The City of Little Rock and police officials joined activists and faith leaders Saturday morning for a lengthy town hall-style chat with residents of Second Baptist Church on John Barrow Road, answering more than a dozen questions on violence in the city, community policing and other topics. .
Attendees expressed concern about gun violence, which was declared a public health emergency in the city Feb. 1 in a resolution by Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and the Little Rock Board of Directors. Participants also asked about the role of the police in working with residents to enforce laws fairly and effectively.
Several people made impassioned appeals to parents to fulfill their duty to their children, who, without support and positive role models, might be tempted to turn to crime.
Scott made a brief appearance, arriving after another engagement, while Kendra Pruitt, who became Scott’s chief of staff on Feb. 1, answered questions for him. She has been a senior adviser to Scott since 2019.
The town hall “represents a positive step toward unification and greater transparency” for the city and the police department, said Larry Hicks, who serves as chairman of the Little Rock NAACP Legal Appeals Committee and served as moderator in the discussion, which was organized with the help of Ward 6 City Manager Doris Wright.
Before the public could ask questions, Deputy Chief of Police Crystal Young-Haskins conducted a survey to gauge the public’s feelings about the police department.
The survey included questions about the extent to which the Little Rock Police practice community policing, how much officers care about community members, and how satisfactory the department’s performance is. It also asked about top safety priorities and how often respondents attended community meetings aimed at those safety priorities.
Young-Haskins intended to compile the responses using a combination of electronic devices, pen, and paper, but the devices weren’t working properly, so Young-Haskins asked members of the crowd to simply raise their hands on the issues on which they agreed.
The group reported that most believed the agency practiced community policing “somewhat” or “a little”, with officers caring “somewhat” about community members. Most respondents indicated that they were “fairly” satisfied with the department’s performance, and there was general agreement that violent crime, homicide, and drug or gang-related activity were the three top security priorities.
There were some outlying answers, but “somewhat” was the neutral answer to most questions.
After the drill, Police Chief Keith Humphrey rated satisfaction with his service as six or seven out of 10, he said.
“We’ll probably never be a 10,” he acknowledged, saying the nature of policing sometimes forces officers to do things that upset people.
But Humphrey said that was no excuse not to try to improve and that would never stop him from holding officers accountable.
“When an officer makes a mistake, when an officer acts criminally, we all suffer, the community suffers,” Humphrey said.
The leader spoke about the recent spate of homicides, telling the crowd that he gets a call whenever a murder happens, at any time of the day.
“Imagine the sleepless nights,” Humphrey said, adding that every time he has to speak with the family of someone killed, “I lose a bit of myself.”
Many questions from the community focused on the response to the killings.
Diane Charles said the town hall was only the second community event she has attended since the covid-19 pandemic began in March 2020.
“The violence in this town has taken me out,” Charles said.
Charles, who said she was the former secretary of the Little Rock NAACP, has been involved in the community before.
“You’re looking at the person who brought the concept of neighborhood watch to Little Rock in 1989,” Charles said.
She and others called on the city to provide more services and activities to keep teens busy and off crime.
Pruitt and community resource manager Michael Sanders assured people that was what they wanted to do, using the initiative to declare a public health emergency and a follow-up resolution last week that passed. contracted with 10 groups to deliver social programs and created the Hope Advisory Council to lead violence intervention programs.
“Neighborhood safety is a pillar of our administration,” Pruitt said.
Sanders shared the story of a man he mentored who needed a job and was able to work with a reintegration program in the city, where a worker found him a job at the end of the day.
“If we hadn’t had this opportunity, I would have just had to say a few good words to him, [tell him to] keep the faith alive and send it chasing the wild goose,” Sanders said, praising the tangible results offered by the program.
“A lot of crimes are economic crimes,” Sanders said.
A woman criticized the panel for its lack of diversity. Hicks asked what she meant, and she elaborated.
“I don’t think anyone up there had a loved one murdered,” she said.
Young-Haskins told the woman that failing to properly include victims of violent crime in the discussion “was an oversight.”
Humphrey pointed out that most homicide victims in the city are black men between the ages of 16 and 25. He said that, especially as a black man, he often wonders if he is doing enough for his community.
“It’s a health issue, it’s a disease,” Humphrey said.
Humphrey said he was fed up with the police being covered negatively in the news.
“We’re tired of the accusation that we don’t care,” Humphrey said.
“Until we stop pointing fingers at law enforcement and realize that everyone has to come to the table, it won’t stop,” he later added.
A resident, Stephen Art, hit back, saying that as a father and a black man, it hurt to have to teach his daughter how to deal with the police and be safe. Although she is 27, she called him recently, saying she had been arrested by the police and was afraid of what might happen.
“The kids are scared of you,” Art told the chief, referring to police officers in general.
Humphrey pointed out, when responding to Art and other similar questions, that his officers are trained in de-escalation and take every measure possible to avoid hurting people.
“We don’t teach our officers to kill anyone, we teach them to stop the threat,” Humphrey told a woman who asked why officers had to shoot people so often when deciding to use lethal force.
Toward the end of the meeting, Tim Campbell, a community activist who shared the stage with Humphrey and the others but had spoken little, shared an analogy with a youth he had mentored who he felt was crucial to understanding the dilemma of the city.
The young man told Campbell that when faced with the threat of covid-19 in Little Rock, people have multiple layers of protection — a mask, social distancing.
When it comes to dealing with street violence, some young people see it the same way, the man told Campbell. They have their weapon and their paranoia to keep them safe.
“If that gun isn’t here, what is?” Campbell asked the audience.
Any successful anti-violence program must give young people in the city something to replace the gun, something they can count on to keep them off the streets and off crime, to keep them safe.
“The solution is in the problem,” Campbell said.
Gallery: Courageous Conversations