One night in November, LaJoy Person did not use her blinker when making a left turn, and then noticed a Little Rock Police car following her. She waited for officers to pull her over, maybe give her a ticket, but they just trailed. “[They] even waited on me to stop at a stop sign [and] didn’t turn on their lights,” she remembered. Only when Person arrived at her destination, a white shotgun house just south of Interstate 630 where her friend Dexter Porter has a home office, did blue lights flash.
Porter, who had been expecting Person to arrive to lend him a textbook, saw the lights and peeked out the window of the home. He’s grown used to being stopped on his street. “I’m numb to it,” he said. He can remember at least five times in the past couple of years he’s been pulled over for random stops and searches of his car. But he did not expect to see Person pulled over. “I was kind of surprised she was pulled over, because she’s such a known helper in the community,” he said. Person, 39, has been, among other things, a substitute teacher for 10 years, a member of a neighborhood association, an AAU men’s basketball coach (some call her “Coach Momma”), a door-to-door community aide to help residents get on health insurance, a volunteer for homeless aid organizations and a mother to three boys. Person and Porter are both studying to be insurance agents, hence the textbook.
As one officer approached Person’s window and another took up a position at the back right side of Person’s car, Porter decided he’d pretend to take out some trash, walk in front of his house and activate a motion-sensor light so he could watch. He wanted to make sure he could keep an eye on the stop. Person noticed Porter, but focused on the officer at her window. The officer asked Person what she was doing in that neighborhood and for her registration. After explaining herself and handing over some papers, Person looked behind her and in Porter’s light she was able to see fully the other officer hovering at the rear of her car.
“I saw a [female officer] out on the right side with her gun out,” Person said. “The gun was literally
The stop ended with the police officers giving Person a warning. It was, in some ways, just another of many routine police traffic stops. But it had a big effect on Person. “It really made me mad, because he pulled me over for really no reason. Why [were] they trailing me for no reason?”
“I’ve always been doing community work,” she said. “But [the police] don’t look at me like that; they look at my car.” Person — who describes her car as “not nice” — did not forget to use her blinker: It’s broken, one of many problems with the vehicle she can’t afford to repair. Police “were just assuming because of how my car looked that I was a no good person or something,” she said. “It felt like they wanted me to do something more than just not signal.”
Such stops are called pretextual or investigative stops, in which officers use petty traffic violations — a broken tail light, expired registration tags, failing to use a blinker — as a means to inspect those they deem suspicious and possibly uncover more serious crimes. Officers hope to find a gun or drugs, leading to an arrest. More often they find a driver like Person and offer a warning.
In Little Rock, Person’s story is becoming common, and so is the frustration. Since Aug. 18, the Little Rock Police Department has been paying 45 patrol officers overtime to conduct increased patrols. The move came after a violent summer in the city. By July, Little Rock had 42 homicides, the same number as the entirety of 2016. (At the end of the year, there had been 55 homicides.) On July 1, 25 people were shot — none fatally — during a concert at the Power Ultra Lounge nightclub, inspired, police said, by a dispute between “rival groups.”
The suspected cause of the mass shooting underlined a cruel regularity to the rising violence. Soon officials launched task forces and made promises to crank up the federal prosecution of drug kingpins and to address problems of poverty and unemployment and prisoner re-entry, all long-term goals to curb the root causes of crime. But, in the meantime, with national news outlets evoking again the narrative of a gang war in Little Rock (a situation in the ’90s that still casts a pall over the city), the public demanded immediate action from the police force.
It was in that context that the LRPD began, in August, requiring patrol officers to work an extra four-hour shift once (and a few twice) a week on top of their 40 hours to increase patrols. During a normal shift, a dispatcher directs patrol officers to 911 calls or other reported incidents. This leaves little time to do anything other than responsive policing. During the overtime shift, patrol officers roam neighborhoods that police intelligence has shown have high crime and conduct traffic stops in large volumes. Overtime pay, from implementation to Dec. 8, cost $970,434.
Critics have compared these investigative stops to stop-and-frisk, New York’s controversial policy of stopping people on the street to question and pat them down, often with only a police officer’s suspicion as a motive. As with stop-and-frisk, proponents of the policy say it’s a valid tool to keep down crime. Opponents say it targets communities of color and treats innocent people like criminals.
But in Little Rock, the debate has taken on a new dimension. The LRPD calls the many warning stops — when a pullover does not lead to an arrest or ticket — an opportunity for community policing, part of the department’s proactive strategy to create an amicable working relationship with the public to tamp down crime.
