Columns » Max Brantley

Police problems

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Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner's surprise emergence as a candidate for a higher-paying job in a smaller city (Charleston, S.C.) is a commentary on the fraught relationship of police with the Little Rock community and a city government structure in need of change.

The Fraternal Order of Police, a politically conservative, white-dominated group on an overwhelmingly majority white force in a majority-minority community, loves the chief, who happens to be black. His authoritarian manner works for them, because he's sided with them, particularly against complaints of racially unfair practices brought by the Black Police Officers Association. This, remember, is a force in which most white officers don't live in the city (too dangerous, the majority-black schools considered poor) and dozens of them get a valuable perk in the form of free transportation in police cars to and from suburban homes in white-flight communities.

But nothing is more telling about the FOP than the quote its leader, John Gilchrist, gave the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for an article about Buckner's efforts to get out of town.

"Gilchrist said a small group of anti-violence advocates in the community have the ability 'to politically interfere with the day-to-day operations of the Police Department.'

"The union's members also think [City Manager Bruce] Moore micromanages the department, Gilchrist said, although Moore has assured Gilchrist that the chief has authority to run the department without constant interference."

He refers to Arkansas Stop the Violence, led by Rev. Benny Johnson. What have they done? They've been a persistent voice against the violent crime that disproportionately harms the black community. They've held vigils to highlight the loss of life. They've questioned police shootings of black people in questionable circumstances. They've complained about police tactics in inner-city neighborhoods, such as a recent decision to step up random traffic stops in the name of "community policing." One police sergeant was caught making fun of Johnson personally and his vigils on social media. She wrote he should "shut the f*** up." She's still on the force, given only a meaningless reprimand.

The FOP doesn't appreciate Johnson calling out their shortcomings. Mayor Mark Stodola doesn't much, either. With backup from City Attorney Tom Carpenter, the mayor enforces a policy that certain types of comments about police are impermissible at  city board meetings.

That brings us to city government. The uneasy combination of a semi-strong mayor with a city manager and a city board controlled by three at-large members is a failure. We need mayor-council government, even though I appreciate Moore's efforts to exercise leadership when it is otherwise lacking. Moore stepped in after white police officers arrested civil rights lawyer John Walker for filming them during a dubious traffic stop and arrest of another black driver. This happens routinely to poor people in black neighborhoods at all hours of the day and night without consequences for overbearing officers. Some white officers detest Walker because he will not be silenced. I'm sure it still rankles the FOP that the police, in the person of Buckner but not the offending officers, were made by Moore to apologize for Walker's arrest.

The FOP likes their black folks quiet and obedient, even advocates for those being murdered. Too many of them seem to view inner-city residents as dangerous, more to be guarded than served. They've found a friend in Buckner. Only in Little Rock would traffic-stop harassment be viewed as "community policing." Only here would frightened, crime-ravaged citizens be depicted as part of the problem in police inability to solve crimes.

If Bucker isn't hired he has some fence-mending to do with city leaders caught unawares by his attempt to move to Charleston. If he does, maybe he could take the head of the FOP with him.

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