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A Q&A with LRPD Chief Kenton Buckner on policing and immigration in the age of Trump

Hail to the chief.

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'ZERO INTEREST': In rounding up undocumented immigrants, Little Rock Police Department Chief Kenton Buckner said.
  • 'ZERO INTEREST': In rounding up undocumented immigrants, Little Rock Police Department Chief Kenton Buckner said.

The following is the latest in our series of conversations with Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner. Given the confusion sown about law enforcement priorities, and particularly immigration, in the days since Donald Trump was sworn in as president on Jan. 20, we took this opportunity to pick Buckner's brain on the personality and priorities of the mercurial man in the Oval Office. We spoke on Feb. 1, days after Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

What do you think about the way Trump has conducted himself as a leader so far?

I think from what I've seen from the president at this point is that he will be unconventional. I think that he will go about business his way. I think that we are seeing an individual who sees problems, probably, through a different lens than we're probably accustomed to. I think that, as with any other president, there will be some things that he will do that we will agree with and there will be some things that we disagree with. That's one of the downsides of being a leader. But so far, I think that we need to give him time to get his plan and his people in place and let's see what happens. He's only been in office for a couple of weeks and I think people are, in some instances rightly so, concerned. But I think he hasn't been given time to roll out his full plan.

We've talked quite a bit about the power of social media before. What do you think about Trump's use of social media? Is it helping or hurting him?

I think it's excellent. As a person who prides myself on being authentic, I pride myself on being accessible. The fact is he's texting maybe some things that people may not want to hear, but I would rather know what an individual is thinking than for someone to walk to the podium and continue to give me a bunch of politically correct BS-type of answers. I like when someone tells me how they really feel. I don't necessarily have to agree with that, but I appreciate someone who tells me how they really feel or what they're thinking about something.

In September 2016, the Fraternal Order of Police Union endorsed Trump, saying that he "understands our priorities and our members believe he will make America safe again." Do you believe the election of a president can really "make America safe again?" or is that naive?

I think public safety being a priority for the White House, I think there's a possibility that it can do some things that will help police at the local level, specifically when you talk about COPS grants, when you talk about federal guidelines that come out that maybe set a standard for particular things, like when you see what use of force or something that talks about that. It was not a political document, but it was initiated by the president in that 21st century policing model that was put out. So I think the president has a tremendous amount of power and opportunity to impact what's going on at the local level and I think that police departments historically are conservative for the most part. So it doesn't surprise me that a police agency would support a conservative candidate.

Also in September 2016, Police Magazine conducted a poll of over 3,000 working law enforcement officers in the U.S. and found that 84 percent of those who responded favored Trump in the election. Why is Trump so appealing to law enforcement officers?

I think it's very difficult to answer that question with a broad brush. I think each [person] who voted in that particular survey probably had their own particular reasons as to why they feel like that Trump would be the best candidate for law enforcement. I'm a registered independent, so I'm a person who doesn't necessarily go with groups. I go with who I feel is the best person for the job at hand. But I've been in this profession nearly 25 years, and there's no secret that police historically vote Republican. That's just a part of the profession. I think the feeling is that Republicans value more of the military/law enforcement kind of initiatives and values that, I guess, police feel are important.

Considering that Donald Trump has been called authoritarian by some people, does the deep support among officers for a candidate like Trump signal something troubling to you about the mind of the police officers on the street in the United States?

No. Our job is to enforce the laws. I don't agree with all the laws that we have on the books. I'm sure that our officers don't agree with all the laws on the books. But we are to objectively enforce those laws. Our personal, political affiliations — to say that maybe that can't impact how someone thinks or something, I think it would be naive to say that. Of course, there's going to be some kind of influence. But for the most part, our police officers are going to follow our value system. They're going to follow our mission. They're going to follow our guidelines, our policies and procedures as to how we go about doing business. And then I also expect the public to hold us accountable when we're not reflective of the values of our community. So I'm not concerned about that as to what someone's political affiliations [are] or who they voted for during the election, as how they go about doing their job.

Do you think the support for Trump by law enforcement is, in part, about the Black Lives Matter movement and the Obama Justice Department's intervention in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, where violence exploded because of police use-of-force cases?

No, I don't think you can point to any definitive thing to say why a police officer voted for Donald Trump or why law enforcement FOPs or other organizations representing law enforcement supported Donald Trump, other than historically law enforcement tends to be conservative. I will also say that some of those groups you mentioned, I don't think there's a bad relationship, necessarily, with every chapter of Black Lives Matter. I think they're like any other organization. There are some individuals who have done some things that we think are inflammatory or divisive in our community, but every person that I know that supports some of the causes supported by BLM is not a bad person. We may philosophically disagree on how to get to some common destinations, but that doesn't make them a bad person. Everything that I've heard from BLM is not bad. As a police chief, some of the things that have been reported by BLM or have been said about law enforcement are the truth. It's the painful truth. We have to accept the fact that some of the mistrust that we've had over the past several years has been earned because of our behavior and our actions. We've caused people not to trust us. But I don't think that some of the rhetoric you see, the inflammatory things you see from some of these organizations, to where they try to broad brush all police the same way that I won't broad brush their organization, I don't want someone to broad brush our police department.

