Crisis in Little Rock

Here’s my fear: That Saturday’s gang incident in downtown Little Rock that left 28 people injured was a tipping point for Arkansas’ capital city.

That the city I call home is about to enter into a long period of inexorable population loss and economic decline.

That we’re about to see happen here what happened in Memphis, Birmingham and Jackson, Miss.

The crisis began in December when a 2-year-old girl, Ramiya Reed, died after being shot while riding in the back seat of a vehicle with her mother. Police believe that event ignited a gang war that has caused violent crime in Little Rock to increase by 24 percent from the same six-month period last year.

The crisis escalated later in December with the murder of Acen King, a 3-year-old boy who was shot while riding in the back seat of his grandmother’s car. That incident received widespread media coverage across the country.

Even though they live in low-crime neighborhoods, Little Rock’s business owners and professionals — the doctors, bankers, lawyers and accountants — must realize that Saturday’s incident wounded the goose that lays their golden egg.

Will the wound ultimately prove fatal?

That depends on how the city and the state respond.

Let’s look at Memphis.

In 1960, the Bluff City had a population of 505,563.

By the 2010 census, there were only 298,645 people within the 1960 city limits (Memphis had maintained its overall population only through a series of annexations).

DeSoto County in north Mississippi grew rapidly as people fled Memphis.

Regional cities such as Jonesboro in Arkansas, Jackson in Tennessee and Tupelo in Mississippi also grew.

There was a time when residents of northeast Arkansas gravitated toward Memphis. They read Memphis newspapers. They watched Memphis television stations. They went to Memphis to visit the doctor, shop, eat out, attend concerts, etc.

Fueled in part by the public perception that Memphis has become a dangerous city, Jonesboro’s population has more than tripled since the 1960 census. Jonesboro has become the true regional center for northeast Arkansas. In 1960, Jonesboro had 21,418 residents. By the 2010 census, Jonesboro had 67,263 residents. That growth has continued with more than 75,000 people now calling the city home.

Here’s part of what happened to fuel the Jonesboro boom: People in small towns throughout northeast Arkansas turned their backs on Memphis. They now read the Jonesboro newspaper, watch Jonesboro television stations, listen to Jonesboro radio stations, go to Jonesboro to visit the doctor, shop, eat out, attend concerts, etc.

You get the picture.

Let’s also look at Birmingham.

In 1950, Birmingham had a population of 326,037, more than triple the size of Little Rock that year. In fact, Birmingham was about the same size as Atlanta (331,314) at the time. By the 2010 census, Birmingham’s population had fallen to 212,237. So Little Rock is now about the same size as Birmingham rather than a third its size.

Then there’s the state capital of Mississippi.

In 1980, Jackson had a population of 202,895. Little Rock was at 159,151. The current population of Jackson is about 170,000. Little Rock now has 30,000 more residents than a city that was larger by 40,000 people as recently as 1980.

We’ve certainly seen the growth of suburban cities in central Arkansas. But it hasn’t caused Little Rock to lose population — yet.

Conway’s population soared from 9,791 in the 1960 census to 58,908 in the 2010 census. Conway now has more than 65,000 residents.

During that same period, Benton grew from 10,399 to 30,681.

Cabot grew from 1,321 to 23,776.

Bryant grew from 737 to 16,688.

Little Rock also grew steadily (thanks in part to annexations), almost doubling from 107,813 in the 1960 census to about 200,000 residents today.

Is Little Rock growth about to stop while Conway, Cabot, Benton and Bryant continue to grow?

At a time when local television newscasts focus on crime stories — they’re easier to cover and more interesting to the average viewer than stories about government and public policy — people in the Little Rock television market increasingly view the capital city as a place they don’t want to visit.

Perception becomes reality.

Just as people in small towns in northeast Arkansas stopped going to Memphis on a regular basis and began going to Jonesboro instead, at some point those in the Little Rock television market will choose to go to the doctor, shop, eat out and attend events in Conway, Benton, Hot Springs, Russellville or Searcy.

They’ll stop short of the capital city.

So what does Little Rock city government do?

The first thing is to take whatever steps are necessary to fill the dozens of vacant Little Rock Police Department positions.

