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A Q&A with LRPD Chief Kenton Buckner

Little Rock's top cop on Baltimore, body cams, mass incarceration and more.


BUCKNER: A new jail wouldn't cure Little Rock's crime problem. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • BUCKNER: A new jail wouldn't cure Little Rock's crime problem.

After Kenton Buckner was sworn in as the new chief of the Little Rock Police Department in June 2014, we sat down with him to see where he wanted to take the department. Buckner contacted us again to ask if we'd be interested in doing a one-year follow-up interview, and we were happy to oblige.

It's been a sometimes tumultuous year for Buckner, from his controversial, post-Baltimore request to outfit over 500 LRPD officers with riot gear, to the encryption of the departmental signal so the general public can no longer monitor live police radio traffic, to the early-June admission that he'd lost his department-issued backup sidearm during a move, for which he was issued a written reprimand by City Manager Bruce Moore. At the same time, Buckner has clearly been trying to move the ball forward, including appointing the first female assistant chief in LRPD history and ordering field-testing of compact body cameras that could someday be an unblinking observer to every interaction between LRPD officers and the public.

Impressions on a year?

Inside the police department, I feel like that we are a strong agency. I feel like that we manage some very difficult circumstances very well. I think that we, as a police department, do a great job of investigations and finding wanted suspects. Some of our opportunities for improvement: I would like for us to be more proactive rather than just kind of taking calls for service and then reacting to that. I would like for us to kind of get on our toes so to speak, and get off of our heels. I think that's one of the gaps in our police department. Some of that, I think, is the result of personnel shortages, which we're in the process of addressing those things. But overall, I think the community at large supports the police. I think most of the community trusts the police and our processes. I certainly understand that there are sections in communities within Little Rock that we have a very strained relationship with — some of our minority communities, Hispanic communities, African-American communities. Those are relationships and bridges that we're trying to build every day.

In talking about "getting off your heels and onto your toes," some people talk about "predictive policing." Is that something the LRPD is involved in, and how does that work?

We're in the process of trying, through our IT department, of writing software that will work for Little Rock. We tested a company, I believe it was called PredPol. We didn't think it quite did what we wanted it to do for us. Even though it was a good product, we thought that we could write something better. We have some very talented folks that work for the city who are in the process of researching and writing software that will be Little Rock-friendly and specifically designed for the challenges we have. We think that sometime early this fall or early next year, we'll have a product in place to be able to have something to implement for long term.

Just for the layman, how does "predictive policing" work?

What it does is, it takes crime, it analyzes that crime, and then based on some of the information, whether it be the suspect, whether it be a geographical location, whether it be the victim or the crime itself, it kind of predicts, based upon patterns and trends, as to where the likely next occurrence will be or maybe where the suspect could potentially live based upon where the crime occurred, where the victim [lives]. Then it gives us an opportunity to do some of those proactive things. If we believe that the suspect is operating out of this apartment complex, victimizing areas in this shopping center, then we can focus on that apartment complex to try to find that individual before they're able to strike again in those designated areas.

You're shaping up to be kind of a technology chief. I wanted to talk about body cams. The department is testing those this year.

I've never been accused of being a technology chief. I appreciate that. I'm a guy that kind of — I learn enough technology to stay current, but I'm certainly not a "techie." Body cams, in my opinion, are reflective of best practices. I think when we look at what's going on around the country, when you see some of the things — good, bad or indifferent — there is some mistrust of the police department. One of the most powerful things that body cams will offer is that it allows you to bring an independent witness to what has taken place. [You have] the police version, the citizen's version, and then you have this camera's version of what has taken place. We think that's reflective of best practices. We think that by utilizing them, more often than not we will be shown to be exactly who we say we are, which is: We do the right thing. But in some instances, I think body cams will expose some folks who probably shouldn't be working here. That needs to be done. In some cases, we believe, the data shows that body cams reduce injuries to officers, reduce force, reduce complaints. If you, as a citizen, are aware that you're being recorded, you're less likely to act up. As a police professional, if I know that I'm being recorded, I'm less likely to step outside of our value system. I'm less likely to go against our policies and procedures, because I know someone is recording me. So I think there are a number of positives with body cams. But I would caution the public on one thing: The body cam is a tool. With every tool, there are limitations. In some instances, the camera may not be working or the camera may only capture a limited view of what's actually happening, and you can't see the total picture of what the officer was facing or what was going on during that situation. But I think certainly there are a number of more positives than there are negatives. We're testing that right now. We have a camera that we're utilizing in our operations by the company called Taser that makes our actual Tasers, then we have a couple of other companies we're going to test. Hopefully by the end of this fall, we'll be able to make a recommendation to the city manager, and then he will take that to our city directors and we'll talk about it collectively as a community as to what we feel is best for our city.

