In a meeting Tuesday evening, the Little Rock Board of Directors denied an ordinance proposed last week by Ward 2 Director Ken Richardson that would have asked the Little Rock Police Department to create a formal, written policy de-emphasizing personal use marijuana arrests.
The ordinance failed by a 4 to 5 vote; at-large Director Dean Kumpuris was absent. Directors Lance Hines, Doris Wright, Gene Fortson, Joan Adcock, and Vice Mayor BJ Wyrick voted against it. Directors Kathy Webb, Capi Peck, Erma Hendrix and Richardson voted for it.
For Richardson, the failed vote was a familiar sight. He first introduced the ordinance last year, and it failed by a 6-2 vote after then-Chief Kenton Buckner opposed it.
Before the vote, blogger Russ Racop shared his support for the ordinance, saying that marijuana arrests often predominantly affect black communities “more than any other group.” Little Rock resident Kenny Grand also spoke in support of the ordinance, telling city leaders that he was arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana during a traffic stop and therefore lost his eligibility for Pell Grants, which he’d been using to help him pay for college, and was no longer able to attend school.
“It really disrupted my life,” Grand said.
Richardson began his remarks about his proposed ordinance by reading a letter of support from Sen. Joyce Elliott (D- Little Rock), who also supported the ordinance when Richardson brought it before the board last year.
“I don’t take my position lightly, but giving such offenses a low priority is valuable for concentrating on more serious law enforcement issues,” Richardson read from Elliott’s letter.
Richardson then reminded the board that since his ordinance was defeated last year, several cities have instituted similar policies de-prioritizing personal use marijuana offenses, including Jacksonville. He then said that marijuana arrests have a “disproportionate impact” on minorities, “especially poor minorities.”
“I think it contributes to a criminal justice system that supports misery merchants who capitalize on the misery of other people, who get jobs, who maintain jobs, only on the misery of other folks,” Richardson said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to expose that.”
The director then spoke about the central issue dividing himself and Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey on the creation of such a policy. Richardson said he’d been told by the chief that the LRPD already uses this “approach” to low-level marijuana offenses, but that the department would not issue a written policy instructing officers to do so.
“I need to know: what’s an approach vs. a policy?” Richardson asked. “I’ve heard this is an approach, but I haven’t seen anything in writing. So to me, if we don’t have anything in writing, and it’s an approach, then you can selectively enforce this. You can have an officer pull me over and arrest me, [then] pull Kathy [Webb] over and give her a citation. You can have an officer pull Erma [Hendrix] over, arrest her, and pull Capi [Peck] over and give her a citation. So it’s that kind of imbalance that we see … where you have an opportunity, where we don’t have any directives to guide our actions or the policies of our police department, where you can selectively enforce what you want to enforce … . And that’s the impetus, Chief, for me bringing this forward.”
Humphrey began his remarks by addressing comments made by Richardson, Racop and Grand about how de-emphasizing marijuana enforcement could help law enforcement use its resources to police and reduce more serious crimes.
“Right now, we’re sitting on a six percent decrease in violent crime, and a decrease in overall crime,” Humphrey said. “So apparently, we have been putting our resources somewhere else.”
Humphrey then said that it’s “not smart for a police chief to put in policy that we will make these the lowest level of enforcement priority.”
“Officers do have discretion,” Humphrey said. “You never want to take those discretions away from officers. However, you hope and pray as a police chief that the officers will follow the rules of the law.”
Humphrey also told city leaders that the “majority” of minor possessions of drugs result in citations, rather than arrests. He then explained that marijuana charges often come as a result of other offenses — for example, if someone is pulled over and an officer finds that there’s a warrant for their arrest, if marijuana is also found on the person during the traffic stop, they will also be charged with possession.
“The only thing I can say is that I have confidence that my officers use good discretion,” Humphrey said. “I’m not saying every officer is perfect. I’m not saying that there are not cases out there where there’s been disproportionate treatment. I’m not going to say that at all. And I totally understand what Director Richardson has said, but I truly believe we’re already doing this.”
Humphrey said his “biggest concern” with the ordinance was that if it passed, and the board required the department to create such a written policy, then citizens would take this to mean they have “carte blanche” — complete freedom — “to smoke marijuana.” He said this is “one of the reasons why, as police chief, you have to be very careful putting this type of language in a policy.”
“This is not something that we’re going out here hunting people for,” Humphrey said. “This is a low-level priority. We have placed our priority on overall crime in the city.”
Richardson and Humphrey spoke back and forth about this for several minutes, with Richardson repeatedly asking the chief why, if the department “already does this,” it would be a problem for the LRPD to get “something in writing.”
Humphrey described a sort of domino effect that could ensue if such a policy were formally issued.
“Director Richardson, would you not say that every time an officer makes an arrest or comes in contact with someone, that’s discretion?” Humphrey asked. “Do you need a policy or a directive for everything? Why marijuana? Why not seat belts? Why not 5 miles over the speed limit? Why not that, why just this?”
