Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday announced the creation of a multi-jurisdictional, investigative joint task force that will help the Little Rock Police Department respond to a recent spike in violent crimes, including the Power Ultra Club shooting last week.
Backed by a phalanx of local, state and federal law enforcement, prosecutors and correction officials in the packed Governor’s Conference Room at the State Capitol, Hutchinson outlined what he described as an effort to take back the “streets of Little Rock.”
“Today, the urgent need is about safe streets and freedom from drive-by shootings and peace in our communities,” Hutchinson told the crowd of more than 75 people, including Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and several state and city elected officials. “To me, it is enforcing the law and having the tools to identify those that cause violence and to lock them up.”
In unveiling the new task force, Hutchinson was flanked by Little Rock Assistant Police Chief Wayne Bewley, FBI Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch, Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holliday, state Community Corrections Department Director Sheila Sharp, and acting U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris. He said all of those groups will provide support to the Little Rock Police Department to investigate violent crimes and bolster manpower to take gang members and other dangerous criminals off the streets of Little Rock.
“What this group is about and the immediate response is … enforcing the law and taking dangerous people off the streets,” the governor said. “And let me assure you, the Little Rock Police Department is working hard on the problem of crime and doing some very heavy lifting as they work the community to keep our city safe.”
Hutchinson’s announcement comes less than a week after a mass shooting in downtown Little Rock on Saturday left 25 people injured, prompting concerns from citizens, city leaders, state lawmakers and others that the city was not safe following a spate of drive-by shootings and other gun-related crimes that have left several people dead or injured.
Under the newly-formed task force, Hutchinson said the multi-jurisdictional investigative group was needed to aid the short-staffed Little Rock police in their efforts to solve the mass shooting and other violent crimes that have pushed the total number of killings in the city to 29 since the beginning of the year.
Following last week’s nightclub shooting, there has been an outcry from local community and church leaders, Little Rock city officials, state and federal lawmakers, and citizens for more to be done to combat crime in the capital city. Hutchinson reiterated those concerns at Thursday’s conference as many looked to him for leadership.
“We have experienced an escalating level of violence in Little Rock in recent years, stories tend to dominate the news and (it) causes worry. The looming cloud of violence harms us all, not just Little Rock, but the entire state,” Hutchinson said. “And if Little Rock is not safe, then we cannot succeed in our goals as a state. That is the focus of our efforts, our prayers and our hopes for this community.”
Although all details of the task force are not known, each law enforcement group will lend staff to man the investigative group that will share intelligence, identify immediate threats, target gang members and other violent offenders, and coordinate other efforts to support Little Rock police officials. In addition, Hutchinson said beginning this week the state Alcohol Beverage Control board and its enforcement agents will step up oversight of local nightclubs that sell alcoholic drinks, enforcing stricter closing times and visitations particularly in Little Rock and the surrounding Pulaski County area.
Hutchinson also said he has instructed Arkansas Department of Correction officials to work with the Little Rock Police Department’s Violent Criminal Apprehension team to concentrate on locating dangerous parolees, gang members and other violent offenders with outstanding criminal warrants and get them off the streets.
“They will work to take violent offenders off the street by imposing longer periods of incarceration for sanctions and they will impose stricter supervision for those who remain free, including more frequent home visits by parole officers with assistance for local (police) officers,” he said.
Hutchinson said state correction and Pulaski County officials will also work with local, state and federal prosecutors and judges to free up jail space for those who commit violent crimes, including keeping re-offenders involved in drive-by shootings and other gun-related crimes in prison longer. The Arkansas State Police will provide extra manpower to support Little Rock city officials when violent crimes or shootings occur, he said.
“These are items that we will be pursuing. There is more that can be done and will be done, but this is the right start for our community and additional resources, more accountability, and joint operations and a stronger partnership between federal, state and local law enforcement to make a difference in our community,” Hutchinson said.
Following Hutchinson’s remarks, Bewley thanked the governor on behalf of Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckley who was absent from the press conference due to a family death. He said Little Rock police officers already participate in a number of similar task forces, but said the governor’s joint investigative group will increase the law enforcement “footprint” across the city.
“This will just give us the opportunity to increase that footprint, and focus on those that need the attention and the investigations to help cease this violence,” Bewley said, adding that LRPD had a shortage of 70 officers across the city.
After the press conference, a stoic Mayor Stodola said he was optimistic the governor’s plan would help allay concerns about rising city violence and the recent string of shootings that has caused some state lawmakers and community leaders to question his leadership.
“This is just not the only thing, this is a piece of it,” Stodola said of the joint task force plans. “The fact that we can have an enhanced focus on targeted areas of the city is certainly important. But we are working with neighborhood associations, churches and (doing) the kind of things that will allow this … to actually subside.”
The Little Rock mayor, who has led the city since 2006, also downplayed criticism that he and other city leaders are not doing enough, listing a number of job and mentoring programs his administration has unveiled in the city’s urban areas this summer.
“We have to try and prevent these things from happening in the first place. You know, it’s a tough thing and there is nobody out here that is a superman that knows and can anticipate when these many bullets are going to be let out,” the Little Rock mayor said. “So, a lot of this is trying to get kids to understand that there is a serious consequence to it and the investigative nature of this particular joint agency group is going to be there to reinforce that fact.”
Some at the governor’s press conference had mixed feelings about the new joint task force. Rev. Benny Johnson, a local community activist who has promoted a “Stop the Violence” movement in Little Rock for more than a decade, said he was disappointed that local and state officials only reacted after the violence touched the city’s more prominent downtown area and brought international attention to the city.
“What happened when a 7-year kid and a two-year old baby got shot down?,” Johnson said, questioning drive-by shootings earlier this summer that injured a first grader and left a toddler dead.
To answer Johnson’s concerns, Hutchinson said the task force will begin its work immediately, with each of the partner law enforcement agencies contributing personnel to staff the joint investigative group for an undetermined period of time. Ultimately, the governor said, it will be up to Little Rock leaders and law enforcement officials to solve the growing crime problem and to bring peace and safety back to the city.
“And even though I’ve underscored what happens in Little Rock makes a difference to all of us, this is a local law enforcement challenge that ultimately must be solved by the city of Little Rock,” Hutchinson said. “That’s what they want, that is their pride, their community and they will address the problems, but I am very grateful for the leadership that is willing to say ‘we can partner better with the state and with our federal resources to be more successful in our efforts.’”