, and what we intuitively should know, is that what will impact those problems are things like keeping families together and giving people the tools to equip them to be stronger individuals and families, to work through their problems and to connect to the services that they need to succeed. And beyond that, there has to be a desire to see the people in your community do better, not just, ‘Let’s just get them out of our community where we don’t have to deal with them.’ That’s not working.

Q

How do you advise other police departments that are looking to incorporate changes?

A

Baker: If I have a department of 163 police officers and each one spends just a few minutes out of their week serving the community, that is going to have a significant impact on people in a real way, and it’s going to have a significant impact on crime as well. It’s also going to impact officer safety.

If I can’t win folks over from any other angle, I will go to the officer safety angle. If you have a negative encounter with somebody and you don’t treat them right, if you disrespect them, chances are much higher that their next encounter with a police officer could be negative and possibly violent.

If, on the other hand, you take a little time and show respect and help them, and don’t immediately react in a negative way to any negativity they’re giving, the chance that their next encounter with a police officer will be negative or turn violent is going to be less. Just a few minutes that you took is going to improve the safety of your fellow police officers. You can’t argue with that one.

Don’t be afraid to try a different way. The less time we have to spend on people who are struggling with substance abuse and mental health because we’re getting them the help they need and fixing their problems, the more time we’re going to be able to spend on those really bad folks that we need to be spending our time on.

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

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