Kenton T. Buckner, previously of the police force in Louisville, Ky., was announced as the new chief of the Little Rock Police Department on May 28, with his first day on June 30. He succeeds former Chief Stuart Thomas, who retired in June after serving as chief since March 2005. Buckner is the 37th chief of the LRPD. He will be paid $135,000 per year.
Buckner, 45, joined the Louisville Police Department in 1993, becoming an assistant chief there in 2011. He was selected to head the LRPD from a pool of over 50 candidates. Finalists included Buckner, LRPD Assistant Chief Eric Higgins and John Ray, executive chief deputy of the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office in Texas. Buckner holds a bachelor’s degree in police administration and a master’s in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University.
The Arkansas Times spoke with Buckner at his office on July 11.
AT: Are you settling in OK?
KB: I am. I’ve got somewhere to stay temporarily. It’s my second week on the job, and I’m kind of going through orientation at this point, trying to learn as much as I can about the police department, the community, opportunities for improvement and the challenges we have. I’m just trying to get all our vested stakeholders in the room to try to get some effective plans in place.
AT: The Little Rock Police Department has issues and challenges, like any police department. They’ve been dealing with some of those issues for years. Could you talk a little bit about the pros and cons of coming into a situation like that from the outside?
KB: Good question. The pros of that: I think that you bring a different perspective to the table. You have a different lens through which you’ve professionally kind of seen the world. You’ve seen the workplace in maybe a different area where you’ve gained your wealth of knowledge. Some of the cons of that might be that it will take you longer to learn the culture and some of the outside influences that are a part of any city and things going on. You see what the agency is doing, both what we say on paper and what we’re doing at the operational level. So I think there’s good and bad to that.
AT: There were, of course, internal candidates who were up for the job of police chief who didn’t get the job. Is there any awkwardness coming into a situation where people who may have been here for years were passed over?
KB: I have not seen that. I had conversations with Chief Higgins early, after I learned about getting the job. He, of course, was disappointed, as anyone would be. I can tell you that there are a lot of emotional deposits that are made when you enter a process like that. That disappointment is painful, especially if you really, really want it from your heart. I understand how that can be disappointing. But, as a chief walking in the door, knowing that I have someone on my executive staff who made it as a finalist out of 59 candidates, I see that as an asset. I have someone who is chief-worthy working with me, that I can lean on and say, “Hey, what do you think about this? What’s your experience and knowledge about the following?” To have that information right next door to my office, I see that as a good thing. That certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize that he could be and probably is disappointed about not getting the job, as anyone would be. But I have not seen any kind of uncomfortableness as it relates to our interaction with each other, or by the two captains who, I believe, put in for the position.
AT: You’re coming to Little Rock from Louisville, Ky. Are you seeing any major differences between how policing goes in Little Rock as opposed to Louisville?
KB: Not a lot of major differences. Of course, Louisville is bigger — it’s a city of about 740,000 to 750,000 people, and a police department of about 1,280 [officers at] authorized strength. There’s a lot of similarities in our cities: diverse communities, a river that runs through the city, revitalization of downtown areas, crimes concentrated in communities, significant minority population [and] much of the violent crime occurring in the minority population and specifically the African-American community, both suspects and victims of those violent crimes. So, in that aspect, that’s one of the reasons why I put in for the [chief’s position with the] department in Little Rock, because I felt like what I had gained in my body of work would align me to be able to be successful here in this city.
AT: Little Rock, like a lot of big cities — as you were just saying — has a violence problem.
KB: We do.
AT: We had a situation down in the River Market on Wednesday night, for example, in which some people were causing problems at “Movies in the Park” and later fired off a gun, and we had 12 people killed in April alone. We’ve got a crime problem in general as well, but violence is what makes the headlines. What is your plan for trying to combat the violence we see in Little Rock?
