by Max Brantley
David Koon reports:
Rita Sklar, executive director of ACLU-Arkansas, said that aspects of Paragould Police Chief Todd Stovall's plan to have officers dressed in SWAT gear and armed with AR-15 assault rifles demanding ID from citizens in high crime areas shows that he has "zero understanding of Constitutional rights, period." Meanwhile, the Paragould PD issued a statement yesterday cancelling further town hall meetings on the proposal, citing "public safety" concerns after a growing backlash about the proposal.
Stovall announced his new "Street Crimes Unit" plan at a Dec. 13 town hall meeting, telling the citizens gathered that the armed patrols would start in 2013, with officers stopping citizens, demanding ID and charging those who refused to answer questions with obstruction of governmental operations. On Sunday, with the Internet beginning to take note of his idea, Stovall seemed to dial back his tone, issuing a statement via the Paragould PD website titled "Armed Patrol Clarifications" which said that officers wouldn't harass citizens, and would not be carrying AR-15 assault rifles constantly while on foot patrol because it would be "impractical."
"Many citizens, through various media outlets, have expressed a concern about the police 'violating rights' or 'violating the Constitution,' " the statement said. "We have to abide by the same rules, regulations, and laws that our citizens do. We are not out to violate anyone's rights. Once we have an area that shows a high crime rate or a high call volume, it is our duty and obligation to find out why this is occurring and what we can do to prevent the trend from continuing."
On Monday, the Paragould PD announced via their website that additional town hall meetings on the subject scheduled for Dec. 18 and Dec. 20 had been cancelled "in the interest of public safety." The notice said that the department had corresponded with both residents and non-residents about the proposal. "Some of the correspondence has caused us great pause in whether or not the meetings should remain as scheduled," the announcement read. "As the police department, it is our duty to protect ALL residents and non-residents from harm. We feel that with the strong feelings on both sides of the Street Crimes Unit issue, a safe and productive meeting would not be the probable outcome."
Sklar said ACLU-Arkansas is looking into the case, and will welcome complaints from anyone who believes they were unjustly detained by police in Paragould if the program ever goes into effect. .
Asked about Stovall's contention that "statistical reasons" give him probable cause to detain a citizen, Sklar laughed aloud. "Why don't you just put in: 'HA!' " Sklar joked. "That's ridiculous. They don't seem to understand the law in that area very well." She said that in order to detain a person, police need "reasonable suspicion" that the person has committed a crime, a criteria that simply being on the street in a a high-crime area doesn't meet.
Sklar noted one case that came before the Supreme Court in which a suspect was detained by police after being seen standing in a high crime area, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, clutching something in his pocket and staring intently and nervously at a passing police cruiser. The SCOTUS still found that arrest unconstitutional. "All of that together still didn't constitute reasonable suspicion to stop that person," Sklar said, "much less being in a high crime area."
As to people being charged with obstructing governmental operations if they don't answer police questions, Sklar said that while police have the right to stop a citizen and ask questions, the person doesn't have to answer and the police can't make the person feel as if they aren't free to leave at any time unless they have the reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed.
Sklar added that it is a "wonderful thing" that the case has generated a lot of interest from the press, "and a lot of chatter on the Internet by citizens, which is also a wonderful thing — to know that people care about their rights."