The Little Rock City Board voted 7-1 last night to purchase riot gear sufficient for virtually all of the Little Rock Police Department’s 550 officers. The measure needed eight votes for immediate adoption, so it will be 30 days before the purchases can be made.
The Times and others have raised questions before about the purchase and the message it might send about the need to militarize police to keep order in the community. Is Little Rock really that close to the breaking point? Is that because of insufficiently armed police or because of police too ready to use arms and other force? The city board apparently agrees with Police Chief Kenton Buckner that a fully armored force is only prudent.
Add to the dissenters Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, a prolific blogger (and also the presiding judge in a criminal case brought over a police officers’ questionable use of deadly force against a car break-in suspect.)_
He blogs today about the equipment purchase. He doesn’t approve. For openers:
In the latest exercise of cultural incompetence and pandering to the storm-trooper mentality involving police interactions with communities of color nationwide, city directors in Little Rock, Arkansas voted last night by a 7-1 margin to purchase riot gear for most of the 551 members of the Little Rock police force.
The vote to purchase the riot gear occurred despite pleas from members of the Little Rock black community who urged that directors study the issue further to determine whether riot gear is even needed in Little Rock. …
The Little Rock Police Department has what can charitably be called an “image problem” with communities of color.
Griffen recounts the case over which he presided that ended in two mistrials and finally the dropping of charges against Josh Hastings, who killed a black youth and, according to his superiors, lied about events that night. There was no riot, Griffen said.
Nor was there a riot when an elderly black man — son of two cops — was killed in his own apartment by two police officers acting as security guards in what was, at a minimum, a thoroughly mishandled bit of security work. There was no riot.
Griffen has a suggestion.
Little Rock’s Police Department, led by Chief Kenton Buckner, doesn’t need riot gear. It needs better cultural competence training, community relations, and better recruiting, screening, selection, and evaluation policies and practices. Little Rock needs an independent civilian review panel with authority to investigate and issue findings regarding allegations of abusive and excessive force by police officers.
Chief Buckner and Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore, both black men, could have been instrumental in advocating for those changes. They chose otherwise.
So a mid-sized Southern city with a long history of strained race relations generally (albeit masked by the traditional notions of Southern “cordiality”) and clear recent evidence of tension between its police officers and people of color will now spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on riot gear for the agency of city government with, arguably, the worse relationship with persons of color to make that agency more culturally competent, accountable, responsible, or competent in the use of force? Nonsense!
Amen. And he could have emphasized the force’s failure to weed out bad apples with long records of bad judgment and inordinate use of force against suspects. Black men are dead at the hands of the police under questionable circumstances. No police officer has been threatened in a riot. But the city thinks the first priority is riot gear?
Griffen’s usual critics will prefer to talk about his injudicious propensity to speak while working as an impartial judicial arbiter. It is not injudicious to suggest better recruiting, better training, more community policing and an independent review of use of force.
PS: Race IS an issue. Little Rock is a majority/minority city. Race underscores virtually every element of public endeavor, from schools to politics. Is the white ruling class more fearful on account of racial factors? It’s a fair question. It has jumped to the fore in an outcry about different views of the mass shootout by white bikers in Waco. Where’s the talk of thugs, rap music and the breakdown of the white bikers’ families? And look at how nicely the defendants were handled in Waco, versus the sometimes brutal treatment of mere curfew violators in other cities where protests arose over shooting of black people. And more here from AP on differences in Waco coverage.