PPD cancels town hall events [Paragould, Arkansas]
Future of proposed street crimes unit remains unclear
Paragould police have canceled the remaining two town hall meetings that had been planned to discuss crime in Paragould after extensive public outcry over the department’s controversial proposal to lower the crime rate.
While a press release on Sunday made it appear as though PPD was reinforcing its decision to use armed foot patrols to stop citizens on the street and request identification, along with a reason for them being in the neighborhood, starting in 2013, the decision by police to cancel the town halls late Monday afternoon left those plans unclear.
In a statement on PPD’s website, the department said the town hall events were canceled in the interest of public safety after speaking with “numerous” residents and non-residents on Monday.
“Some of the correspondence has caused us great pause in whether or not the meetings should remain as scheduled,” the statement read.
“We feel that with the strong feelings on both sides of the Street Crimes Unit issue, a safe and productive meeting would not be the probable outcome.”
The meetings, scheduled for today and Thursday at 7 p.m., would have followed two previous meetings on Dec. 11 and Dec. 13.
Sunday’s press release struck a softer tone than Police Chief Todd Stovall’s harsher rhetoric at the Dec. 13 meeting, where he announced the creation of the street crimes unit.
At the time, Stovall said the street crimes unit would be deployed to high crime areas and would make contact with all pedestrians.
“If you’re out walking, we’re going to stop you, ask why you’re out walking, check for your ID,” Stovall told a crowd of nearly 40 that had gathered at West View Baptist Church.
Mayor Mike Gaskill followed Stovall’s statements by explaining that a simple walk with a family pet could get a resident stopped and questioned.
“They may not be doing anything but walking their dog,” Gaskill said. “But they’re going to have to prove it.”
Sunday’s press release, while softer in tone, essentially restated Stovall’s original position.
The release said once an area had been identified as a “high crime neighborhood,” officers would saturate the area in order to combat the crime.
“Officers would be working to identify residents in the affected area so that we can better serve our affected neighborhoods,” the release said.
Many times, the release said officers would not do anything more than make contact with subjects, handing out business cards and asking whether police could do anything for the subjects.
“During hours in which crime seems to be more prevalent (i.e. between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.), our process will become more stringent,” the release continued. “We will be asking for picture identification. We will be ascertaining where the subject lives and what they are doing in the area.”
Using information gathered during the patrols, police would then create a database of “go-to” suspects that could be questioned regarding crimes in the area.
During a visit to Stovall’s office Monday, he would not comment other than to say Sunday’s press release “speaks for itself.”
Therefore, it also remains unclear, if PPD forges ahead with its proposal, what course of action officers intend to take against citizens who fail to comply with requests to produce identification.
Stovall also failed to return calls Monday afternoon to comment on the department canceling the meetings.
PPD said its officers would also be in SWAT gear and carrying AR-15 assault rifles, though not on a consistent basis, according to the release.
Stovall explained Dec. 14 that while he had not consulted an attorney regarding the patrols, the department was within its right to implement the controversial stop-and-ID policy based on crime statistics and citizen complaints about rising crime in their neighborhoods.
Gaskill stepped back somewhat from his original position the day after the town hall event, explaining that police would respond to calls from residents reporting crime and would seek suspect descriptions versus random stops.
Gaskill also said PPD would not be profiling residents.
The PPD’s plan for the street crimes unit did not comfort some Paragould residents.
One of those residents, Richard Wright, lives on the east side of town and was out for a walk Monday morning.
“I don’t really like it,” he said.
Wright said if he were stopped simply for walking his dog down the street, he would be offended, though he felt he did not have any other choice to comply given the comments Stovall had made.
But another Paragould resident, Steven Hensley, said he was just fine with the proposed patrols by Paragould police.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “I know things get stolen around here. I’ve had a bunch of stuff stolen.”
Hensley said he would be happy to see police do exactly what they had proposed Thursday.
“If that’s what they want to do, let them do it,” he said.
“As long as something will work [to combat the area’s high crime], I don’t care.”
Attempts to contact city attorney Allen Warmath on Monday were unsuccessful because he was in court.
Gaskill’s secretary said the mayor was on vacation this week and was unavailable for an interview.