Do you worry that a body cam might hinder an officer by making that officer hesitate in a moment he or she shouldn't hesitate?

I think that there are some folks who would attempt to argue that. But to this, I would say, if you as a police officer who was sworn under oath to do the right thing would have an issue with an independent source recording your actions, then I would question whether you're the right person for this job.

One of the things that have been driving the call for body cams has been the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore over police use of force. What was your reaction to Ferguson, as a law enforcement officer?

My initial reaction was, as a citizen, it's sad. It's a tragic event to see an American city basically on fire from an event that stemmed from the actions of a community, a police officer and a police agency. As a police chief, I think that the first thing I thought of was, some of the pre-existing conditions that were in Ferguson exist in most urban communities. Little Rock is not an exception. Poverty. Trouble with academic achievement. Single-parent homes. Absentee fathers. Substance abuse. Mental illness. Most urban communities have those pre-existing conditions. When you have that, as a chief, when you're watching what's going on in Ferguson, when you're watching what's going on in Baltimore, you know that you should stay on top of what the national trends are and look for opportunities for improvement in your agency. Where you may have gaps, you need to close those gaps. One of the things for us is we want to build relationships with the community before you have an incident like that. You can't call upon stakeholders and community members if you don't have a pre-existing relationship. So that's why it's very, very important for us to be building those bridges today, before you have something like that happen. I pray that it never happens in Little Rock, but if it does, I want to make sure that our agency is prepared to deal with that.

Were the lessons of Baltimore different from the lessons of Ferguson?

I think they were. Baltimore is probably, for me, being a citizen of a [city of] a couple hundred thousand people with 600 police officers, Baltimore more closely resembles Little Rock. I think some of the lessons that were different, it was very easy, I guess, to throw a stone and say, Ferguson did the following things and this is why. They fell victim to this very tragic incident. I think they only have about 65 or so officers. When you look at the size of Baltimore, when you look at the size of that [police] agency, you see that very quickly they were overwhelmed with the challenges they were facing. So the lesson for me is, if that can happen in Baltimore, it can happen in Little Rock. Just because you're the largest agency in this state certainly doesn't mean that you, at some point, may be on your heels to where you feel that you need the State Police, or you need the National Guard. The chief of Baltimore, I've known him, he's very well respected in our profession; he's a scholar of this profession. If it can happen to him, it can happen to any chief in this country.

So much of Ferguson and Baltimore was about race and mistrust of the police. How do you build a bridge between a police agency and the African-American community?

The first thing that I think we must do as a profession, specifically chiefs, is we need to pull our heads out of the sand. We need to face up [to the fact] that there are some instances when our agencies and our officers are doing things that are unacceptable, or they're doing things that are counterproductive to what we're trying to do in building relationships with the community. We also have to recognize that there are some very painful scars in our community. In some instances, they go back decades. It's frustrating for chiefs to have to deal with something that happened 20 years ago, but I think that we have to recognize that. The other thing is that I think we — both the African-American community and the police department — we have to take the time to listen to each other. I think that both sides are busy shouting their message to each other and no one is listening. I think there are opportunities for improvement on both sides of the aisle. I think there are things that, as a police agency, we need to do to be worthy of trust from the African-American community. You can't continue to say "I want to build a relationship and I want to strengthen our trust with you," but continue to do things to erode that trust. It's my responsibility to hold our officers accountable for their actions, how they deliver service and how we treat people. But in that same breath, trust is a two-way street. We want the African-American community to know that we need them to [help] provide public safety in their communities. They can't turn a blind eye to things that have historically been going on in the community and expect the police to be the sole [agency] responsible for fixing that. This is a marriage that we both have to contribute to. If it's going to be fruitful, it needs to be productive on both sides of the aisle. I feel we're working on that. I don't think we are where we want to be, but I think that the future is promising for us, because I think both sides recognize what we've done to get to this point will not work going forward. Anyone who loves Little Rock, regardless of what you think about the police, I don't think that anyone wants to see our city go through a Ferguson or a Baltimore. If we both agree with that, then let's start from that point and work toward trying to do everything we can to prevent that.

