Police Chief Kenton Buckner and the Little Rock City Board talked for three hours this afternoon at a special meeting about violent crime and the role being played by gang activities.
Homicides, 20 so far this year, are ahead of last year, but still short of the numbers posted in some of the city’s most violent years during the Banging in the Rock gang heyday. But recent driveby shootings, including the fatal shooting of a non-combatant by a stray bullet, prompted today’s special meeting. The public was not allowed to speak, but will get a time for public comment before Tuesday’s city board meeting, beginning at 5 p.m.
Support the Arkansas Blog with a subscription
We can't resist without our readers!
I can’t make the livestream work currently, but it is being shown on cable channel 11 in Little Rock. It is also being shown on Facebook live, on the LRPD page.
Buckner’s opening remarks included a reference to the prevalence of crime in poor neighborhoods, particularly by young black males. He added that police couldn’t be viewed “solely” as the solution to crime in the city, important as the agency is. He also warned against harming a community with no-tolerance policing, that can produce “long-term scars” in communities by indiscriminately stopping people who’ve done no wrong. He also said 500 more police officers wouldn’t end crime in Little Rock.
Buckner spoke of violent crime teams and other police efforts, but said the “meat and potatoes” of crime in the city remains in the central portion of Little Rock, with a crime incident map heavily skewed to the older residential neighborhood south of Interstate 630 and east of Interstate 430, and particularly east of University Avenue.
Interesting figure: Shots-fired reports in the first four months of this year, almost 1000, or about 250 per month or better than eight per day. The number was up to 970 from 691 in the same period last year. Victims of terroristic acts jumped from 87 to 243 in the same time periods in 2016 and 2017. Shootings were up from 31 to 57. Homicides are up from 9 to 20. (Three homicides were police shootings of suspects.)
Buckner said the police don’t have an arrest problem. They are filling up the jail and prisons, he said. Broader strategies are necessary. He emphasized, too, a drop in the overall number of crime reports, from more than 20,000 to 17,000 or fewer. He said social media made it feel like “the sky is falling every day” with the immediacy of reporting. Still he acknowledged, “there are far too many neighborhoods living under deplorable conditions.”
He said he would like to step up narcotics enforcement, because it’s the money driver in crime.
The department is about 65 officers short of an authorized force of just under 600 (though 18 officers in training are counted as members of the force though not yet street ready). Buckner said the department is working hard to fill those slots, but won’t lower standards to do it. Hiring bad officers creates problems on the streets, he said. It’s a hard sell, even with some new financial incentives for recruits ($5,000 for those who complete training, for example).
Buckner said the department was aware of shortcomings in communications, slow response time, slow time in answering calls. There are 17 vacancies in a force of 65 jobs, he said. He said training classes are aimed at improving staffing and performance.
In the short run, Buckner said the police would devote an additional 10 officers daily to focusing on city “hot spots,” areas known for crime problems. This could mean transferring some officers from school duties. He said he hoped the city could qualify for federal grants to form a unit aimed at gun crimes.
In the works: Civilian employees to take phone reports so dispatchers won’t be delayed in answering calls by taking reports; a civilian unit to take traffic reports, rather than using sworn officers on fender benders; a better system of quickly pinpointing where gunshots were reported; a personnel study, and more analysis of crime that could identify other programs that would help crime-prone neighborhoods.
* City Director Gene Fortson wondered how police could improve its historic inability to recruit to meet the authorized force strength. Buckner said changes in recruiting have expanded the pool of potential trainees and incentives are being used to prevent dropouts from training or early departure from police jobs. He notes that retirees are guaranteed 3 percent pay raises while active officers are lucky to get a bit more than 1 percent in annual raises.
* City Director Kenneth Richardson asked, “Can we police our way out of this?” Said Buckner: “We cannot.” He said neighbors needed to get involved, too. The city has a gang problem and a drug problem, he said. But it’s not the same sort of territorial gang activity that existed some years ago. And there’s this: “I can’t tell you how many shootings we’ve had that started with some kind of beef on social media.” Richardson commended Buckner and City Manager Bruce Moore for recognizing broader roots of crime problems. Buckner said there was no shortage of programs aimed at putting youths on the right path. But the city has a critical shortage: “Parenting.”