When top officers in the LRPD suggested at a public meeting, held Nov. 6 at the Willie Hinton Center on 12th Street, that increased patrols could serve as a way to improve community relations, few bought it.
Ward 2 City Director Ken Richardson had called the meeting after hearing complaints from residents like Person about the stops. Richardson had earlier sent emails to fellow directors and city administrators about the increased patrols. Under the heading “Crisis In our Community,” Richardson wrote, “Our police/community relationships are horrible at best and insulting and offensive at worst.” He said he’d seen “single car traffic stops [with] 4 or 5 [police] units committed” and that he’d been told by people who’d been stopped that “officers were insulting, condescending … dealing with the community members.”
But Assistant Chief Hayward Finks told the dozen or more people who attended meeting that he heard from residents every day, too, mainly those complaining about the crime. Since police began the increased patrols, he said, calls reporting gunshots fired had declined by 32 percent. He also said situations in which warnings were given, as with Person, allowed for “constructive contact.” Police had only used force twice amid thousands of stops, Finks said. He said officers were respectful and that giving warnings was a way to keep crime down and to interact with community members.
Person was taken aback by Finks’ logic when she heard it. “That’s not community policing. How is that community policing? Nobody wants to get pulled over, no matter what community you’re in,” she said. “It feels like stereotyping to me. … What was I learning from this, that I can die today, for nothing? … That’s not making me feel good or comfortable. … That’s not community policing. How is that community policing? … If every time they pulling you over the gun is out?”
After the meeting, Richardson said the idea that investigative traffic stops were community policing was “crazy.”
“How do you build a relationship by randomly pulling over people?” Richardson asked. “That’s not community policing. That’s random stops.”
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, who had been sitting in the back of the meeting room, echoed Richardson’s sentiments.
“It is dumbfounding that the Little Rock Police Department would come out and brag about doing a rolling stop-and-frisk exercise and say, ‘Look, this is how we’re going to do community policing,’ ” he said after the meeting. “So we’re not going to do community policing, we’re going to roll up on people and stop them. … but, be nice about it? And this is going to be the way we establish trust and build positive relationships with a community that already has ample reason not to trust us? It’s stupid.”
But in an interview, a week after the meeting, Finks stuck to his point. “I mean it’s fair to feel frustrated and concerned. I think that’s fair. I think that we have an obligation to do everything that we can. However, like I said, we have not abandoned community policing.
“We’re not moving in as some type of a major enforcement state. … I think that we are taking a course where we can — as we stop the crime — build a rapport and constructive contacts along the way. We’re not abandoning constructive contacts … even while we’re short-staffed. We’re trying to figure out a way to do both.”
Others complain of treatment similar to what Person experienced.
It was around dusk when the LRPD pulled Sheila Thomas (not her real name) over in November. She and a few friends were headed to the Senor Tequila restaurant on South University.
Thomas, a middle-aged African American, moved to Little Rock eight years ago and settled down in the sprawling and well-to-do West Little Rock
Thomas, driving a Cadillac with tinted windows, knew the routine. She steered to the side of the road and began gathering up her documents. But this stop was different from the past ones: “By the time we looked up, there were like six other patrol cars,” she said. Thomas wondered what she did wrong and what warranted all the police. One of her passengers, just 19, was “scared to death,” she said.
An officer approached and told her the car’s headlights were not on and to step out of the car. “Magically, when we looked, [my headlights] were on,” Thomas said. She
“It just felt it was more like my car and the area and just because … just trying to see who’s in the car more than anything,” Thomas said. “Once they ran my name and thought I was clear they let us go.”
Kim, a convenience store employee in Southwest Little Rock who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisal, said she “watch[es] [the LRPD] give out warnings all night long — sometimes six police cars will have one person pulled over.” But, she said she “didn’t totally understand it until it happened to me.” She was exiting a store parking lot on 65th Street where there was a police officer in the parking lot. As she left the lot, she failed to signal as she turned at a stop sign. A little down the road, she saw “blue lights blazing down 65th Street,” Kim said. She pulled over, thinking police were going after someone else. Three police cars pulled up behind her. An officer approached and asked what Kim, a white woman, was “doing in this neighborhood.” He said she had a taillight out, too, as well as failing to signal, and gave her a ticket. “I didn’t understand why he had to treat me the way he treated me,” she said.
