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SPD Captain Edmunson looks back on a quarter-century of changes, progress

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BY DALE ELLIS     07/07/2002
Managing Editor

In his 25 years of service with the Searcy Police Department, Captain Ken Edmunson has seen a lot of changes, both in equipment and procedures. Edmunson joined the police department July 5, 1977, as a 21-year-old rookie.

When he joined the eight-man department, he was one of six patrol officers, all of whom worked 12-hour shifts. By his own admission he was about as green as they came.

"I suspected that Arkansas had no minimum standards when they hired me," Edmunson joked about his early days with the department. "That was confirmed for me when they hired another rookie about a month later by the name of J.R. Thomas."

Both Edmunson and Thomas worked their way up through the ranks until each attained his present rank of patrol captain for Edmunson, and chief of police for Thomas. The two attended the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy (ALETA) together.

Officers worked a schedule of two days on and one day off, 12 hours each day, for a total of 60 hours per week. The starting pay was about $7,500 a year.

"It was about five cents above minimum wage," Edmunson said. "When we went to 40 hours, I remember there was some concern on the part of the city planners as to how much that would put us making an hour."

The department has grown over the years, and now has 38 patrol officers authorized by city ordinance, and grants for the drug task force and other grants have increased that number to 44 officers. Starting pay for a patrol officer is now $21,894 per year.

Equipment maintenance has taken on greater importance in the ensuing years, he said, and the mindset now is that it is less expensive to maintain the equipment than to repair it.

"Some of the cars used to have bald tires with the steel belts sticking out," Edmunson said. "I remember being told to stay around town, don't drive too fast, and don't get into a pursuit."

With all of the long hours, the low pay, and the questionable equipment that officers had to contend with in those days, Edmunson said that he never regretted joining the force, and that he joined for a very specific reason.

"Almost everyone will tell you they wanted to be a cop to help their community," he said. "I've said it myself. But the truth is, I was the victim of an armed robbery when I was younger. The feeling of security and importance an Arkansas state trooper gave me made me feel like if I could inspire that same feeling in someone else, I would have done something worthwhile."

The robbery occurred in 1971 after a football game as Edmunson and a friend were walking home. According to the report, which he has saved, three black males approached the two and demanded money at knifepoint.

"Ever since that time, I've wanted to be a police officer," he said. "I know what it feels like to be a victim."

Edmunson said that over the years, the types of crimes committed by those who are arrested have not changed a great deal, but the frequency has.

"When you talk about types of crime you have to be careful how you phrase that," he said. "We have the same type of crime, but we have more of it now."

Drug arrests back in the late 1970s were mainly for marijuana and many alcohol-related arrests were made. Fights with officers attempting to make arrests were common, but Edmunson said many of the people arrested would fight all the way to the jail and then shake hands as they were put into a cell.

"Yeah," he said, "we would try to make an arrest and the fight would be on. We'd have to fight them into the car, all the way to jail, into the jail, and then they would just stop, stick out their hand and say, 'nothing personal,' and go to bed. That's just how it was back then."

The violence that most officers encountered, he said, was different from the type of violence that confronts police now. Methamphetamine, and the deadly violence that accompanies it, was unheard of back then. However, he said, the work has always been dangerous.

"I didn't feel as threatened then as the guys out there say they do now," he said. "But it was there. The potential was there. Is it more violent right now? I don't know. I've had three instances in my career that, when it was all over, I was surprised I hadn't shot anybody. Was it better then? I don't know. It was different in some ways, but better? I just don't know."

In 1977, Bald Knob had one officer on 24-hour call, and the state police and sheriff's department officers went home at night. Beebe later placed an officer on 24-hour call, and Searcy had 24-hour patrol.

"It was not uncommon to have one officer 10-8 (in service) in Bald Knob, one in Beebe, two in Searcy, and that was all the cops on the road in the whole county," Edmunson said.

Because the city of Searcy had the only Arkansas Crime Information Computer terminal in the county, it ran ACIC checks for three counties, and also dispatched for the sheriff's office and state police in the evenings.

Edmunson said the whole county, including all police and fire services, operated off of one radio frequency, which the city of Searcy had the license for.

