The Fayette Citizen-News Page
Wednesday, August 26, 1998
Fayetteville's finest striving for perfection

Staff Writer

Police officers in Georgia are required to have 20 hours of training each year to maintain their arrest powers.

In Fayetteville, officers chuckle at such a standard. "I don't believe you can do your job on 20 hours a year of training," Sgt. Robert Stavenger tells this reporter during a recent ride with officers.

Constantly improving one's level of training is part of the pride and team spirit that the city's officers seem to wear like part of their uniforms. And it has paid off. The department recently became the 24th in the state to achieve accreditation by the Georgia Police Accreditation Commission, and it received statewide recognition as the best-trained unit, logging 174.8 hours of training per officer last year.

"The city requires 60 hours," said Cpl. Scott Pitts, field training officer for the evening watch, adding that the minimum requirement is just a starting point.

Pitts has worked in the city for a little over two years, and said he received more training here last year 313 hours than in almost four years in two other police departments.

The key, Pitts and Stavenger agree, is Police Chief Johnny Roberts' emphasis on training. "The chief is behind us 100 percent on it," said Stavenger. "I don't think I've ever had him say no to training issues," he added.

This is the second year since Roberts took over the department in 1992 that Fayetteville's officers have won the statewide training award. And in the other years, the department has missed by fractions of an hour, said Roberts.

"When I came here," Roberts said, "the people were very capable and did a good job, but you have to make changes. The world is changing."

Police work is getting more technical, laws are constantly changing, and if officers want to be on top of the game, they must train, he said. And a well-oiled police department needs to continually update its management principles and procedures, he added.

"The better trained and more experienced police officer you can put out there, the less liability will be on the city and the department," said Roberts. "By the same token, one of the major areas where there are attacks on police departments and liability issues is when the officers are not properly trained for the tasks they are required to do."

Fayetteville has 38 sworn officers, including two captains Steve Ledbetter and Harold Simmons and six watch commanders who hold the rank of lieutenant.

The department's task is to police a city of 10,000, but don't be deceived by the population figure. City officials say the daytime population of people working in, shopping in and driving through town is closer to 25,000. "We have to serve those people too," said Roberts, adding that those driving through provide tmost of the department's work load.

There's so much traffic, said Capt. Harold Simmons, that serious injuries and deaths are actually down. There are more accidents, but fewer deaths. "They just can't get up enough speed in all the traffic," he said.

In his patrol car, Cpl. Pitts hands the reporter an inch-thick book on field sobriety testing. Officers use field tests to determine whether there is probable cause to arrest drinking drivers and have their blood tested to determine whether they are driving under the influence, defined by a blood alcohol level of .1 percent or higher.

"That's what we'll be going over tonight," he said. At the end of their shift, the evening watch will get a short refresher in the procedures. Pitts rattles off the walking test, the one-leg stand and others, explaining a point system for failures and what it means. "Eighty percent are point one or more if they get four points on this particular test," he says.

He knows the book cold. The department is slowly sending every officer through the Georgia Public Safety Training Center's course on sobriety testing. But even when they've all been through the course, such refreshers will be part of their in-service training.

Traffic is not the only area of training. Officers are trained in report procedures, handling of evidence, handling domestic violence, use of deadly force, supervision, management, "verbal judo," emergency operations, crime scene processing... the list is endless.

Police officers also are the city's front line when it comes to public relations. How they deal with the public is a large part of the city's image. Roberts said the department randomly surveys people who have had dealings with the police, filling out a questionnaire.

"It gives us feedback as to how the citizens think we're doing, and if there's anything negative it's addressed," said Roberts. "Ninety-nine percent of the comments are outstanding," he added.

Officers rarely draw their weapons, but they have to be ready in case that's needed. Each officer re-qualifies at least twice a year in target shooting, said Pitts, including a thorough test that involves shooting under a variety of conditions standing, sitting, through a window, prone...

Capt. Steve Ledbetter, who is in charge of training and accreditation overall, demonstrated the department's "Shoot, don't shoot" computer program. Officers are given dozens of scenarios and must decide whether it's appropriate in each case to use deadly force. Any wrong answers are thoroughly discussed, and too many wrong answers can bring additional training.

But Fayetteville's officers aren't just trying to maintain levels of proficiency. Most, Pitts said, are working to increase their skill levels and qualify for promotions and higher pay scales within their ranks. "Patrolmen are working on their master police officer rating," and so on, he said.

Sgt. Stavenger said his personal goal for this year is to "get my management classes out of the way," one of the requirements to make lieutenant. "To make lieutenant, you need 20 hours of college and you can get the management classes afterward, but my goal is to get them before," he added.

Such requirements for rank are not imposed by the state. In fact, there are no state standards of education or training for levels of rank. Fayetteville has written its own.

All of this training is not without a cost. Roberts estimated the department spends about $15,000 a year for travel to special seminars, though a variety of training is offered free (paid for by a percentage of fines and forfeitures). A hidden cost is the loss of personnel when on-duty officers are in training.

"You have to juggle people," he said. "It takes real good planning."

If the system works right, Roberts said, the city will have a highly professional department that improves safety for local residents and reduces liability for the city government. But, he told the City Council recently, if the rewards aren't commensurate with that professionalism, Fayetteville could be wasting all of that training as its officers move on to better paying jobs elsewhere.

The council responded with a new employee retention program that raises pay for some officers as much as 30 percent in their third year of employment, a year in which many tend to leave.

That does the trick for Pitts, he said. He'll be eligible for that big pay increase in about eight months, and additional training will help him increase his earnings still more.

"I've found a home here. I don't want to go anywhere," he said.

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