New Little Rock Police Chief Aims To Restore Trust In Law Enforcement

Jul 16, 2014

Police Chief Kenton Buckner
Credit Kentucky State Police

Little Rock's new Police Chief Kenton Buckner is in his third week on the job after moving from Louisville, Kentucky, where he was assistant police chief.

KUAR reached out to members of the community who have concerns about the Little Rock Police Department and then sat down with Chief Buckner to get his thoughts.

A full transcript of the interview follows:

How do you account for the recent increase in violent crime here?

You know, I think violent crime in most urban areas - and Little Rock is certainly not an exception to that - occurs in concentrated areas. and in most instances there’s a relationship between the two individuals being the victim and the suspect. That’s what makes that relationship dynamic so difficult to prevent because as police, I don’t know when you have an estranged or an argument or some kind of confrontation with someone you have a relationship with so its difficult for me to wrap my arms around when and where that dispute is going to take place.

Some of the things that are consistent in those violent crime pockets is kind of that socio-economical cocktail that you see in urban areas, poverty, low academic achievement, drug addiction, mental illness, unemployment. All of those things are part of the violent crime model and those are the types of things that make it necessary to need a holistic approach as to how you go about addressing that.

I know that the Ceasefire program or similar programs in Chicago, Boston, and recently in Philadelphia, have been pretty effective in reducing gun violence of a similar nature. Are there other cities that have models that you’re interested in?

Great question. I subscribe to seeking best practices, there’s no secret that some of the larger cities you mention, they’ve had some success, they’ve also had some disappointments. I believe in looking around the country to see what has worked and then create a Little Rock model. The reason I don’t believe in cookie cutter approach, and by that I mean, taking what Chicago did, or taking exactly what Atlanta did because the dynamics are different, the communities are different.

Any parts of those plans you find especially appealing?

Three things: intelligence led policing, which is a mechanism that gives you the opportunity to gather, analyze and disseminate information. It allows you to put information in the hands of your officers when you deploy them in special spots. Second area of that, hot spots. From that intelligence you should be able to know exactly where it is likely that you’re going to have these incidents based upon the data. Third component of that, is a focused deterrent to where you almost take a laser and key in on key individuals because in most incidences we’re talking about a very small percentage of people who are responsible for the majority of the crime you’re having It keeps you from stopping people like yourself who may have a friend or a relative or someone that lives in some of these hotspot locations to where we can focus on the folks that we know who are responsible for that. So the three things are, intelligence led policing, hotspot enforcement and focused deterrence, those are the three things you will see in most of the models around the country.

How would you describe the Police Department’s relationship with the community, particularly communities of color in Little Rock?

I would say that from my observations I’ve had, I’m in my third week, I would say its a working relationship with a lot of room for improvement. We’re at 29 homicides currently to date. I think we had 32 all of last year. So we’re on pace to have 100% increase in homicides.

One of the things, I always try to find victory even in something as dark as homicides. 25 of the 29 have been solved, many of which because the public has come forward and given us information and agreed to cooperate with the police. So in that instance, that’s encouraging to me that there’s enough trust there that folks are helping us with some of these investigations.

How do you think the Police Department can address relationships where a great deal of distrust does exist?

First of all, I think you have to own up to your responsibility or your involvement in where those historical scars came from. And I think you have to admit that and then try not to create new scars. A working relationship, one that everyone in our community feels that they are treated with dignity and respect, and they’re given benefit of the doubt until they’ve shown otherwise. But if you treat everyone in that manner, I think that’s one of the things you start to build trust with.

The other thing with trust is when we mess up internally, you know, I have to hold our officers accountable for what they are doing and that builds trust with the community if they know there’s a mechanism within the community that will deal with officers if they are unprofessional or even criminal in some instances.

One of the things we’re getting ready to go through starting the end of this month, we’ve reached an agreement with an outside organization that’s going to provide diversity and cultural training for our Police Department. We’ve signed a one year contract with them, that’s the training part. The other part is the application and how we’re going to go about doing that and that starts in our community forums, that starts in your neighborhood block watches. That starts with giving the community an opportunity to speak out and speak up on what’s important to them, giving them input and a seat at the table when we’re developing these plans. All of those things I think build relationships with those communities.

And then the most important component I think, again, when we drop the ball, when we are a disappointment, when we step outside of our value system we have to identify that, we have to address it and we have to be honest about it. Those are some of the key elements that will help building those relationships with the community.

What type of things have happened historically that have been such a problem?

Well, I think in some instances we’ve had controversial shootings. For most folks, a controversial shooting is when a white officer is involved in a shooting with a member from the minority community specifically, African Americans. Those kinds of incidences normally make the radar of the media, make the radar of the communities. 

We have incidents where maybe racial slurs are used in dealing with folks in the African American community or the Hispanic community... maybe people feel they've been disrespected in some way.

We have incidents where maybe racial slurs are used in dealing with folks in the African American community or the hispanic community, being discourteous, doing something maybe people feel they’ve been disrespected in some way. courtesy is a big one, the way we deliver customer service, the way I ask you about your driver’s license or to get out of the car may be something that individual may “you wouldn’t do that if I lived in another section of town.”