Richardson asked why the people weren’t allowed to speak today. Mayor Mark Stodola said he thought it would be best to hear what the chief and others had to say today and then comment Tuesday, beginning at 5 p.m. At least one voice could be heard in the audience: “We’re here today, let us speak today.” The crowd overflowed the meeting room.
He pressed, too, about what made a crisis today when people have been complaining for months about crime in their neighborhood. Was it a specific incident, as the Stop Violence group contended earlier, a shooting north of I-630? Stodola dodged a specific answer but said he wanted the people to know the city wanted to do everything it could to keep people safe.
Richardson said it was “frustrating” not to show more deference to people in the audience who’ve experienced crime, but might not have a title in front of their name.
* City Director Doris Wright said people in her neighborhood in Ward 6 are frightened. (Her territory includes residential areas along John Barrow Road.) But she said she was still not clear what precisely would be done to get more police officers on the streets. She also suggested it might be time for “zero tolerance” policing. Buckner pushed back. He said many people in the audience thinks zero tolerance means “you’re about to start harassing black people.” He resisted the notion of stopping people for citations for, say, a taillight out and then make people pay fines they don’t have money to pay. Zero tolerance may sound good. “Let’s see what they say when we give them five tickets. Or this room is full of people telling me I’m racist. That’s exactly what will happen if you have zero tolerance.”
As for curfew: Buckner asked who he’s going to return a curfew breaker to — the person who let him out at 2 a.m.? “They sound good, but they don’t work.” He said there’s a difference between a “criminal” and a “knucklehead.” He doesn’t want to fill the criminal system with knuckleheads.
Wright says her neighborhood sees police driving through on 36th and Barrow, but it doesn’t see community policing. Call volume is so heavy it’s hard to do much more than respond to those calls. Officers are “engaged with too many things” to stop and talk with residents about general concerns.
Buckner said anyone listening to police radio traffic would understand the volume of business. Alas, the city has put the police radio traffic off limits to the public.
Pressed on a lack of arrest of known bad actors, Buckner complained of a resistance of people with knowledge of crimes to come forward and give statements to police.
* City Director Kathy Webb spoke of the Stop the Violence meeting earlier today and combating gun violence. She asked him about a gun buyback program. He said he was a 2nd Amendment supporter, an opponent of open carry and a proponent of tough enforcement of gun laws. But he said there is a “gun happy” sentiment, as evidenced by legislation expanding the places that guns can be taken. But as to the question? “Buybacks are feel good things, they don’t work,” he said. Criminal aren’t going to sell their guns, he said.
* City Director Lance Hines needed to address a perception, if not a reality, that crime was rampaging throughout all of the city. He suggested “five perp walks a day” to illustrate police are combating crime.
* City Director Joan Adcock objected to reduction in community policing. She said she and Director B.J. Wyrick believed it was beneficial. Wyrick later related how a “field interview” approach being used in the Southwest part of the city had produced a number of gun seizures. The chief said similar efforts were being made in other parts of town. Wyrick asked about patrol staffing — about 200 of an authorized force of 593. She couldn’t get a figure on patrol numbers when total crimes reports were substantially smaller several years ago. Bruce Moore later said there are 186 in patrol currently with a goal of 203 if the force is fully staffed.
* City Director Dean Kumpuris asked for a theory on the increase in violence and shootings. Many reasons, Buckner said. Relationships and disagreements, some from conditions that have persisted for years in Little Rock. He repeated a lack of cooperation from witnesses. And he said that people who’ve committed crimes without being arrested are prone to do it again. Kumpuris also set Buckner up for an answer to a question of where ex-cons live: “All of our bad apples come back to Little Rock. And so do many of our other cities’ bad apples.” Contacts formed in prison bring more here. What can be done about it? Well, nothing much, Buckner indicated.
And, if dysfunctional families and neighborhoods are the problem, what, specifically, can be done, Kumpuris asked.
Age-old question. No silver bullet yet found, to borrow an apt cliche.
But Buckner offered one: “Get behind Mr. [Mike] Poore and fix our school system.” Another vote for a Little Rock school tax with little regard for the damage the person controlling the school district, Johnny Key, is intent on continuing to do to the school district by producing a school system concentrated in population of poor kids from dysfunctional neighborhoods.
Stodola thanked the chief. He emphasized the need for community help to bring criminals to justice.
UPDATE: Monday morning, the mayor summarized the meeting in his weekly e-mail.