It sounds like part of what you're talking about is community policing. What does "community policing" mean to you and how do we implement that?

Community policing for me is the community and the police mutually engaged in problem solving, mutually in engaged in common missions, mutually engaged in common destinations, working together. It is not a spectator sport. It is one to where, for police, we must allow the community to define part of what success looks like. Part of the problem is, for some agencies, when we're having these celebratory moments about the reduction in crime, we haven't taken the time to listen to the community to see what was important to them. If I don't know that illegal dumping or traffic issues are a problem in your community and that's the number one thing that you feel is an issue, and I want to come to you and say hey, look what we've done with homicide, while you can appreciate that our homicide numbers are down, you want to know what have I done about traffic and illegal dumping in your area. When I take the time to listen to you, then I'm more apt to be able to provide the kind of service that you feel you want and deserve. I think that's what community policing is. How do you implement that? You have to do that in a way that involves an inclusive process to where folks who have a vested interest in what's going on are at the table when you're making decisions. You have to have some measure of accountability with that, and also be able to measure if it's being effective. Once you're able to do that, you have to make the decisions about some kind of modifications of that, good or bad, to make sure that we're getting to the destination we desire. But the main thing is that you continue to communicate with each other and work with each other on those common missions, and those common destinations.

One thing you took some criticism over is the request for more body armorriot gear. Why was the request for riot gear made, and is it in keeping with the community policing message?

You being an astute reporter, journalist, you sat and you watched Ferguson and Baltimore. I'm sure that there is some part of you that said, "Man, I hope that never happens in Little Rock." I said the same thing. But in addition to saying that I hope that never happens in Little Rock, I took a look at our operations. I took a look at our equipment. I took a look at our city. I took a look at our history to see, are we aligned currently to be able to address that if it came to our doorstep? In my professional opinion, we did not have the equipment necessary to deal with that kind of event, in the event that it comes to Little Rock. So it was my responsibility to strategically place us in the position to deal with something that I see as a national trend in urban communities in the United States. In some ways, I certainly understand that because of the lack of trust some people have of the police department, they feel that it was inciting, or that we'll be overzealous in using that equipment. I can assure you that we're going to train our officers with that equipment. We have policies in place as to how to use that equipment and when we should use that equipment. We understand that we have to do everything with dignity and respect. But I can't ask our officers to go out and to protect our citizens, to protect property, if they don't have the ability to protect themselves. That was the primary reason I ordered that equipment.

Another thing that was kind of an issue for some people was the encryption of the departmental radio signal. Could you talk about that a bit?

Encryption, here locally, it was an issue in my former agency also. With technology, again, there's good and bad. Individuals were able to download free apps on their phones to be able to listen to what the police were doing as it relates to our operations. That's problematic. When we're responding to a location, the last thing that we want is the bad guy to be prepared for us to arrive. The strongest point that we have is that unknown, of them not knowing when and where we're coming from. But if you're hearing our communications, and you're able to prepare for that, not only can that be problematic for the citizens, that can be extremely dangerous to our officers who are responding to that location. So, in no way, shape or form did we want to have something to where criminals had an advantage over police through this free technology. When we learned there were ways that we could encrypt our radio communications, but still be able to provide the communications to the public in a delayed manner, we felt that was kind of the middle ground. For folks who asked for transparency, I think that you still have that. In years past, with the radio communications, once the communication is done, it's over with. You were not able to go back and listen to that. Now you can come in within an eight-hour window, type in your address or an address you're concerned about, and you can go back and see if something happened in that area, or what the cause for service was down the street from your home. You didn't have that prior to that. So in that regard, I believe that the public gained something that they didn't have initially. In no way did we try to be secretive or do something under the table with the public. This was all about officer safety. As a chief, there are certain times when the chief will have to dig in, and officer safety is one of those issues.

