Little Rock’s Chief of Police gave a wide-ranging speech Wednesday that touched on community policing, crime, department policies, and his opposition to medical marijuana ballot proposals.
Chief Kenton Buckner addressed members of the Political Animals Club at the Pleasant Valley Country Club.
The event was held after a summer of unrest and demonstrations over the killings of unarmed black men by police in St. Paul, Minnesota and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as well as the violent retaliation for those incidents in Baton Rouge and Dallas, Texas that left several police officers dead.
Buckner began by reassuring the audience that despite the sometimes dire perceptions of relations between police and communities around the country, in reality most people are thankful for police and their presence.
“I can tell you the vast majority of the public supports and appreciates the police. Regardless of what you see on television, regardless of what you read, what you hear,” he said.
Buckner touted statistics showing that Little Rock saw a decline in crime in the previous two years, although he said there has been a three percent increase this year. He did note that last year saw a 35-year low for reported incidents. Nearly 80 percent of reported crimes in the city are property crimes, he said. He called violent crime Little Rock’s “Achilles’ Heal.” He said the city consistently ranks near the top of the list of similar size cities with high violent crime rates.
“We get a reputation both in and outside of our city for our violent crime, and rightly so,” said Buckner, who has been chief of police in Little Rock for the last two and a half years. Before coming to Little Rock, Buckner spent 21 years working for the Louisville, Kentucky police department.
Buckner admonished the group of political and business to think more constructively about engaging with other parts of the city, especially where violent crimes are more prevalent. He remarked that if more people cared about education and providing opportunities to people in poverty-stricken minority areas, the city could more thoroughly address the effects of crime.
“When we live in our gated, country club communities, we sometimes are isolated from that mentally,” he said, noting the entire city is affected when kids growing up in high-crime areas “don’t have an opportunity to realize their possibilities.”
“We may be able to afford private school for our kids, but what’s wrong with volunteering at the public school to do some kind of mentoring or after-school program or helping kids with their homework who don’t have that infrastructure? Because that kid is less likely to put a gun to your head at the ATM machine” he said.
“We have some very painful historical scars in our city, particularly in our black and brown communities... When we begin to take ownership of some of the pains that we’ve caused, it is then and only then that people are truly, genuinely interested in sitting down and talking with you about moving forward,” said Buckner, who is black.
Buckner said two ballot measures that would allow the use of marijuana for people with certain medical conditions are intended to make the drug more commonplace in society. The two measures are a “scam,” he said.
“Call it what it is: it’s a trojan horse to recreational use of marijuana,” he said. “Think of all of the problems that we have in our city and put it through your intelligent mind and ask yourself, will marijuana fix that?”
Buckner echoed recent comments by Governor Asa Hutchinson, State Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe and the Family Council, all opposed to the marijuana ballot measures. Supporters of medical marijuana have argued the measures offer people struggling with chronic illness a less addictive and harmful alternative than some of the most widely available pain medicines, like prescription opiates.
The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment and the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act will both be on the November 8 General Election ballot. When asked after the event if there were one measure preferable over the other, Buckner replied “no, they’re both bad.”
Buckner said the Arkansas Sherriff’s Association and the Arkansas Chiefs of Police Association would also soon be making a statement in opposition to the marijuana ballot proposals.
The chief also emphasized the need for diversity in all professions and businesses.
“Diversity and discrimination have something in common: they’re both intentional acts,” he said. “They don’t accidentally happen. You have to have a mind and heart that says we’re committed to that.”
Buckner said he’s often asked how the police department is reflective of the community it serves. He asked the same of his audience. “Is your business reflective of the community we serve? When you have your board room meeting, who’s sitting in there?”
Buckner said the department has made a conscious effort to hire and promote people of different ethnicities and genders during his tenure.
He noted that of the 83 people the department has hired during his tenure, 49 percent were white, 32 percent were black and 12 percent were Hispanic. He compared those numbers to 2010 US Census data showing that 48 percent of Little Rock residents were white, 43 percent were black, while the rest were Hispanic or another ethnicity.
Of the 32 police department promotions during his tenure, Buckner said 54 percent were white, 43 percent were black, 3 percent were Hispanic and 22 percent were women. He emphasized it was important for organizations to not only bring diverse professionals through “the front door,” but promote them to those higher positions.
Buckner has expressed his opposition to a recently defeated ordinance proposal before the Little Rock Board of Directors that would require police officers to reside in the city. Supporters of that proposal have said it is needed in part so the department’s personnel can more closely reflect the demographics of Little Rock. Buckner has instead supported incentivizing police department personnel to live in Little Rock instead of requiring them to do so.