On Jan. 21, in response to the homicide rate in Chicago, Trump tweeted, "If Chicago doesn't fix horrible carnage going on, I will send in the feds!" What's your reaction to that? Is a threat like that alarming to you as the police chief of an American city?

You know, when you see tweets and you see statements vs. policy vs. actions vs. behavior, I think we need to wait and see. I think that local police in some of these challenging cities, Little Rock being one of them, it's very easy to stand on the outside and say, "Hey, why don't you fix that or why don't you stop the aggravated assaults, or why don't you fix the homicides?" The best analogy that I can give you is, it's very easy to stand outside an alligator pit and tell someone, "You shouldn't grab the alligator by the arm. Grab it by the tail." When you're down there in the pit, things seem to change. If the federal government thinks they can come in and solve all the problems in Chicago, I'd love to see it.

Many have seen that tweet as a threat to declare martial law if Chicago doesn't "fix" its crime rate. In the past, we've discussed the impossibility of finding a "penicillin pill" to fix crime issues in urban areas. Is it wise for Trump to ask for a quick fix pill "or else"?

I don't know what the president is asking for. I'm working on the local level and my direct reporter is the city manager, Bruce Moore. He reports to the mayor and the city directors and they report to the citizens. So, to be honest with you, some of the stuff I've been seeing is somewhat almost entertaining more than I'm giving it substantive value. I just want to wait to see what actually happens vs. what this media outlet reports. If you watch conservative television, they're going to report one thing, the liberal stations are going to report another. As an independent, I try to find where the truth is, usually somewhere in the middle. I think again, let's stop acting like the sky is falling. It's not. The same process that gave us Barack Obama gave us President Trump. We need to give the man a chance to see what he's going to do. That doesn't take away your right to protest, it doesn't take away your right to disagree. I think he deserves an opportunity to see what he's going to do.

When you've got the president of the United States tweeting out something that a lot of people take as a threat to suspend the Posse Comitatus Act and send in the troops to stop murder in Chicago, you can kind of see where people would be a little panicked.

I can see where people would be panicked. I can certainly see that. But he's tweeted a lot of things. If I am an immigrant, and I see some of these tweets coming from the White House, of course I'm going to be concerned. Of course I'm going to have anxiety. Of course I'm going to be uncomfortable. But until we see what's actually going to roll out, until we see what's actually going to be asked of the federal government, what's going to be asked of state government and the local level, let's allow things to progress before we have kneejerk reactions to tweets.

Trump has repeatedly called urban areas crime-infested. In response to criticism by Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis in January, for example, Trump said that Lewis should focus "on the burning and crime infested inner cities of the U.S.," and spend more time helping his district, "which is in horrible shape and falling apart, not to mention crime infested." Do you think Trump is being realistic about life and crime in America's cities? If not, why do you think he repeatedly depicts them as urban war zones?

I won't get into his spat or disagreement with Rep. Lewis. I think that he is a man that deserves respect considering what he's contributed to our society, but I will say this: The statement of saying that a lot of urban communities are crime-infested, I would liken that to having a child who has some behavioral problems, or for lack of a better word, let's just say they're bad. It's one thing for you to know that your child has issues and they're having behavioral issues in school, it's another for someone else to say that to you about your child. While I understand that some people will be upset and offended by the statement, it's no secret when you look at the data that many of our urban areas across the country are crime-infested. Now, we don't like to hear that. Some people don't like to think about that, and if you live in one of those communities — let's just take our community for example. I'm responsible for public safety. I love this city. This city gave me an opportunity to be a chief. There are a lot of negative things said about our city. I don't like when I hear that. But when they talk about some of the challenges we have with crime, I have to accept it because it's the truth. We do have challenges with crime. We are an urban community. While I don't want to hear someone saying that about Little Rock, there's some things people say about Little Rock that are true. We're working very hard to fix some of those things, but it's the truth. It's the truth. That's where, I don't necessarily agree with a whole lot of things Donald Trump says, but some of the stuff he is saying is the truth.

Little Rock is not on fire out there, though.

It's not on fire! And thank God for that. We have a great city. Which is why I get so defensive for residents like you and I. There are a lot of great things going on in Little Rock. But if you hear someone say about your city, if you tell them, "Oh, I live in Little Rock," they'll say, "I can't believe you live in Little Rock!" Yeah, we have challenges, but it's a great city.

Do you believe he's saying those things to stoke an urban vs. rural divide among Americans?