One of the things we try to do to prevent that, we have the car cameras that capture a lot of our engagement with the community and also I’m a big fan of having the on body cameras. We don’t have the funding for that right now but I believe somewhere in the near future down the road that is something because it allows us to capture that entire interaction between the public and the police so we can get away from this he said, she says as it relates to our complaints.

One concern that several community leaders expressed to me was that Patrol Division Officers don’t leave their cars when they visit neighborhoods and that makes it difficult to develop relationships with neighbors. Is that something you’d like to make a change on?

I think that is low hanging fruit. It doesn’t cost us anything extra that when you’re in that community driving through to get out and engage people in a constructive way. If the only time the community sees us is when we’re in enforcement mode, that is one of the things that creates one of the barriers to where people don’t trust you.

So we need to look for opportunities. Walk into your community center. If you know the community is having their neighborhood watch meeting, make sure officers get out of the car and walk in there to give people the opportunity to have contact with you. Getting out of your car and just walking the beat for a couple of walks or so. Those are valid concerns that the community has that we’re already sharing with our officers to get out and have constructive contact and it’s something we’ll monitor going forward to make sure we’re doing that.

I believe you said something like, it’s not possible to arrest away the problem. What did you mean by that and what would be proactive ways to solve the problem?

Well, when I say we cannot arrest our way out of crime. You’re very aware of our jail situation here. Well the jail is full and crime is still going on at a very rapid pace. So arresting people is not going to get us out of this issue. One of the things I would like to see us do is more prevention intervention, specifically when we are talking about juvenile offenders. Before they make it into the criminal justice system. Absent violent offenders, have some sort of side door exit that will give us some opportunity to get that individual back into school, to get them some kind of job training skill, perhaps even military, something that will divert them away from the path of crime because we know that once you become an adult and a convicted felon, life will really change for you.

Those are some of the interventions I think we should try to do when we see kids in the 16, 17 year old range, to do the best we can to try to divert them away from the criminal justice cycle. Because once you’re in there as an adult, I hate to sound negative, once you’re a convicted felon, your life is going to be very difficult after that. So those are the areas where you want to try to do prevention intervention.

Since there’s a growing Spanish speaking population in Southwest Little Rock, I spoke with a community leader from the Latino community who said there was maybe one Spanish speaking officer he could think of on the force. Do you have plans for outreach to bilingual officers?

I do, and I’m told we have either five or six hispanic speaking officers on the police department. I know that we also have the capability through a company we have a contract with, I think is Language Line is the name of the company. When you call 9-1-1 or our non-emergency number, there’s a button that our communications department will press and someone will immediately come up on the line to be able to speak whatever language it is that person is speaking. So we have the means to communicate with folks.

Recruiting Hispanics for the police department as it relates to employment is at the top of my list. We are at about 20% or so with African Americans given that they’re 42% of Little Rock, there’s opportunity for improvement there. But we will certainly give it a lot of energy coming forward to ensure we increase our minority enrollment.

I’ve heard you speak about net fishing approaches to addressing crime. What do you think about policies like Stop and frisk?

You might as well take those “stop-and-frisk” out and replace those two words with “any and every.” The thing it is is a high volume of contact. You pretty much go into those hot spots I mentioned earlier and you use the data to say this is a location in a grid were going to work in. In pretty much any area, you’re going to have some kind of contact with them.

The problem with that is, research has shown in most instances, a high percentage of the individuals you come into contact with, have nothing to do with the crime going on in that community. Which is why I oppose those kinds of messages because I think they give you short term success, because in many instances crime will go down because of the heavy police presence. The thing that will increase is the alienation the community will have with the police because you stopped so many people who had nothing to do with the crime element and you’re asking the same folks to work with you to build bridges to have this partnership. They’re going to be less likely to do that if they’ve been stopped ten or twelve times in a three or four month period and they had nothing to do with that community.

I’m curious how Louisville, the challenges in that environment are different than what you’ll be dealing with here in Little Rock, and what comparisons you’d make between the two?

I haven’t seen a lot of differences, other than the size of Louisville, a city of 740,000 or 750,000 people, of course Little Rock is about 193,000. The community is very diverse in Louisville as well as it is in Little Rock. The downtown revitalization, the investment in the downtown areas is very similar in Louisville, where you saw these old dilapidated buildings that are now very expensive lofts and condos. Same thing we have going on in Little Rock. The crime is in concentrated areas for the most part, same thing in Little Rock. For the most part, I have not seen a lot of differences.

What are the qualities that you think are important in a Police Chief and what are some of the qualities you emulate in some of the mentors you’ve had?

Vision is very important. I think you have to have the ability to not only have that vision but be able to articulate and deliver that vision to the folks you hope will follow you to that destination. The other thing is strategic thinking, the ability to see around corners for things that maybe some people may not see but you need to be prepared for. Also, patience, you the thing about any kind of leadership role. In many instances when we see things we want to change them or fix them immediately or overnight. We may not have resources to do that. Some of those things are very very complex and you have to understand that it takes time to have success in some of those areas.

The main thing I think is just being a leader, you know making good decisions, rewarding folks when they are doing the right thing and holding them accountable when they step outside of our value system. And then I think also there’s kind of a biblical, spiritual side to that that you have to do what god has called you to do. One of the things I’m always, I guess so emotional about about law enforcement is that I’m doing what I felt like I was designed to do. So those are some of the things I think are important for a leader to have.