When Stan Witt got his first job in law enforcement, he was too young to buy his own gun. That was in 1975, when Witt, a native of Imboden, was hired as a telecom operator for the Walnut Ridge Police Department.
He may not have needed a gun for that job, but he did a year later when he became a patrolman.
Thirty-eight years later Witt is in his first year as director of the Arkansas State Police — a dream come true for a career police officer. He was appointed to the post last Aug. 31 by Gov. Mike Beebe, also a Northeast Arkansas native, after Col. J.R. Howard retired.
After being offered the position, he went home and talked it over with his wife Tina, who told him he should take it. "You can make a difference," she said.
She just didn’t know how quickly he would make a difference.
The first person Col. Witt fired after taking the helm was his wife, he told members of the Kiwanis Club of Jonesboro in an appearance here this week. He was only half-joking. One of the first things he learned was that the State Police has a nepotism policy that prohibits a member of the director’s family from working for the agency. His wife, a records clerk, had to go.
"I went down there and told her, ‘Honey, you’ve got to resign, or I’m going to have to fire you,’" he told the Kiwanians. He said she has been understanding.
After all, Tina had advised him to take the job.
Witt was promoted to the top rank in the ASP only three days after being promoted to major, which might make one think his career path has been "meteoric."
Not so. He has been working his way toward the top since that first job in 1975, and he had spent more than 27 years with the State Police before becoming its eighth director.
Early in his career Witt spent four years with the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department, gaining valuable experience on patrol and in the criminal investigation division.
He left the Sheriff’s Office for a couple of years with the Jonesboro Police Department, then returned in 1983 as chief deputy after the incumbent sheriff, Gene Matthews, was killed in a shootout at Smithville with Posse Comitatus leader Gordon Kahl. The Quorum Court appointed Bob Tomlinson to replace Matthews, and he wanted Witt as his top assistant.
In 1984, the sheriff’s position was vacant, and Witt and nine others ran. At the age of 27 he was elected. But a year later he was offered a State Police commission. He had previously taken the test and never heard anything until then-Director Tommy Goodwin, also from Lawrence County, asked him why he had never gone to work for the State Police.
"State police has always been in my heart," he told reporter Tammy Curtis of Areawide Media last year. "That has been my ultimate goal my whole life, and it offers better benefits and retirement. So I resigned as sheriff and began with the Arkansas State Police on Oct. 18, 1985."
Witt was first assigned as a state trooper stationed in Sharp County and spent seven years there.
In 1992, he was transferred to Jonesboro to work as a criminal investigator. During his seven years there he was involved in the investigation of two high-profile cases. One was the 1998 shooting at Westside Middle School, for which he received a commendation. He also headed the investigation into the murder of three Boy Scouts at West Memphis.
After that, he was promoted to sergeant and transferred to Harrison, then the Little Rock headquarters of ASP, where he earned several more promotions.
While Witt has never been unsure of what he wanted to do, one of his biggest problems now is finding other people with the same ability and determination.
"One of the most challenging issues is how to grow our personnel," he told the Kiwanians, pointing out that from the time a new recruit is hired, it takes 36 weeks to get him or her ready to operate in the field.
The agency is authorized for between 550 and 570 troopers but has found it difficult to maintain its numbers in recent years. Witt said the number is at 532 now. "We had 18 retirements last year," he said. "That was 530 years of experience that walked out the door." Nineteen more will retire next year.
Almost every year ASP conducts a troop school to prepare new recruits, but good prospects are hard to find, Witt said.
"We are a paramilitary operation, and troop school is run much like a military boot camp," he said. "We lose a lot of them in the first two weeks. Most are not physically prepared for what they have to go through."
Yet every hire is a big investment for Arkansas. It costs about $101,000 to hire, train and equip each trooper, Witt said.
"Not everyone is willing to do this job, and not everyone is cut out to do it," he said. "We must keep our standards high. Our state expects and demands that."
That’s what Witt intends to do in his tenure as director.
The author is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.