Cap­i­tal city cri­sis

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Rex Nel­son —––––– –––––— Se­nior Ed­i­tor Rex Nel­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. He’s also the au­thor of the South­ern Fried blog at rexnel­son­south­ern­

Dur­ing lunch in El Do­rado re­cently, a lady who is well ed­u­cated and heav­ily in­volved in civic ac­tiv­i­ties asked me about the city I call home.

“What on earth is go­ing on in Lit­tle Rock?” she said. “I don’t want to go there any­more. There’s too much vi­o­lence.”

A few days later, a Lake Vil­lage res­i­dent sent me an email about a col­umn I had writ­ten on Pine Bluff. He said: “Look­ing at the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette ev­ery day and read­ing about more gun­fire/crime in Lit­tle Rock is down­right dis­cour­ag­ing. I’d love noth­ing more than hav­ing some­thing of a nu­cleus 30 to 45 min­utes closer to Lake Vil­lage. We often go to Mon­roe for things we can’t get lo­cally as it is closer and safer than Lit­tle Rock.”

Th­ese com­ments were made be­fore the July 1 in­ci­dent that in­jured 28 peo­ple at a down­town Lit­tle Rock night­club. I’ve been hear­ing such state­ments on a reg­u­lar ba­sis since the De­cem­ber mur­der of Acen King, a 3-year-old boy who died while rid­ing in the back seat of his grand­mother’s car. It re­ceived na­tional me­dia cov­er­age. Sev­eral weeks ear­lier, a 2-year-old girl, Ramiya Reed, died af­ter be­ing shot while rid­ing in the back seat of a ve­hi­cle with her mother. Po­lice be­lieve that event ig­nited a gang war that has caused vi­o­lent crime in Lit­tle Rock to in­crease by 24 per­cent from the same six-month pe­riod last year.

As I read the Sun­day news­pa­per a week ago, I be­gan to ask ques­tions: Why had the club not al­ready been shut down given the num­ber of pre­vi­ous vi­o­la­tions? Are stronger laws needed to al­low such places to be closed? Why haven’t city lead­ers shown more of a sense of ur­gency since the De­cem­ber in­ci­dents? How did they al­low them­selves to reach this point with dozens of un­filled Lit­tle Rock Po­lice De­part­ment po­si­tions? Will the next cam­paign for mayor fo­cus on crime pre­ven­tion? Will the gover­nor con­sider this an is­sue that the state also must ad­dress?

Be­cause of the racial-tinged con­text of what’s hap­pen­ing, too many elected of­fi­cials are afraid to state the ob­vi­ous. So let’s do it for them: Lit­tle Rock has a ma­jor gang prob­lem, just as was the case in the early 1990s. Most gang mem­bers are young black males. If you’re white, live in a pre­dom­i­nantly white neigh­bor­hood, stay away from buy­ing or sell­ing il­le­gal drugs and stay away from high-crime neigh­bor­hoods, you’re safe in Lit­tle Rock. Your chances of be­ing a vic­tim of a vi­o­lent crime are mi­nus­cule.

Now that we’ve stated the ob­vi­ous, a cou­ple of points. The pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity of city gov­ern­ment is to pro­tect its cit­i­zens. The big­gest dis­ser­vice has been done to those who live in pre­dom­i­nantly black, low-in­come, high-crime neigh­bor­hoods. The fail­ure to fill the dozens of empty LRPD po­si­tions bor­ders on out­right neg­li­gence. If any­one should be mad at City Hall, it’s those who live in the ar­eas where gun­shots are a nightly oc­cur­rence.

How about the busi­ness own­ers and pro­fes­sion­als—the doc­tors, bankers, lawyers, ac­coun­tants—who live in low-crime neigh­bor­hoods? They must re­al­ize that the July 1 in­ci­dent might have been a tip­ping point for the cap­i­tal city. In an era when per­cep­tion be­comes re­al­ity, the goose that lays their golden eggs has been wounded. If steps aren’t taken im­me­di­ately, Lit­tle Rock will en­ter a long pe­riod of in­ex­orable pop­u­la­tion loss and eco­nomic de­cline. Think Mem­phis and Jack­son, Miss.

Tens of mil­lions of dol­lars of pri­vate cap­i­tal and pub­lic funds have been in­vested in a re­vi­tal­ized down­town that was on the verge of break­ing out. The city’s culi­nary scene has blos­somed, new ho­tels have opened, more peo­ple are liv­ing down­town, entertainment op­tions are ex­pand­ing and the $70 mil­lion mod­ern­iza­tion of the Robin­son Cen­ter has been a hit. The con­ven­tion busi­ness is boom­ing this year. On the day be­fore the down­town shoot­ing, this news­pa­per fea­tured a story by Noel Oman about how the state-of-theart Robin­son venue at­tracted three girls’ schol­ar­ship pageants that pre­vi­ously had been held in San An­to­nio or Or­lando. Most of those girls and their fam­i­lies were stay­ing in down­town ho­tels. They awoke on July 1 to the news that 28 peo­ple had been in­jured a few blocks away.

The ex­ec­u­tive of a ma­jor com­pany told me last week: “I’m try­ing to hire three or four se­nior-level peo­ple. They’ve men­tioned to me that crime in Lit­tle Rock is one of the things keep­ing them from tak­ing those jobs.” Want to kill Lit­tle Rock’s eco­nomic mo­men­tum? Then fail to take steps (and I’m talk­ing in the next few weeks, not the next few years) to ad­dress the prob­lems.

It’s time for more than prayer vig­ils. The Lit­tle Rock tele­vi­sion mar­ket cov­ers a large area of the state, and peo­ple are bom­barded nightly with crime news from Lit­tle Rock. Rather than com­ing to the cap­i­tal city to visit the doc­tor or see a movie, they’ll now stop short of Lit­tle Rock in towns such as Con­way, Ben­ton and Hot Springs.

What must hap­pen? At the city level, the Lit­tle Rock Board of Direc­tors must declare an emer­gency and be­gin fill­ing the empty LRPD slots quickly. The city should also hire a na­tion­ally rec­og­nized ex­pert on deal­ing with gangs. If this means slash­ing the bud­gets of other de­part­ments to come up with in­creased LRPD salary lev­els and sign­ing bonuses, so be it. This is a cri­sis, and crises call for dras­tic mea­sures.

At the state level, Gov. Asa Hutchin­son should call a spe­cial leg­isla­tive ses­sion. Yes, a spe­cial ses­sion. A cri­sis in a state’s cap­i­tal city is a cri­sis for an en­tire state. Hutchin­son, once the coun­try’s youngest U.S. at­tor­ney, un­der­stands th­ese is­sues. He must push for laws that make it more dif­fi­cult to pa­role felons. An in­or­di­nate num­ber of those re­leased felons wind up in Lit­tle Rock.

The Leg­is­la­ture also must fund at least 30 ad­di­tional pa­role of­fi­cers for Pulaski County. The caseload for pa­role of­fi­cers in Pulaski County is al­most twice that of other coun­ties. Too many peo­ple are be­ing re­leased from prison with­out ad­e­quate su­per­vi­sion. Time’s wast­ing. Call the ses­sion now, gover­nor. Call it now.

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