KB: A couple of things. As far as the crime-control model is concerned, I subscribe to intelligence-led policing, which basically means we have some sort of mechanism that allows us to gather, analyze and disseminate information. From that information, I think you look at hot spots and focused deterrence. Look at locations where crime is occurring or is likely to occur, and focus deterrence — focus in on the key individuals who are causing problems in those areas. The reason that is important is so we do not alienate the public that we’re trying to protect, and who we are asking to work with us, with the kind of “net fishing” that you’ve seen some agencies do with the stop and frisk and the zero tolerance. Those things are very short-sighted, in my opinion. They offer short-term success, and in many instances, it scars the community and the trust and relationship that you have with them.
AT: You’re talking about going after hot spots and a focused deterrence, and a lot of the violent crime that happens in Little Rock happens in a kind of box south of I-630, bordered by the freeways. Those are predominantly African-American neighborhoods. With so much of the violence focused in those neighborhoods, how do you hit a happy medium between looking at hot spots and making those neighborhoods feel like an occupied country?
KB: The other two aspects that I didn’t cover on the crime model are effective partnerships with our state, local and federal agencies, including prosecutors. I think we have to have those folks at the table to kind of reinforce what we’re doing at the local level. Then the last component of that is community involvement. I see that as the foundation of an effective crime control model. Police can’t do it alone. We’re not going to arrest our way out of this. We have to have the public on board to do so. That leads me to your next question: How do you go into the African-American community, where the majority of the violent crime is occurring, and be effective in that community without alienating the community? Well, No. 1, they have to be on board with what that model is going to look like and what the plan is going to be. Then, we have to have some honest and open conversations as to: Who are our problem folks, where are the locations where these things are going on, and what are you willing to do to help us solve those crimes? There are a lot of folks who will throw stones at the police department, who will give media interviews about what we should be doing and about crime. But very seldom do we see them at our door when we’re asking for help to solve some of these crimes. One thing that I’m encouraged about is we’re talking about violent crime in our city. We’ve had 29 homicides so far [this year]. We’ve solved 25 of those, many of which would not have been solved if we didn’t have the community coming forward and giving us information. That’s a very, very good start when you have the community giving you that kind of support. Same thing with some of our robbery suspects. We’re sending these pictures out, and the community is responding. They’re helping us with some of that information. When you allow the folks that you’re protecting to have a say-so in what we’re doing and how we’re going to go about it, they’re more likely to work with you, and more likely to be patient when they’re caught kind of in harm’s way. When you’re out doing your work, they’re more understanding if they helped you devise that plan. We can do that by making sure to treat everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of where they live, [or] what their socioeconomic status is, and we have to do that both inside and outside of the police department. When you come into contact with people in the community, just because they live in a crime-infested neighborhood doesn’t mean that we treat them differently than someone who lives in an affluent community. It takes time to get those things changed. I understand that there are a lot of historical scars in this community and this police department as there are in most communities that have an urban environment. Police and African-American communities and Hispanic communities, historically, don’t have a very strong relationship. I can’t subscribe to that. I can’t surrender to that. My job is to build those relationships and bridges where we can to get them to come to the table. All of that starts with trust. Trust is built with deposits of good will, and I think we’re doing a lot of things in the police department to get some of those conversations started.
AT: You talked about community involvement. There have been efforts over the years to do youth diversion and outreach programs to try and get kids to stay away from crime. Are those programs valuable, or would that money be better spent on more handcuffs and more patrol cars?
KB: I think they’re a spoke in the wheel. I think diversion is a good thing. Anytime that I can take a 16- or 17-year-old young man who is facing, let’s say, a nonviolent felony offense, and they’re thinking about taking that individual and moving them up to an adult court. Anytime that I have an opportunity to divert that young man to services that will give him a last-ditch opportunity to turn his or her life around, we have to give that a try. We know that once you become a convicted felon, you pretty much have a stripe down your back for the rest of your life. So I think we always have to have some kind of effort to do intervention and prevention with high-risk individuals. I’m a huge proponent of education. We know that kids who fall out of the classroom land in the back seat of Crown Victorias driven by police officers. So any of those programs should be a spoke in the wheel of what we’re doing. There’s no one certain thing that’s going to solve any of these problems. The problems are too big, too complex, to have these sort of penicillin approaches to dealing with the problem we’re facing.