"On Friday nights," he said, "you had to wait your turn to get on the radio. In some ways though, it was better, because everyone knew what was going on all over the county."

Edmunson worked patrol for two-and-a-half years, and was then promoted to shift sergeant in 1979. He held that position, in which he was responsible for the direct supervision of the patrol officers on his shift, until 1989, when the department's public information office was created.

"That's one of the things that J.R. did when he took over as chief," Edmunson said. "He created the public information office in order give people a contact point within the department to go to for information."

In 1992, Edmunson was promoted to lieutenant and put in charge of the patrol divison and communications. After attending the FBI National Academy in 1993, he went to the Criminal Investigation Division, swapping jobs for about a year with Kyle Osborn, the CID chief, and did a short stint with the drug task force.

"The issues you are faced with on each side are very different," Edmunson said. "CID handles mainly felonies and drug issues, and patrol deals in a large part with personnel and policy issues."

Three years ago, Edmunson was promoted to captain over the patrol division, in which capacity he now reports directly to Police Chief J.R. Thomas.

Thomas said that he has been impressed over the years by Edmunson's service to the department and the city, and has great regard for his abilities.

"We are fortunate to have someone of his character and experience on board here," Thomas told The Daily Citizen. "Our employees tap into that on a daily basis. He takes his responsibility for the patrol officers very seriously. He has a caring and compassionate attitude toward the people under his command."

Thomas said the 25 years the two have spent as co-workers have gone by quickly.

"It seems like yesterday we were at the academy together and didn't know anything," he said. "We were just glad to be cops."

Edmunson's CID counterpart, Captain Kyle Osborn, started with the department about three years after Edmunson. However, the two once met under very different circumstances.

"I'll tell you what will make you feel old," the 46-year-old Edmunson said with a laugh. "I wrote Kyle a ticket back before he was part of the department. It was for 63 miles-an-hour in a 35 mile-an-hour zone."

"The sad thing is," Osborn chimed in, "I was on my way into town to get some money to buy some property from my uncle. Ken stopped me, and then on the way back home, the McRae officer stopped me and I got another ticket for 63 in a 35."

One of the greatest challenges faced by the department, Edmunson said, is the retention of the most highly qualified officers. Of the many officers he has worked with over the years, he said that several have gone to the FBI, at least two are now with the California Highway Patrol, one is with the San Diego Police Department, and several are now with the Little Rock Police Department.

He said that one reason the department loses so many officers to other agencies is its reputation for high-quality training and the quality of its officers overall.

"It hurts when we lose officers," Edmunson said. "Not just the experience they take with them, but the institutional memory as well. But we have good officers and a good department. One reason is that we have such a good community. It has a good heart.

"We have the potential to have everything they have in Little Rock and Memphis, but our community makes the difference," he continued. "In those places, if there is a fight, the police don't get called until shots are fired. Here, we get called as soon as they square off. That's a community choice, a choice of the citizens as to what kind of community they want to live in."

In all of his years on the force, Edmunson's closest call had nothing to do with the hazards of police work. Last year, he separated a muscle in his bicep while helping the department chaplain install a fireplace insert. When he went to the doctor to get checked out, tests revealed that he had two major blockages in his heart arteries.

"The heart doctor said I would die this year if I didn't have it taken care of," he said. "I had two arteries blocked; one 85 percent and the other 90 percent. I had no symptoms at all."

Edmunson was scheduled for emergency surgery at White County Medical Center.

"If you're going to have heart surgery, that's the way to do it," he said, laughing. "They told me at six I had to have heart surgery, I threw a fit, they sedated me, and I woke up after it was over. I told the nurse that I had changed my mind and wanted to go home and she told me I was already in the recovery room and the surgery was finished."

After making a full recovery, Edmunson said he plans to continue on in the work that he has made his life. Thoughts of retirement have come to mind over the years, but he has never been able to bring himself to make that decison.

"It's hard to give up this place," he said. "It's hard to give up this community. I'll probably stay another five and then I'll have to go. I thought I would retire at 20 years, then at 25, but it's hard to make that decision."