A statement released Dec. 21 by Paragould Police Chief Todd Stovall suggests that his department may be backing away from its earlier hard-line — and almost certainly unconstitutional — plan that would have allowed officers on patrol in SWAT fatigues and carrying assault rifles to demand the ID of people on the street and arrest anyone who failed to comply. Stovall now says officers will only stop people when there is "reasonable suspicion to believe criminal activity is happening."
Stovall had announced the new "street crimes unit" at a Dec. 13 town hall meeting, vowing that anyone who refused to present ID and answer officers' questions during a stop would be arrested on charges of obstruction of governmental operations.
After a growing backlash against the proposal, the department cited "public safety concerns" in announcing that further meetings on the subject scheduled for Dec. 18 and 21 had been canceled.
On Dec. 16, Stovall issued a statement on the Paragould PD webpage. Responding to what he said was concern from citizens that officers might violate constitutional rights, Stovall said that officers wouldn't harass citizens, and wouldn't be carrying assault rifles constantly while on foot patrol, as it would be "impractical."
In the statement released Dec. 21, titled "Community Policing Clarification," Stovall dialed back his rhetoric even further, saying the Paragould PD is "committed to combating crime and insuring public safety without violating citizens' constitutional rights." Stovall said that while the department would be putting more officers on the east side of Paragould, which would necessarily "increase the number of police-citizen encounters," those encounters, Stovall said, would be done "within the bounds of the Constitution."
"When suspicious activity is afoot and there is reasonable suspicion to believe criminal activity is happening," Stovall wrote, "officers will make contact with the individuals involved to combat any potential criminal activity. In cases where there is probable cause to believe a crime has already occurred, officers will arrest those who committed the crime — there will be zero-tolerance for criminals. It is in these instances alone in which officers will ask an individual to identify him/herself."
Last week, ACLU-Arkansas executive director Rita Sklar said that aspects of Stovall's original plan — including Stovall's contention that high crime rates grant officers probable cause to stop and question anyone they see on the street in high crime areas — shows that he has "zero understanding of Constitutional rights, period."
Sklar noted one case that came before the U.S. 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 court 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." Sklar added that while police do have the right to ask questions of a person they encounter on the street, the person doesn't have to answer and can't be detained unless police have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed.
Sklar added that it is a "wonderful thing" that the issue has generated a lot of interest from the press and public. She said Internet chatter about the issue "is also a wonderful thing — to know that people care about their rights."
Sklar said ACLU of Arkansas is looking into the case, and will welcome complaints from anyone who believes he was unjustly detained by police in Paragould if the "Street Crimes Unit" patrols ever go into effect.