I don't know what his intentions are. I would hope that the president of the United States would not be making statements that would divide our country. I think that he is intelligent enough to understand that a divided United States is not good for anyone. If he is to have a successful tenure, we're going to have to bring people together, even those that disagree.

On Jan. 25, Trump issued an executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to deputize local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws. The order also declares that if a city or county is deemed a "sanctuary jurisdiction" because it fails to cooperate with the federal government against undocumented immigrants, those places could lose federal money. What's your reaction to Trump's policies ratcheting up immigration enforcement and using the threat of defunding to force local law enforcement to participate in immigration efforts?

I don't know what the federal government is going to do to attempt to force local and state municipalities to participate in some form of immigration [enforcement]. I can tell you that the Little Rock Police Department has zero interest in rounding up immigrants and deporting individuals who are not causing problems and have not committed some kind of serious crime. We have zero interest in that. Now, could something happen from a federal standpoint that could force our hand to do something? It could possibly do that. But I can tell you that anything we're involved in will be reflective of our community policing values, and that we will do it in a compassionate way, and we will do it in a way that respects humanity. But we have zero interest in being federal agents for immigration. That is not our responsibility.

What's the LRPD policy with regard to illegal immigration right now?

I won't quote the policy to you, we can get you a copy of the policy. But I can tell you in practice, if someone is charged with a violent offense or a serious felony, we will call immigration in those kinds of examples. But for minor offenses and misdemeanors, we treat them like any other resident of our city. I think that's the practice of most police departments across the country. Just to correct the record, Little Rock is not a sanctuary city. Many of the things that they're discussing are not applicable to us.

Do you think undocumented immigrants in the city of Little Rock will be less likely to report crimes with Donald Trump as president?

Of course. I participated in a Spanish immersion program back in 2004. I lived in a city called Morelia, Mexico, which is about two hours south of Mexico City. I stayed with a Mexican family who spoke no English. I lived with them for five weeks. I got to see a number of the things that cause some of our undocumented citizens to seek out better opportunities in the United States. I know there's a lot of mistrust in their native country, and many of [them] bring some of that mistrust and concern to the United States. They're already an underreporting community today. But I could see that being even worse if you have fears of state and local and federal agents having some kind of far-reaching immigration policies that are more aggressive.

Is that going to make it harder to do your job as a police officer?

It will make it harder to connect with those communities. It will make it harder to get those individuals to report when they've been a victim of crime. It will make it harder for them to participate in neighborhood associations or any kind of initiative we have with the police department. During my tenure, as you're well aware, we've taken great strides and effort to try to connect with our Hispanic community. I don't plan to do anything that's going to erode the bridges that we've built or that impacts our ability to strengthen those bridges and connect with more people in the Hispanic community. I see that as an asset — that everyone should feel like they're welcome in the community. But I will say this, and this is a strong "but" — everyone with any level of intelligence does understand that we have to do something to better protect our borders. We just can't continue to have the level of walking across in the country that we have. That's dangerous for everyone. I don't think the answer is some kind of inhumane [action] or something that shows a lack of compassion for the undocumented citizen we have here, absent those individuals who are committing serious crimes or felony offenses.

If undocumented immigrants come here and are peaceful, work a day and pay their taxes, do you think there should be a path to citizenship?

I think that people should come through the right way, first of all. Come through our systems that we have. I realize that's a long and in some instances probably expensive process. But do it the right way. But I would not be in favor — me personally, just talking about how I view the issue — of rounding up individuals who are not causing any problems who are already here and deporting them from the United States. I don't think that shows compassion, and I think it shows a lack of humanity.

Over the weekend, several court orders were issued by federal judges in response to Trump's executive order banning immigrants from seven primarily Muslim countries, a move that had stranded over 100 green card holders in American airports and saw others turned away. There have been reports that Customs and Border Protection agents have refused to comply with those court orders. Do you think that the resistance to complying with lawful court orders by government law enforcement agents is dangerous for the country?

I do. I certainly understand the rub and the disagreement that some individuals may have, but again, we don't get to pick the laws, we don't get to make the laws. Our job is to enforce the laws, and I think we have a duty and responsibility to do that. But I think in doing so, we should never step away from the values we have in our respective communities.

The Trump era is shaping up to be an era of protest. There was a big protest at the state Capitol the day after the inaugural, and another in opposition to Trump's quote-unquote "Muslim ban." Are you talking to your officers about protests any differently than you were before Trump was elected?

No. I think with protests, we respect the First Amendment. We respect your right to protest. We certainly think that is a part of the fabric that makes America the country we are. As long as people are peaceful, as long as they're law-abiding, as long as they're not being destructive, we will certainly do everything we can to ensure they have the opportunity to do that. Absent breaking the law, I think people have the right to exercise their First Amendment rights.

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