Is Little Rock a dangerous city? That’s the perception among city residents, several members of the Little Rock Board of Directors told Police Chief Keith Humphrey Tuesday at the board’s agenda meeting.
Humphrey has frequently drawn the ire of the board and was the target of a symbolic no-confidence resolution that was ultimately withdrawn late last year. The chief serves at the pleasure of Mayor Frank Scott Jr., not the board.
Humphrey appeared before the board to answer questions following several high-profile gun crimes: Ja’Aliyah Hughes, 10, was fatally shot on March 13 at Boyle Park. Police say she was likely an unintended victim in the shooting. Early evening Sunday, March 21, at Murray Park a man was injured from gunfire from an AK-47-style firearm. The latter incident was linked to “Sunday Funday,” an informal gathering of cars that’s part of the culture of caravanning and drag racing.
Humphrey told the board that he’d spoken with police chiefs in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Miami and Birmingham, Alabama, and all said they were dealing with similar issues. The LRPD has transitioned a violent crime apprehension team into a street crime team with 25-30 officers working every weekend to break up gatherings of street racers. Several times a week, he and his team meet to talk about the issue. “We’re going to continue to monitor, evaluate and adjust,” he told the board. But the city is 150-square miles and the gatherings change locations often. Mayor Scott later interjected to say that the LRPD doesn’t want to get into chases with racers and possibly injure bystanders.
Humphrey said that citizens were often calling 311 to report drag racing or another nonemergency number to report drag racing when they should be calling 911. We consider this activity dangerous, he said. Even if cars are long gone, the intelligence can be useful to the department, he said.
Humphrey also noted that the police department is only one part of a criminal justice system. He can’t control what gets prosecuted or who gets released on bond or sentenced for short stints, he said. There’s been tension between the chief and Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley about Jegley not prosecuting street racers for loitering crimes and Humphrey pinning blame on Jegley. Jegley said at the time that he didn’t prosecute because those cited hadn’t committed crimes, according to the law.
Ward 5 Director and Vice-Mayor Lance Hines, perhaps Humphrey’s leading critic and the sponsor of the ultimately withdrawn no-confidence order, told the chief that he didn’t care if the problem was national. “Just because it’s happening in every part of the country is not acceptable to the residents of Little Rock,” Hines said. He also said the city should work with the legislature to strengthen laws. Scott said the city had tried, but there wasn’t any appetite for changes at the General Assembly.
Humphrey told Hines that one problem the department faces is business owners afraid to pursue charges for fear of reprisal. Hines mentioned the Cinemark Colonel Glen movie theater parking lot as a place where drag racers have congregated and suggested that the owners potentially be put in criminal abatement until they control their property. “Private property owners can’t wash their hands … and allow all kinds of crazy stuff to happen on their property.” He also suggested the city should be suggesting creative solutions to property owners, mentioning gates and speed bumps as possibilities.
At-large Director Dr. Dean Kumpuris said it appeared that the city had been tolerating drag racing for the last nine months and was only acting proactively in the wake of the shootings. “If you want to know the truth, the perception is that this is a violent place, it’s a dangerous place, and it doesn’t matter [where you live],” Kumpuris told Humphrey.
Humphrey said he didn’t believe the majority of Little Rock citizens share that view and said it was incorrect that the department had been late in ramping up only in recent weeks.
At-large Director Joan Adcock said the chief was right, the problem wasn’t new. “As long as it was on Colonel Glen and in Southwest Little Rock, it was OK,” she said. “What is new is that it’s in Kathy’s ward and Capi’s ward and Lance’s ward and Dean’s neighborhood.” Those are all predominantly white parts of the city. “If we don’t get a handle on this, we’re soon going to have a city that none of us are proud of. I don’t want to hear about Atlanta, I don’t want to hear about Memphis.”
Ward 6 Director Doris Wright asked if an existing noise ordinance could be a tool to deter the caravanning? City Attorney Tom Carpenter promised to investigate the issue, but Scott noted that loud mufflers didn’t necessarily mean that someone was racing through the city.
Ward 3 Director Kathy Webb and Ward 4 Director Capi Peck echoed Kumpuris that public perception was that the city was unsafe.
At-large Director Antwan Phillips told his colleagues that he agreed with much of what had been said, but added, “We’ve got to have the same energy about street racing about people dying,” before growing emotional. Scott then called for a recess. When the meeting continued, Phillips continued, “I do recognize the seriousness of the things we’re talking about. I know there’s danger involved in it. I want us to have the same energy when there’s homicide in any part of town.” He noted that all board members had received a letter from a constituent who said that crime used to be isolated in one part of the city. Phillips said that sort of attitude should be anathema to the board.