AT: There have been a number of controversial police use-of-force cases in the past few years in Little Rock. Some people have talked about whether it’s time for some kind of civilian oversight of police use-of-force investigations, or some kind of civilian review process. Could you talk a little bit about use-of-force, investigations of police use-of-force, and whether you would support something like civilian oversight?
KB: That’s a great question. Let’s kind of incrementally look at that. First, let’s look at use of force. Use of force is probably one of the key things you want to look at in any police department as to how we deliver our services. The main goal for that is to ensure that the force we are using is reasonable and necessary. Even if someone says, “Well, this is not illegal, or they were not charged criminally,” if I can look at that force and I feel like it was unreasonable and unnecessary, I’m going to have a problem with it. In the same note, I’m also going to make sure our officers have the ability to protect themselves. We are husbands, we are fathers, we are brothers, we are sisters. We have families to go home to. And I am not going to put officers out on the street who are at risk because somebody thinks it’s ugly because they’ve seen us on the ground wrestling with someone who we felt was being violent with us. So there’s a healthy balance that I have to strike with that. As it relates to civilian oversight, there are successful models around the country that I’m sure you can look at to see where some sort of civilian involvement has helped. I’m a big proponent of advisory boards to be able to help the chief focus on things that are important to the community. As far as the oversight is concerned, the only thing I would want to make sure of is that it’s a model that does not tie my hands in doing my job — one that is fair for the community to help them trust our processes, and one that does not impede upon the rights of our officers. Anything like that, I’d always be willing to review it. To make a blanket statement or broad-brush statement that I would want to implement something like that after two weeks, I think would be reckless on my part.
AT: Among the recent-use-of- force cases, the Eugene Ellison case comes to mind. He was the elderly man killed in his apartment over on University by two police officers.
KB: Is that the one where the two female officers were involved?
AT: Yes. One of them apparently shot him through the open door of the apartment.
KB: Yes, I’m familiar with that case.
AT: Is that case something you’d look into again? As the chief, of course, you’re going to be involved, but given the controversy surrounding that incident, would you revisit it?
KB: As it relates to my practice, do I plan to do that? I do not. I’m not going to rehash old investigations where the disposition has been rendered for those cases. I’m going to respect what due process has done for those cases. If it’s something that’s ongoing, that we do not have a disposition on, and I’m going to be asked to weigh in, we’re going to give it a thorough investigation. I’m going to make sure that everyone involved has been interviewed and that we’ve taken a comprehensive look at that case. But as far as going back and undoing or looking to undo things, I just don’t think that would be prudent of me to do something like that.
AT: New leadership is always worrisome for people involved in any organization, because a lot of new leaders want to come in and put their own stamp on things. Is there anything that you’d like to change in the LRPD in coming years, and how do you find a balance between rocking the boat and sticking with the status quo?
KB: Change is much like castor oil. It should be administered by the teaspoon. I have not seen anything in this agency that leads me to believe that those kind of changes are necessary. Chief Thomas gave me the keys to a pretty damn good car, and I appreciate that. Does that mean it couldn’t use four new tires? No. Does that mean that maybe a tune-up would hurt us? No. Does that mean we need a new coat of paint on it? Possibly. But I haven’t seen anything as it relates to our engine and transmission that would lead me to believe there’s something structurally wrong with this police department. There are always opportunities for improvement. We’re always going to be seeking that out. As it relates to change, I want our officers to have input on what that change should look like. I’m a huge fan of not allowing myself and other folks who have been promoted through the ranks to sit in air-conditioned rooms and write things on a white board that impact a number of different people who have no say-so on what the final model should look like. In many instances, they could save us time and money if we’d just ask them: “What do you think about this?” That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to agree with them every time, but the fact that they were heard, I think, makes a healthy police department.