The Little Rock Board of Directors should declare an emergency and immediately approve across-the-board pay increases and signing bonuses for the LRPD. If it means slashing the budgets of other city departments, so be it. This is a crisis, and crises call for drastic measures.

The city also should hire a nationally recognized expert on dealing with gangs. That sends a message to the rest of the state and the rest of the country that Little Rock is serious about tackling this problem.

In an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story back on Dec. 19, Noel Oman reported: “Little Rock is looking at an array of options to more quickly fill the ranks of its depleted police force, including returning to patrol duty the nearly 20 officers now assigned to the city’s airport. … The 500-officer department has more than 60 vacancies, and the number of openings has been growing for the past six years. Having that many openings in the ranks has an effect on police response times and the overall visibility of officers in the city, Little Rock police chief Kenton Buckner has said. He said the vacancies leave fewer officers available to attend outreach events and force police to focus on their primary obligations, such as responding to 911 calls. The problem is more officers are leaving the force, for retirement and other reasons.”

There always will be high crime rates in neighborhoods where there are large numbers of young men raised in poverty in single-parent or no-parent households; young men for whom joblessness, hopelessness and violence have become a way of life. There are societal issues that go much deeper than the crime statistics.

The discussion about long-term solutions is one for another day. The focus now must be on IMMEDIATE steps that can be taken.

Filling the LRPD vacancies is one of those immediate steps.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola told Oman: “We’ve lost 37 officers on average over the last six years and have hired 31 officers on average over the last six years. That’s 36 positions less. That has to change.”

No truer words have ever been spoken.

City government owes the people who live in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods this much: Drastic actions. The failure to fill the dozens of empty LRPD slots borders on outright negligence. If anyone should be mad at City Hall, it’s those who live in areas where gunshots are a nightly occurrence.

Doing more to fill the slots also would send this message to the rest of the state: Little Rock is serious about its gang problem.

Little Rock is the center of state government. So that means this is also a state problem.

There are several things the state can do.

The problem is serious enough for Gov. Asa Hutchinson to call a special legislative session. Hutchinson, once the country’s youngest U.S. attorney, understands these issues. He must push for laws that make it more difficult to parole felons. An inordinate number of those on parole wind up in Little Rock.

The second thing the state must do is fund at least 30 more parole officers for Pulaski County. The caseload for parole officers in Pulaski County is almost twice that of other counties.

“More and more people are being released without adequate supervision,” one Little Rock civic leader told me. “So even though the law allows parole officers to search a parolee’s house without notice if a search might reveal possession of a gun or other contraband, the parole officers don’t have the time to use this law effectively. If this were aggressively pursued, we would keep some of the guns out of the hands of the wrong people.”

The third thing the state must do is to give more tools to Alcoholic Beverage Control so ABC officers can more easily shut down clubs such as the one where Saturday’s incident occurred.

The clock is ticking.

The time for city government and state government to act is now.

Mayor Stodola is a former county prosecuting attorney.

Gov. Hutchinson is a former federal prosecutor.

It’s imperative that they lead the way before Little Rock goes the way of Memphis, Jackson and Birmingham.


9 Responses to “Crisis in Little Rock”

  1. Ken smith says:

    You are right on Rex! Hope this doesn’t fall on deaf ears!

  2. Frank on the Hill says:

    Amen! Mayor Mayhem(I call him this because under his leadership, the city is in a state of mayhem) appears to be focused on promoting liberal issues like sanctuary cities and the laughable Paris Climate Accord. Mayor Mayhem needs to move past the failed Obama/Clinton agenda which his supporters in Pulaski Heights are still crying over, and start concentrating on the most important thing city leaders are elected to take care of – public safety. While Mayor Mayhem has been thumbing his nose at our current President, Little Rock has become the Murder Capital of the South. The general public doesn’t care what Mayor Mayhem has to say about national politics. He was elected to be a leader of this city and his job performance is sucking right now. He should listen to his very capable Chief of Police and get out of his way so he can restore order. It was good to see Governor Hutchinson get involved. I hope it’s not too late.

  3. Lance Hines says:

    Rex makes a very good point. I have been calling for a tactical solution since this outbreak of this violence. The only point I disagree with is that our police officer shortage cannot continue to be used as an excuse. The hard truth is that if we hired 200 more officers it would not stem the tide of what is going on right now in our city. We must police with the force we have right now and change our tactics.

  4. Eric LaRue says:

    Well said. I fear you did not even scratch the surface of what is needed though. As you mentioned Jackson is a good example of what Little Rock could become. There are areas in Jackson that Police, ambulance and utility workers will not enter after dark. When the power goes off in these areas utility workers go in daylight with police escort. Little Rock can change, or it can face the fate of the cities you listed. Leadership is vital. It is clear that leadership is lacking in city government. It is for the citizens of the capitol city to decide which leaders work and which have to go, but change is necessary when the situation is this dire. MONEY will not solve all the problems but it will certainly help. Higher salaries, signing bonuses , stronger leadership, and better equiptment are vital to rebuild the police force. Mandatory body cams should be a part of the expenditure . Cams for ALL officers will help to rebuild the forces reputation and make suspects as well as officers safer. Your ideas and mine are just a starting place, a few drops of water in an ocean of need, but if change does not start soon it will be too late. Your numbers tell the story. Urban flight will take away the funds needed to repair the damage and the downward spiral will be unstoppable.

  5. Terri says:

    As a resident of one of the suburbs mentioned, I can tell you that I truly hope LR gets the violent crime under control. I used to wonder why people were so hesitant to spend time in the city. I moved up here in the 90s, and have loved being in the middle of the state. I’m a history buff, and I love visiting historic sites and museums. I’m also a typical female who enjoys shopping, so I have appreciated having access to a variety of stores in central AR. However, I watch the news. I’ve noticed the increase in violence and crime in general. I used to roll my eyes when my husband asked me to be careful going to LR alone. Now, I hear his warning in my head before he ever voices his concern aloud. And I admit that I often find a reason to stay in my town and shop local. And, when I do venture into LR alone, I have considered taking my gun. That just seems crazy to me!

  6. V. Wingert says:

    Very good suggestions. The shortage of police officers and jail space has enabled a disregard of the law that has built to this point. When people can ignore traffic laws, speed and drIve recklessly ALL day and night without being ticketed, when people can commit petty crimes and misdemeanors ALL day and night with merely a verbal warning, it leads to an utter disrespect of the police and the law. We definitely need more and better paid officers and a system that can actually impose real consequences for offenders. I own a small business downtown and deal with the negative perception of our city on a daily basis. This perception, along with increasing violent incidents negatively affects commerce daily.

  7. Delta says:

    I hate to say it, but the only times that I look forward to going to LR are when I’m headed to the airport, and I have found some alternatives to Clinton National not far from me that are within the same price range. I fly out of Monroe, LA if it’s within $100.

    If I have to go to LR for any other reason, I get my business taken care of a leave without hesitation. Sad that it’s come to this.

  8. Marty McCasland says:

    We lived in Little Rock for 20 years, but last summer had enough, got in the car and drove to NW Arkansas, and bought a house and enrolled the kids in school within 10 days of first looking. My business, while based in Little Rock, could operate anywhere, so it was easy to move. We also moved two other households of close retired relatives as there’s no way we could leave them behind to become a statistic. Now, our new city (Bentonville), seems more like home in the 1 year we’ve been here than Little Rock did in the 20 years previously. As an added bonus we don’t have to pay $20k/yr in private school tuition due to the LR public schools being in such poor shape. Up here, we haven’t thrown caution to the wind, but also don’t worry about our kids walking to friend’s houses, playing in public spaces, exploring like we did as kids, or getting hit by a stray bullet like we increasingly did in Little Rock. I think the tipping point in Little Rock long-since occurred and, in my opinion the core cause being the destruction of the family, I don’t see how it’s solved for at least a few generations.

  9. Anonymous says:

    HELLO?? PINE BLUFF, ARKANSAS. That travesty is a playbook on how inaction will literally kill a once prosperous and family friendly city. Seriously, they need to study the demise of that town

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