The top three leaders of Little Rock turned out to Ron Robinson Theater tonight for a wide-ranging discussion about Little Rock’s violent crime rate and what to do about it, with topics eventually including police recruiting and why the city has devoted police cameras and manpower to watch homeless people along the 1100 block of Markham, where a church that feeds the homeless a few times a month operates. On hand were LRPD Chief Kenton Buckner, Mayor Mark Stodola and City Manager Bruce Moore, with Democrat-Gazette columnist Rex Nelson serving as moderator.
The theater was about half full for the meeting, which lasted nearly an hour and thirty minutes. Buckner was the most animated of the three, starting the evening by telling the audience that Little Rock has too many things going on to have meetings with nothing to show for them. As he has since becoming Chief, Buckner talked at length about systemic problems like poverty, substance abuse, lack of access to educational opportunity, later apologizing to anyone who showed up for the meeting looking for a “sliced bread” solution to the city’s crime issues. All possible solutions, Buckner said, involved “heavy lifting.” He later asked the members of the audience to volunteer wherever they can help, particularly when it comes to mentoring children to help them have better outcomes.
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Mayor Mark Stodola echoed several of Buckner’s points. Of the city’s crime rate, he said that while he was “not here to be an apologist,” he denied that Little Rock is among the most violent cities in America. Citing his days as Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney, Stodola said that in 1993, over 27,000 violent crimes were committed in the city of Little Rock. That number, Stodola said, has been below 13,000 for several years now, though there has been a spike in the murder rate. One-third of current homicides in the city are due to domestic violence, Stodola said. One of the biggest issues faced by the police, Stodola said, is that witnesses aren’t talking to the police. Every unsolved homicide in the city, Stodola said, currently has at least a $10,000 reward attached for information leading to an arrest and conviction, but people aren’t coming forward.
Moore said that the uptick in crime has been “perplexing,” but said that he believes the homicide rate has spiked because “I truly believe these individuals don’t think about the consequences of their actions,” with access to handguns potentially turning every fender bender and fight into a shooting.
To change the city’s crime rate, Stodola said, will require city intervention, but also cultural change. “None of us up here are Superman,” Stodola said. “None of us can stop speeding bullets.”
After about 30 minutes of Stodola, Buckner and Moore fielding questions from Nelson, someone in the audience spoke up and asked whether the whole time would be “ya’ll talking to one another.”
“We’re here to ask questions,” another audience member said. Nelson replied that there would be time for audience questions later, and eventually there was. One very spirited exchange was between Buckner and local blogger Russ Racop, who cited documents he’d requested under the Freedom of Information Act before asking Buckner why the city had installed police cameras and dispatched officers to watch the 1100 block of Markham near a church that feeds the homeless. Racop said he’d viewed video from the camera installed across from the church, and said he’d seen more people loitering after coming out of the popular Does Eat Place than loitering homeless people.
In mid-August, a Freedom of Information Act request by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette found that the city had launched a concerted effort to crack down on the homeless in the 1100 block of Markham and other locations in Little Rock, with a memo from Buckner instructing officers to “cite when possible until this mess is cleaned up. If they have no legal reason to be there, run them off.”
In response to Racop’s questions, Buckner said “I don’t get to pick the things I respond to.” Little Rock is a city with a “tremendous amount of compassion,” Buckner said, citing the fact that his officers often drive past panhandlers soliciting donations at intersections. Buckner said that when citizens call the police for issues like public urination, defecation in public, prostitution and littering, the LRPD is bound to respond. Racop said that officers had investigated charges of prostitution, and found them to be unfounded. Buckner said that had they not responded, they couldn’t have investigated to see whether prostitution was happening there or not. Racop noted that hundreds of calls to police requesting officers in the 1100 block are instigated by a single woman who owns a business in the area, with Racop suggesting she must have some “juice” with the city or police department. “She has the same juice that every business owner in the city has,” Buckner said.