There were critics who said encryption was a way for the Little Rock Police Department to steer the message about crime in the city. Do you feel you've avoided that pitfall or that temptationto steer the message about crime?

I think that you will always have people who feel that you're not being truthful about your message, you're not being truthful about your numbers, feel you're not being transparent about what you're doing. As a chief, it is my job and responsibility to make sure that we're transparent, to make sure we're doing things the right way, to make sure that we have warning systems in place to be able to allow us, as executive staff, to identify if there's a problem. I think that our history has shown that more often than not, we do the right thing. When we misstep, we step up to the plate and say we made a mistake, we correct that, and we move on. That will continue under my tenure. Anyone who has ever said that we're trying to hide crime or do some of those things, that's just not true. I've not seen any kind of tangible evidence to support that. If they have that [evidence], I'd welcome them to bring it forward. Because we'll certainly investigate it very thoroughly and look into that.

I'm sure it's probably a sore spot, but I have to ask you about your pistol, the loss of your gun.

You wouldn't be a good journalist if you didn't. I went through what most red blooded Americans go through: I purchased a new home. I was very happy to be moving into my new home. It was the Memorial Day weekend here in Little Rock. I moved from a corporate apartment I had, and moved everything I had there. Switched vehicles a couple times to be able to do so. And in the midst of doing that, once the dust started to settle of putting new furniture in the home, having a number of different individuals come in and out of my home during that move, I was unable to locate my backup, department-issued firearm. At no time, and still to this day, do I believe someone stole the weapon. There are a lot of good people that helped me move, all professionals. But I had to kind of mention that, because if you don't know where it is then you can't truly say what happened with the weapon. If I had to be pushed with my back against the wall and say what do you think happened with it, I would say that it was in something that was maybe thrown out, and I was unaware that it was in there. But that was just one of those unfortunate, regrettable moments that you have as a chief. By doing the right thing, which I'm compelled to do because I'm tasked with modeling the way for our officers, I reported it to my reporting authority, Bruce Moore. I wrote a memo to him about that. Discipline was given the same way we give it to our officers. I paid to replace the weapon. Given my position in the agency, I felt that was necessary that I do that to set the example that if you're on the executive staff, you're held to a higher standard. So it was just one of those unfortunate incidents and it had to be reported, should have been reported and was. We did the right thing and we moved on.

Let's talk about the crime rate in Little Rock. Homicide is down from last year.

Homicide, we're at about a 55 to 56 percent decrease in homicide [compared to the same time last year]. Effective June 22, we were at 12 homicides. Now I think we're at 13, in comparison to about 27 or 28 [at the same time last year]. For us, we're very happy with that, but we still have to remember there are still 13 individuals who have lost their lives in our community. We still have the common denominators of some kind of relationship between the individuals in the homicide, which makes it extremely difficult to prevent. When you have two individuals who are in some kind of relationship with us, whether it be a domestic relationship [or] whether it be some kind of business relationship that results in someone's death, it's difficult for us to prevent those kinds of things. But we're looking good right now with that. We hope to continue to try to reduce that. That's a very unforgiving crime. It's one that no family wants to experience, and too often families in our city have had to endure that. But we're very happy that we feel like we're heading in the right direction as it relates to that specific crime.

The crimes that touch most people are kind of the quality of life crimes — car break-ins, burglaries, things like that. Where do we stand on those crimes?

