Background checks making filling out police ranks tough

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 17, 2009

Numbers are increasing, but it isn’t easy, said Vicksburg Police Chief Walter Armstrong who, like his predecessor, is trying to fill out the ranks of the department.

Criminal histories showing up in applicant background checks are one problem. Internal affairs background investigations, which follow a physical exam, are revealing crimes ranging from “excessive drug usage to burglary to theft to DUI arrests,” Armstrong said.

“The bottom line is their background. The decisions they are making during their teenage years and early adult years are keeping them from getting various jobs — certainly preventing them from getting jobs with the police department,” he said.

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Armstrong, a Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol veteran, was named chief in July to succeed Tommy Moffett, who had come to Vicksburg as chief from Biloxi eight years earlier. Both agree with a staffing study that shows 80 sworn officers as the appropriate complement for the city, but numbers have hovered around 70.

“We’re having a hard time getting those 10,” Armstrong said.

That leads to double shifts and overtime for the department, operating on a budget of nearly $7 million per year.

City officials have widened their “drawing pool” to find qualified applicants, Armstrong said, but have received applications from people who repeatedly commit severe crimes and have a history of drug abuse as recent as six months ago.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” he said. “It’s not only ours, other departments are experiencing this problem as well.”

Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace said his office has not gotten any applicants with histories of crime and that his challenge is compensation.

“I don’t feel we at the sheriff’s department have had the problem that other agencies are having,” he said. “The problem here is pay. College graduates can go to work for the state or outside of the state to make more money.”

In the county, a four-year degree is required to apply for a deputy position unless the applicant has worked in the Warren County Jail, had military service experience or worked for another law enforcement agency, Pace said.

“Personnel is a challenge throughout the country. It reflects a change in the times,” Pace said of the dwindling number of college graduates applying for law enforcement positions.

With 21 deputies in patrol, Warren County officials look to fill three vacant positions, he said. His department was awarded no increase in its new budget and there are no across-the-board raises for any county employees in the spending plan.

For nearly a decade, the Vicksburg force has been one of the better-paying in Mississippi — but still must compete with departments in larger cities and other states that pay more and frequently recruit here to fill their ranks.

Although an applicant needs only a high school diploma to apply for an entry-level patrolman position with VPD, Armstrong has made plans to recruit at colleges and universities.

In July, city officials began processing 38 applicants seeking entry-level patrol positions, Armstrong said. That number dropped to 16 when many failed either the department’s written or physical exam.

“After we finished interviewing some 16 people who advanced through the written tests, the background investigation and the PT test, we only came out of that with five applicants that we recommended to go to the police academy,” he said.

Only four remain of the five applicants who went to the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers Training Academy in Pearl on Monday, Armstrong said.

Along with VPD, the sheriff’s office requires recruits attend a 10-week program at the law enforcement training academy. Deputy recruits sometimes train at the Mississippi Delta Law Enforcement Academy in Moorhead in place of the academy in Pearl along with a 12-week Field Training course, Pace said.

With all categories of crimes going up in Vicksburg for the past few years, Armstrong said, VPD needs qualified officers with integrity.

“Our police officers are held to a higher standard. We have to be better than the people we are going to police,” he said.


By Tish Butts at