POLK COUNTY — The Polk County Sheriff’s Office moved to 20 hours of patrol Sunday, increasing coverage hours ahead of schedule.
Sheriff Mark Garton said the unexpected outcome is the result of being able to hire five officers who were already certified to fill spots provided for with the voter-approved public safety levy.
Certified officers still have to go through field training before they can patrol solo, but don’t have to attend the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training 16-week program for new officers.
On Jan. 1, the office had enough deputies who had completed training to add another 10-hour shift.
Garton said the timeline often quoted during the levy campaign of 18 months to recruit and train a new deputy for duty was realistic.
“Those five certified deputies are really what changed that dynamic,” he said. “We didn’t expect to get that many. We expected maybe one or two. But five? That’s great. If we didn’t get those, we wouldn’t be talking about this now. We’ve been fortunate.”
Garton said restoring patrol hours has required planning — and finding the right people to do the job.
The hiring process itself can take months, and if a recruit passes written testing and interviews, but fails a background check, the process has to start over again with a new recruit, Garton said. Only after that is complete can a deputy begin training.
“We can’t minimize the training or rush through it,” Garton said. “We owe the citizen’s a high level of service and we can’t just settle.”
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“We must be diligent and thorough so that we can provide the best law enforcement services possible,” Garton said.
Agencies have one year to certify new recruits, meaning they can participate in field training before or after attending the police academy.
Garton said he likes to schedule training such that deputies have no or minimal time in between.
The challenge there is having enough training officers to work with new hires. That is another factor in the gradual rebuild.
“Training, the philosophy behind it, is if you get six months of training in a row, you are better in the end,” he said.
Last week, Friday’s patrol shift consisted of three training officers, three recruits and one solo deputy.
The briefing before the team took to the road consisted of a review of a difficult call the night before, a heads up on a potentially complicated warrant arrest, and a short training session led by one of the department’s recruits, Mike Stevenson.
Before being hired full-time, Stevenson had been a reserve deputy with the department.
Coincidently, the topic of Stevenson’s presentation was legal guidelines around “police officer holds” or taking someone into custody who is suffering from mental illness that may lead them to be a danger to themselves or others. Deputies faced a situation that could have fallen into that category the night before.
Discussion of that and similar calls often interrupted Stevenson’s session.
Sgt. Kevin Haynes said hashing out difficult situations is a good exercise for recruits. But he couldn’t help teasing Stevenson about allowing frequent distractions.
“A good instructor is able to field those questions and move on,” he said through a smile.
He left the deputies, experienced and new, with advice that could apply to any challenging situation facing officers in the field: “Taking control of something and making it safe is never an issue.”
Thomas Hutchinson, 26, was on his third day on the job Friday. He had been a reserve in the program in the past and recently completed his service with the U.S. Army.
He and his training officer responded to the dangerous call the night before. Even with that eye-opening experience, Hutchinson seemed happy about chance to be a Polk County deputy.
“It was good to see that whole aspect,” he said of the call. “It was like a refresher.
“I’ve always enjoyed it. I’ve been here since I was 17, and it seems like a good fit.”
With several recruits in field training and headed to the police academy later this year, the office is on track to restore full patrol hours and the Polk County Interagency Narcotics Team by June or July.
On the jail side, the county needed to hire 10 jail deputies to fill vacant positions and those restored by the levy. So far, six of those posts have been filled.
“The hiring and training have been going really well, and we have positive momentum, which is placing us ahead of what we originally planned prior to the levy,” Garton said.