Little Rock, because of this whole thing that happened back 25 years ago with the "Bangin' in Little Rock" stuff, developed this reputation as a very, very violent city. But the truth of the matter is, 82 percent of our crime is property crime — some of which is preventable crime. You know, when people leave doors unlocked, windows unlocked, valuables exposed in their vehicles, vehicles unlocked, those things make it very, very difficult for us to be able to protect them from those kinds of thefts. But make no mistake about that: That's not an excuse, because we're still responsible for protecting those areas. But property crime is a huge issue in our city. It's something that we're working on. Currently, this year, we're sitting at almost a 7 percent decrease in property crime. For 2014, we ended the year at a 4.98 percent decrease in crime. Currently this year, we sit just shy of a 6 percent decrease in crime. So, with that, we're at about a 10 and a half percent decrease in crime year to date with that. While that is good and we certainly feel good about our efforts, we know that every day, we have to climb that mountain. It's not something that we're sitting around resting on what we've done. We know tomorrow we could have some kind of spree of crime that would turn those numbers upside down. But we feel like we're heading in the right direction. Our officers are doing an outstanding job of being out, visible, engaged and in the hot spots and focusing on the individuals that we need to deliver our energy to.

The Pulaski County Regional Detention Center has been closed to inmates a few times in the past year because of overcrowding. Could you talk a little bit about the Pulaski County Jail and what you're doing to try and help alleviate the problems over there?

First, I will tell you that we have an outstanding relationship with Sheriff Doc Holliday. Doc has been not only a strong ally to me, he's been a good friend. He was one of the first people to call me in Louisville when I got the [LRPD chief's] job, to reach out to me and connect with me, and we've been good friends ever since. At no time have we ever had a person that absolutely needed to go to jail that he refused. There have been a few instances where the jail was closed because they had reached beyond their capacity and they were unable to take folks for misdemeanors, non-violent crimes and those kinds of things. But at no time do we have violent individuals or someone who absolutely has to go to jail that they don't work with us to do that. I think the state and the new governor that we have are working to try to alleviate some of those problems by moving some of the state prisoners out of the [Pulaski County] jail, which gives us those bed spaces back. We have not had [a shutdown] happen in quite some time, so we feel very confident that that initiative is heading in the right direction because it's been a significant amount of time since we've had something like — several months since the jail has been closed.

In your opinion, do we need to talk about building more jail space, or do we need to talk about who we're sending to jail?

That's an excellent question. I do not believe we need to build more jails. I think that we need to do a better job of raising our kids. I think we need to do a better job of supporting the folks in our school system. I think we need to do a better job of being fathers to our kids. I think we need to do a better job of addressing mental illness. I think we need to do a better job of addressing substance abuse. That cocktail of things that you see in problem, crime-infested communities. Those are the issues. No new jail is going to fix that. And until we start addressing the problems, we will continue to have these symptoms where we're filling up jails because we refuse to, or are unable to, address these severe, chronic problems that we have, that we cannot seem to be able to have some kind of long-term success in dealing with.

Looking over the horizon, where do you want to go from here? What's up in the next year?

We've done some really good things. We've hired new neighborhood coordinators for the city. That was very important for us to be able to build bridges in those areas where we have strained relationships. We're trying to increase our brand as a police department to show our positive interaction with the community, to take advantage of those opportunities that we have when we interact with the community where it's a positive experience for the community and the police. Technology-wise, with the body cameras on the way, with us looking at our infrastructure to see how we can improve on that totally inside the agency. I just recently had an audit of our property room, and we're getting ready to do an audit of our communications center, so we're looking to improve those very important areas of the police department. We're in the process of trying to increase our authorized strength. It takes time to do that, but we recognize that we need to do so. But the city manager is working very hard with us to determine how we're going to go about doing that. Once we're able to do that, we think we'll be able to do some of these more proactive initiatives, to where we'll be able to prevent some of the crime that's going on in Little Rock. We'll continue to try to increase the number of neighborhood associations, and neighborhood community involvement, which is very important for us. Training is a huge issue for us. We want to be reflective of best practices as it relates to our training. We have a new commander that's looking for what's going on around the country and bringing some of those ideas here. We're in the process of sending our executive staff around the country to receive executive certifications so that our folks are equipped and tooled with what is considered best practices for our profession. So there are a lot of good things going on in Little Rock. I think that we certainly have some room for improvement. We're not a perfect police department. But I think we're a good police department. We will continue to try to be deserving of the trust and respect that I think the vast majority of our citizens give us. But we also recognize that we have some strained relationships with some sections of our community that we need to work on. So. going forward, that will receive a lot of our attention, and we realize that in some instances we were a part of the problem for that.

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