Asked if she felt the officers’ actions were helping the community, she said, “No, no, no. They are not trying to get to know people — they can tell you that, but by my experience alone, no. I was almost in tears. I haven’t done anything yet wrong, and you’re treating me like a criminal.”
“To be honest,” Kim said, police are “just pissing people off.”
Thomas also said her stop felt like a crackdown, not community policing. “I can tell the difference,” she said. “That was a threatening interaction to me. I just think that type of thing is harassment. … I don’t hardly ride at night now. I’m more worried about becoming Sandra Bland.”
The arrest of Sandra Bland in Texas is one of the videos Derek A. Epp, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the authors of the soon-to-be-published “Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race,” uses to explain investigatory stops. Bland was pulled over on a highway in Prairie View, Texas, for not signaling when switching lanes. The interaction between her and the police officer rapidly turned hostile as the officer questioned her and even tried yanking her from the car. She was arrested for assaulting the officer. Bland was jailed and later found hanged in her cell.
“We have really done the cost-benefit analysis of this kind of policing tactic all wrong,” Epp said. “There is a benefit to removing the drugs [on a successful search], but what we’ve failed to do is assign any kind of cost to a failed search.” Bland’s arrest and death show those costs bluntly. Investigative stops, Epp says, create “mutual distrust” that builds up between police and the community, often minority and low-income, that is targeted. But when investigative stops were mainstreamed, aggressive policing costs seemed secondary to stopping violence. In the 1970s, James Q. Wilson and other social scientists developed the “broken windows” policing philosophy. Wilson proposed stringent punishment of minor crimes, such as a broken window, to prevent larger crimes. Holding people accountable for petty crimes, Wilson argued, maintained order and stopped the erosion of community, which led to the more serious crimes. He advocated for stop-and-frisk.
Wilson acknowledged in a 1994 New York Times op-ed that stop-and-frisk could result in profiling: “Innocent people will be stopped. Young black and Hispanic men will probably be stopped more often than older white Anglo males or women of any race.” For Wilson, stopping crime was more important.
But Finks points to data that he says demonstrates the program is working. During the first four months of the increased patrols, as compared to the four months before the program began, traffic citations slightly declined, traffic warnings nearly doubled and the number of reports of gunshots being fired declined by 25 percent, from 905 incidents of shots fired from April 18 until Aug. 17 to 683 from Aug. 18 until Dec. 17. There have been 52 weapons and 114 drugs seized, the LRPD says, as of Dec. 25. The overtime patrol charged 349 felony counts (it’s unclear, from LRPD data, how many actual people received charges) by Christmas.
But data shows the costs too: 5,823 subject and traffic stops by increased patrols in the same time span. That was approximately 112 traffic stops of residents like Person and Thomas per one gun seized.
The increased patrols have not occurred in a bubble. A task force including the State Police, the FBI, the DEA and other local agencies is trying to put together federal cases against major criminals in Little Rock. The LRPD has touted its Violent Crime Apprehension Team for making many felony arrests. This focus on enforcement, said Sgt. Willie Davis — a longtime member of LRPD and a community police officer who runs a program for young black men in the department — can be problematic.
“[You] still need somebody to soften that blow because when you go into a community like that — impacting people — you have to have someone to deal with the people or talk to the people that are not causing problems,” he said. Otherwise, “they can feel intimidated and left out of the loop in terms of helping solve the problem.”
This is especially true, Richardson says, because the trust between police and the community has been a problem for years. He has repeatedly complained of heavy policing in communities of color, saying, “There are some parts of the city of Little Rock where it’s protect and serve for the Little Rock Police Department, and in other parts it’s patrol and control.” He said police too often treat residents in areas east of I-30 and south of I-630 “like everybody is everybody’s criminal.” Under the
Finks has said the LRPD is wary of a backlash. He said he knows the response in Ferguson, Mo., to the killing of Michael Brown was in part a result of over-policing for many years. But he says the rolling stops — and the number of warnings police have given vs. the number of citations — demonstrate a clear sign that the new effort is not just a crackdown of enforcement but an effort in community policing.
“The last thing we want to do is bring the violent crimes down for a minute and then everything blows up because everybody is so irate with the way the police department has been responding to the community,” Finks said. “That’s the last thing that we want.”
“Community policing is not just narrowed down to the officers walking a beat. … The problem is a lot of times, because of staffing, the officers are just constantly going from call to call and they don’t have to. It’s not because they don’t have the skills or the will to do community policing. It’s because of the call load.”
