Capital city crisis
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.