Richardson said again that “we don’t have anything in writing to back up your notion, [and] your predecessor’s notion … that that’s always been our approach.”
Humphrey then reminded city leaders that marijuana is still a “scheduled drug” with the DEA and still considered illegal by the federal government, despite Arkansas’s legalization of medical marijuana.
“As a police chief, I can’t tell my officers to make this a low priority,” Humphrey said. “What I can say is, this is what we’re focused on, and we’ve been focused on overall crime and violent crime.”
Richardson said he was still confused by this, and Humphrey said that by telling officers what to focus on instead of what not to focus on, it allows for the marijuana offenses to become lower priorities in comparison to the department’s focus on “overall crime and violent crime.”
City Attorney Tom Carpenter interjected, saying the Department of Justice has announced that it “doesn’t adhere” to states that have medical or recreational use marijuana amendments and that it still believes “these things” need to be prosecuted and has directed attorneys to do so. Carpenter then said that if Humphrey puts in writing that “there’s a law you’re not going to obey, then what is the ramification?”
“Do you come up, and the next time [Humphrey] asks for a grant to help get body cameras, he can’t get it because we have a directive that says, ‘Don’t do this?'” Carpenter said.
Director Wright asked whether this ordinance going into effect could allow such a thing to happen.
“I’m just saying, I’ve seen things come from Washington in the last two years that I have not seen the last 67 years, Carpenter said. “And, I can’t guarantee that they won’t. I saw the U.S. attorney general say, ‘We’re going to enforce marijuana laws, even in states that have these constitutional amendments,’ after the administration changed. I don’t have statistics to say that that’s happening or not happening. I’m just saying that the chief is being asked, ‘Why can’t you make it a directive?’ And I think that the real problem that the chief has … is ‘I put in writing what is effectively [saying] to violate the law. What does that say to my officers?'”
Richardson and Humphrey continued to discuss this for several minutes, and then the ordinance failed to pass. After the meeting, Richardson said he was “disappointed” in the outcome, but he “won’t give up” on trying to get a policy formally created.
The meeting also included a presentation by Rock Region Metro with an update on the status of the city’s public transit system and its goals and upcoming projects for 2020.
Rock Region Metro is made up of three branches: METRO Local, which is a fixed-route bus service that serves Pulaski County; METRO Streetcar, which is the rail system that operates in Little Rock and North Little Rock; and METRO Links, which provides para-transit service.
Charles Frazier, executive director of Rock Region Metro, said the system carries more than 2.5 million passenger trips per year in Little Rock, North Little Rock and surrounding Central Arkansas cities. He added that since a pilot project removed the fare to ride the Streetcar last year, ridership of the rail system has increased 229 percent. During seven months of 2018, when the fee was still active, the Streetcar transported 23,137 passengers. During seven months of 2019, after the fee had been removed, 76,037 passengers were transported on the Streetcar.
Frazier shared some upcoming “innovations” of Rock Region Metro, including a pilot project it’s launching in the John Barrow area. Similar to an Uber Pool, where people can hail and share a ride to their destination, the METRO Connect project will allow people in the John Barrow “zone” to hail a ride in a small vehicle and travel anywhere within the zone. Fraizer said that the project will allow the organization to test out the model and work out problems before potential attempts to launch it in different areas of the city, such as the Port Authority or the airport.
Frazier added that Little Rock “still has a long way to go” before becoming a “robust transportation system,” saying that not all of the system’s routes are “productive.” In order to address this, Rock Region Metro will start a “comprehensive operational analysis” called Route Innovation Development and Evaluation — RIDE 2020.
Frazier said the “strategic plan” will take 9-10 months to execute, with a goal to “maximize both ridership and efficiency.” The analysis will assess all of the system’s routes, the outcomes of its pilot projects, and “most importantly,” find solutions for the routes performing poorly.
The board also approved a resolution that allows for the city manager to apply for a $250,000 grant from the state’s Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism to help fund playground replacements at Wakefield and Birchwood parks, as well as work at the Junior Deputy baseball complex. The grant requires matching funds, and the Junior Deputy organization has committed to match about $150,000 for its portion of the project, so the other $100,000 will be allocated to the playground replacements.
The board also voted to approve a $350,000 payment to the Arkansas Arts Center. The funding is a portion of the city’s $700,000 annual commitment to the arts center.
City directors also approved an ordinance granting a franchise that allows the owner and developer of the AC Hotel by Marriott, a “boutique” hotel currently under construction on Capitol Avenue at Louisiana Street, to use a portion of the street as a right of way for a “protected,” 24-hour valet parking lane. Several metered public parking spaces in front of the Hall and Davidson buildings — which run from buildings 201 to 215 West Capitol Ave. — will be converted into the valet parking lane.
As part of the franchise, the owner and developer of the hotel, 201 W. Capitol, LLC, will pay an annual “franchise fee” of $6,900 to the city as compensation for the “loss of revenue” from the elimination of the metered parking spaces.