Police Chief Kenton Buckner’s
surprise emergence as a candidate for a higher-paying job in a smaller city (Charleston, S.C.) is being viewed properly as 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 time and again, particularly against criticism 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.

Advertisement

But nothing is more telling about the FOP than the quote its leader, John Gilchrist, gave the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette yesterday for an article about Buckner’s efforts to get the hell 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 here 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 nd writing he should “shut the f*** up.” She’s still on the force. She reportedly got a reprimand, an action not serious enough to allow a worthwhile inspection of her record.

Advertisement

The FOP doesn’t appreciate Benny Johnson calling out their shortcomings. Mayor Mark Stodola doesn’t much either. With backup from City Attorney Tom Carpenter, they enforce a policy that certain types of comments about police are impermissible at  City Board meetings. Carpenter and Stodola may not wish to discuss litigation and police policy and that’s their right. But if citizens can’t express their opinions or distribute information on these issues — and I agree with an opinion from attorney Chris Burks that it’s a 1st Amendment violation to block such activity — we have impaired democracy at city hall.

It’s true that some criticism still does get voiced that illustrates the ongoing problems with police relations. Check the clip I’ve posted of the public comment session Jan. 30. Its annotations are from a post on the Facebook page of Russ Racop, a candidate for City Board and tireless police critic. His FOI requests likely were behind a recent police decision to impose an illegal $3 charge for CDs produced in response to FOI requests. State law allows a charge only for cost of the materials (about 58 cents for a CD.)

Advertisement

That brings us to city government. The 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 happen to appreciate Bruce Moore’s efforts to exercise some 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 John Walker because he will not be silenced, a fact made clear on video of the arrest. 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 when they’re being murdered. Too many of them seem to view these citizens as a dangerous element to be guarded or kept under watch rather 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.

If Buckner leaves, you could be forgiven for wishing he’d take the head of the FOP with him.