The LRPD doesn’t have enough officers, Finks said. In August, when the patrols began, the police had 54 vacancies (by Nov. 30, with a recent academy class graduating, the number was 21). Police can no longer walk beats in neighborhoods, and have to respond quickly to 911 calls instead, Finks said.
“That’s great when you have [officers] on bicycles that are walking the beat in the
With new recruitment classes, in a year he thinks it’s possible the LRPD could have more police working a community beat.
The LRPD has 19 officers assigned to a community beat. Many are concentrated in the River Market district, where nine officers patrol on bicycles. The sprawling southwest and northwest districts have only two officers each on bikes. Downtown has three.
Residents say the reason they feel targeted is that many police officers are not part of the community: A majority of officers live outside the city of Little Rock (65 percent according to the most recent data).
LRPD Chief Kenton Buckner has also drawn criticism. Hired in 2014, his tenure has been rocky at times. The Black Police Association has asked for “an independent investigation into the discrimination, inequities and disparaging treatment of minority officers and supervisors” under Buckner’s command. Critics have also said the chief is often rude when talking before community groups; his supporters have said he speaks with a refreshing bluntness. Buckner, who declined to be interviewed for this article, often talks of “black on black” crime at community meetings and personal responsibility and downplays the idea that nonresident cops are a problem.
“Unemployment for black and brown communities is going to [go away]? Now, you know that’s not going to happen,” he said in an interview with the Arkansas Times last year. “The problem is, we keep looking for penicillin pills. It doesn’t exist. Only heavy lifting is left. People are going to have to make some strong decisions about how they conduct themselves, how they go about living their lives, how they view education, choosing not to do drugs, choosing to have kids in wedlock, fathers choosing to have an active role with their kids. None of that has anything to do with a police officer living in the city.”
Community members have also complained about what they perceive as the abandonment of the original vision for the 12th Street Station, which was once promised to be a mixed-use hub for the police and businesses but as of now only houses LRPD personnel.
At the Nov. 6 meeting at the Willie Hinton Center next to the station, Buckner said of the lack of businesses in the area: “You think it’s a coincidence that this commercial side of the 12th Street building is still vacant? There are several business people in here: Who in their right mind is going to bring their business into an area saturated with
The LRPD recently bought a building downtown on Markham to expand its headquarters.
Buckner’s take on the failure of the 12th Street Station to attract commercial tenants resonated with Denise Johnson, who owns a beauty salon across the street on 12th: “That’s why the police department is not that interested in this area; they’re interested in where the money is.” She had beamed with pride when the station was opened — she thought it meant the police would be part of the community and more businesses would move in. Now, she’s disappointed. After 34 years on 12th Street, she wants to relocate. “When they had the groundbreaking, I thought it would make my clients more comfortable,” she said. “They are more frightened now than they were then.
“I tell you one thing. I couldn’t keep my door open before the police station and I still can’t keep my door open. And I can see the police station, and I still cannot keep my door open.”
Davis, the LRPD sergeant, said that an emphasis on community policing could help bring down the crime.
“Here’s the thing: There is no way any cop, in any city, in any country can solve any problem unless someone says, ‘That guy had on a red shirt, black shoes and he ran west.’ If you don’t tell us that, we don’t know,” he said. He does not see community policing as an extravagant add-on to policing but a part of the job. “If any police officer thinks their job is not social, they need to get their brain looked at. This is social work that we do. I don’t care how you slice it. It’s social work,” he said. “I don’t buy that I don’t want to see them in a grocery store. I want them to see me in a grocery store. Not only that, I want them to see me and my son, who plays in the same park that their kids play in. I want them to know that I have a vested in the community where we all live. … Do I not want to go to church with you? What are we saying?”
Remembering the officer who’d unholstered her gun during a traffic stop, Person said the police “need people in the community who are in the community who are not scared of the community. I don’t like
Davis was quick to defend his fellow officers. “We have a lot of good officers; we do. I think 98 percent of the time we get it right,” he said. “But there’s a small degree. And, there’s a few that will never accept the idea of community policing. In some cases it may be a person that acts as a leader — that may be a leader.” Davis was among the Black Police Officers Association members to criticize Chief Buckner.
That’s why so many have been frustrated by the increased patrols, Judge Griffen said. “This is stupid at the policy level,” not just a beat cop going rogue, he said. “And it is going to do what stupid policy has been known to do for a half-century: create more distrust, create more possibilities for flashpoints.” And those flashpoints, he said, can turn into something larger in this city where, already, distrust is pervasive between the police and communities of color. “Little Rock is running out of time,” he said.