They patrol cities and counties, armed with guns, handcuffs and the power to arrest. But FOX13 has learned some law enforcement officers in Arkansas may be patrolling the streets with no training whatsoever.
In Tennessee and Mississippi, an officer is not allowed on the streets by themselves without going through the police academy first. That's not the case in Arkansas. In fact, we found some hair dressers in Arkansas undergo stricter scrutiny than police officers. Now, at least one lawmaker is trying to change that.
According to Crittenden County Chief Deputy Tommy Martin, "The second night I ever put on a badge and gun I was riding in my own car." Martin had just turned 21 years old when the small Arkansas police department he was working for put him on the streets by himself, before he ever stepped foot inside the Police Academy.
"It's really nerve-wracking if you think about it," said Martin. "We're giving these people a badge and a gun and they're not properly trained."
According to Arkansas state law, officers do not have to be certified for up to a year after they're hired. The Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training says they can get an 8 month extension on top of that. So for almost 2 years, an officer can patrol the streets, by his or herself, and enforce the law without having any kind of training.
"Nothing against those professions whatsoever, but if you're going to do someone's hair or paint someone's fingernails you have to have a state license before you can do it," said Martin. "You don't have to have one to be a police officer."
Dianna Colclasure doesn't take offense at the comparison, although she was surprised. She's been cutting hair since 1981.
She said Arkansas hair dressers have to go through 2,000 hours of training and pass a state board exam before even picking up a pair of scissors.
"I have known a few people who are all of a sudden, they were looking for a job and became police officers," said Colclasure. "I wondered how that happened so quickly."
To be a police officer in Arkansas, an applicant must be 21 years old, a U.S. citizen, show a valid drivers license, have a high school diploma or GED, no felony record, and pass a psychological exam and a physical given by a doctor before being hired by a law enforcement agency.
FOX13's Jill Monier had the following exchange with Cheif Martin, first asking, "So someone like me could be put on the streets?"
"I could get a gun and a badge? I could arrest and write tickets? I don't have to be familiar with any Arkansas laws?"
"I don't have to have any training whatsoever?"
"No firearm training? I don't have to do a run or push-ups? And some departments would just let me on the streets on my own?"
The Crittenden County Sheriff's Office isn't letting this reporter on the streets, but the fact is they could. Other agencies put officers on the streets with no firearms training or knowledge of the law and let them loose to enforce law and order.
"We'd love to have stricter laws, we fight with standards all the time," said Martin. "We don't think it's safe to have uncertified people and non-trained people wearing a badge and gun driving a police car."
An average Crittenden County Sheriff's Deputy has 150 hours of training more than the state requires. But Chief Martin and Arkansas State Senator Jim Luker said officers in some small towns are playing the system, jumping from one department to the next.
"You look at these problematic departments, for the most part a lot of the same officers leave one department and go to another, and that's where we see the influx of problems," said Martin.
While in session at the Arkansas State Capitol, Senator Luker said he plans to meet with other lawmakers to address the issue.
"There's concern within the state police and governor's office with the situation, and everybody's interested in sitting down and talking it out to see what adjustments can be made to accommodate people's needs and yet avoid the position we're in now."
Senator Luker says the Arkansas certification law was enacted years ago after small departments complained they were paying for potential officers to train at the academy only to have them stolen away by other departments. But instead of solving problems, many say the law seems to have created bigger ones.
"Obviously it's a system that has holes in it and is letting people out on the street that probably shouldn't be," said Martin.
The Arkansas Committee on Law Enforcement Standards said there's no way to tell how many uncertified officers could be on the streets today.