The Owensboro Police Department’s leadership team is having to take on extra tasks because of vacancies in the command staff.
The department has been without a deputy chief since 2019. OPD’s support services division, which handles duties such as training, accreditation and public information, has been without a major leading the division since last year.
Police Chief Art Ealum said the agency has had to hold off on promoting people into command staff positions because the agency doesn’t want to take officers needed in the city off patrol.
“We try to make sure we have as many people as possible to respond to calls on the street,” Ealum said. “But, not filling the command staff (positions) puts a lot of pressure on the existing command staff.”
Ealum said in 2019 he had considered retiring, but opted to stay on to help develop OPD’s next command staff. Ealum said last week that the department’s command staff is stretched thin and is splitting up duties that would normally be handled by a major leading support services.
“We have been able to disseminate all of those tasks” normally handled by a major in support services, to assist the lieutenant currently in command of the division, Ealum said.
“It makes everyone work harder to accomplish the mission,” he said.
The lieutenant in support services, Tristan Russelburg, is project manager for the implementation of the new computer-aided system in the 911 dispatch center, which is one of the department’s major projects this year.
Law enforcement recruiting state and nationwide has been affected by public opinion about the profession in recent years. Calls of police reform followed national incidents, like the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the shooting to Breonna Taylor, who was shot in her home last year by Louisville police officers.
“The negativity case on law enforcement as a whole, I can’t think of any other (profession) that experiences it,” Ealum said.
“I’m sure it weighs on people’s minds” at the department, he said. “We had an officer resign his position who went to drive a school bus. The demands of the job are so great that people struggle with that.”
The department is working to build its numbers.
“We are constantly trying to recruit and hire people,” Ealum said. “We have slots reserved in the police academy in the hope we can fill those positions.
“I think officers on the street need to see we are very proactive” in working to fill positions.
Recruiting is a challenge.
“Some people apply, and they never show up” after being called for testing, Ealum said.
The department isn’t currently looking at promoting a major for support services, or a deputy chief, because the focus is on making sure the patrol divisions are covered, Ealum said.
If promotions meant someone was promoted out of patrol, “the community is going to miss out on officers,” and other patrol officers will have to work overtime to fill the gap, Ealum said. “We have to protect the physical and mental health of our officers. The backbone of the police department is patrol.”
Regarding leadership, Ealum said the agency has continued create opportunities for officers to gain skills. For example, Major J.D. Winker graduated from the FBI national law enforcement academy just prior to last year’s pandemic shutdowns, and Sgt. Courtney Yerington graduated from the Southern Police Institute’s administrative officer’s program in May.
“We are still being able to offer people opportunities in leadership,” Ealum said.
Officers in leadership roles also are moved to different posts, to gain a wide variety of experience, Ealum said.
“We try to move people around to where they can get experience with different assignments, (which) makes a more well-rounded officer,” he said. “But it’s difficult with limited numbers.”
Although the command staff is short-handed, Ealum said he believes the department has the right people in place.
“I’m confident everybody is where they need to be, in terms of performance,” Ealum said. “I don’t think leadership is about entitlement. It’s about performance and what you can do.
“There are sacrifices you make. Before anyone delves into this role, people have to understand these are not 8 to 5 jobs. I think we’ve got a core group that understands that.
“I’m proud to be here, working with some of the best talent in the state of Kentucky, if not the country. They want to be here for the right reasons ... .
“It’s an honor to work with those individuals and be a part of their development in the organization.”
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse