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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.

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