New chief aims to bring professionalism to NPD

Published 12:02 am Sunday, July 23, 2017


The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — Walter Armstrong already has a number of goals on his agenda as the next Natchez Police Chief, but it all boils down to one word: professionalism.

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“We want our officers to look professional, to act professional, and more importantly to be a professional, because we are servants,” Armstrong said. “Our job is to serve and protect.”

Armstrong called himself a “stickler” in this regard; from the way officers wear their uniforms to the cleanliness of their vehicles, Armstrong wants law enforcement to make a good first impression with community members.

“Because a first impression speaks volumes,” he said.

“We’re going to work up the bar from where (our officers) are now to where they want to be or perhaps need to be … We’re going to start that from day one.”

As his primary short-term objective, engaging the community is not only necessary, but crucial, Armstrong said.

The new police chief said he put great effort to that cause throughout his days in Vicksburg, where he served as chief for eight years before being replaced on July 5.

Armstrong said his replacement was “100 percent (due to) political reasons.”

Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs had also attempted to replace Armstrong four years ago when Flaggs first entered office.

While the Vicksburg mayor did not receive the supporting votes to replace Armstrong in 2013, Flaggs did receive that support this time around.

Upon his exit, Armstrong said he feels confident his replacement had nothing to do with his actual performance.

“My understanding is that (Flaggs) said on numerous occasions I did a great job and represented the city in a positive way,” Armstrong said.

As VPD chief, Armstrong would interact with youth in the community by picking a different elementary school to visit every month, establishing a relationship with the students. That move paid dividends, Armstrong said.

“There would be times where I was off work and out of uniform … I had kids approach me and let me know ‘You’re the chief of police,’” Armstrong said.

“There was a time when kids were told ‘police are going to put you in jail.’ We want to end that stigma. We want kids to know if they are lost or they are in trouble, they can come to a law enforcement officer.”

Armstrong said he used the same tactic of monthly visits at the Vicksburg Senior Center, so that the city’s elders knew law enforcement “had their back.” Armstrong said he wants a similar relationship here in Natchez.

But connecting with the public is not a publicity stunt, rather an important step toward improving public well being, Armstrong said.

“My main thing is to improve public safety, but we’re going to be doing that by way of connecting with the public.”

Armstrong mentioned neighborhood watch meetings and the annual National Night Out program as important means of establishing a rapport with the community.

The emphasis on community engagement stems from a tense national climate regarding law enforcement. Armstrong said officers have been “under attack” throughout the last few years especially. He referenced fatal events such as what occurred in Dallas and Baton Rouge July 2016, when five Dallas police  and three Baton Rouge police officers were killed in a nine-day span.

Armstrong said he wants to ensure the safety of his officers. As one such measure he took in Vicksburg, Armstrong outfitted his department with brand-new equipment such as body cameras and tasers.

Coming to Natchez, Armstrong aims to make sure officers here are “properly compensated for their services,” both financially and regarding equipment. While he holds his officers to high standards, Armstrong said he wants NPD officers to be duly rewarded so they stick with the department.

“We’re going to be working closely with the mayor and board of aldermen and let them know things that can be done in Natchez that will help with recruitment and retention,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong called those two objectives — recruitment and retention — the “two biggest problems in law enforcement today.”

That statement applies to Natchez as well. The Natchez Police Department has battled issues with understaffing, operating with as little as at time this year 36 officers — that is 10 officers less than the 46 positions allotted to the department by the city.

Officers’ salaries — a much-discussed issue between the mayor and board of aldermen — are another component of the recruitment-retention problem. Grennell has described the salaries of many Natchez police officers as being just above the poverty level.

The city is currently awaiting the results of a study by the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University that explores these issues. Grennell said part of the study would compare compensation of Natchez police officers and firefighters with those of other cities of comparable size.

Another aspiration of Armstrong is to elevate the Natchez Police Department to state accreditation. Armstrong said currently 27 accredited police departments operate in Mississippi.

During his eight years in Vicksburg, Armstrong successfully helped the department become accredited, a feat that Grennell said stood out on Armstrong’s résumé.

“He was inspirational in making Vicksburg an accredited police force,” Grennell said.

“He has excellent leadership skills … That’s something that we need in Natchez.”

Along with ensuring that departments operate under a uniform set of professional standards, accreditation would potentially open the door for significant insurance discounts.

Armstrong said he hopes to one day achieve the same accomplishment in Natchez, though he said it would take time.

The former Vicksburg chief also said during his tenure his department boasted a 100-percent clearance rate with homicides — meaning the department solved every homicide case undertaken.  Armstrong said the national clearance rate is approximately 62 to 64 percent for homicides.

Aside from his ambitions for the police department, Armstrong also said he is simply excited to work in the city.

“I have always loved Natchez,” Armstrong said. “I used to come down to Natchez when I was a state trooper.”

Armstrong noted the similarities between Natchez and Vicksburg. Both are historic towns located on the river, are of similar size, and run along the route of U.S. 61.

“I am very impressed with the City of Natchez,” Armstrong said. “I just want to transform Natchez into being better than what it is.

“We feel like there is room for improvement.”

Grennell said Armstrong would assume the position as chief on Aug. 1. The appointment remains unofficial, however, until the board of aldermen hold an actual vote.

Grennell said that vote should take place at a special call meeting scheduled for 4 p.m. on July 31 in the Council Chambers building on Pearl Street across from the Natchez City Hall.