Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Justice Is A Verb!
©Wendell Griffen, 2015

In the latest exercise of cultural incompetence and pandering to the storm-trooper mentality involving police interactions with communities of color nationwide, city directors in Little Rock, Arkansas voted last night by a 7-1 margin to purchase riot gear for most of the 551 members of the Little Rock police force. 

The vote to purchase the riot gear occurred despite pleas from members of the Little Rock black community who urged that directors study the issue further to determine whether riot gear is even needed in Little Rock.  As Mrs. Annie Abrams, a long-time resident of Little Rock told the directors, “We didn’t even have a riot in 1957 and didn’t have a riot when we had HBO [referring to the 1957 Central High School desegregation crisis and the mid-1990s Home Box Office documentaries about gang violence in Little Rock].” 

The Little Rock Police Department has what can charitably be called an “image problem” with communities of color. 

A former Little Rock police officer, Joshua Hastings, shot and killed a teenaged black youth, Bobby Moore III, less than three years ago.  Although Hastings was fired and later charged with manslaughter for killing Bobby Moore III, his prosecution was abandoned after two trials resulted in hung juries.  There was no riot.  There was no threatened riot.  There was no rumored riot. 

Eugene Ellison, a middle-aged black man and father of two police officers (one who yet works for the police department), was gunned down in his apartment by Little Rock police officers.  Mr. Ellison was unarmed when the police killed him.  The officers who killed him were not prosecuted.  They are still on the police force.  There was no riot.  There was no threatened riot.  There was no rumored riot. 

Little Rock’s Police Department, led by Chief Kenton Buckner, doesn’t need riot gear. It needs better cultural competence training, community relations, and better recruiting, screening, selection, and evaluation policies and practices.  Little Rock needs an independent civilian review panel with authority to investigate and issue findings regarding allegations of abusive and excessive force by police officers. 

Chief Buckner and Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore, both black men, could have been instrumental in advocating for those changes.  They chose otherwise.

So a mid-sized Southern city with a long history of strained race relations generally (albeit masked by the traditional notions of Southern “cordiality”) and clear recent evidence of tension between its police officers and people of color will now spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on riot gear for the agency of city government with, arguably, the worse relationship with persons of color to make that agency more culturally competent, accountable, responsible, or competent in the use of force?  Nonsense!
Bobby Moore III and Eugene Ellison are dead.  Little Rock police killed them.  No Little Rock police officer has been injured, let alone slain, because of a riot.  One would have hoped that Chief Buckner, Manager Moore, and the seven city directors who voted for purchasing riot gear would recognize that glaring reality. 

One would have hoped that the political leadership in Little Rock would understand that riot gear doesn’t prevent or solve police-community tensions. 

One would have hoped that Little Rock learned from the deaths of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, Rekia Boyd in Chicago, Illinois, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, that communities don’t need police to have riot gear to avoid civilians being killed by people sworn to protect and serve them.  The police need cultural competence.  They need better oversight, training, and understanding about human relations and justice. 

One would have hoped that several other members of the Little Rock Board of Directors besides Director Erma Hendrix would have bluntly spoken this truth to City Manager Moore and Chief Buckner and rejected this latest exercise in militarization of local police agencies. 

But as my father often said, “that would be too much like right.”

When another tragic (and avoidable) incident of excessive force/homicidal conduct by a Little Rock police officer happens, community tensions will intensify.  The police will turn out in their new riot gear as a “precautionary measure.”  We may expect the agency that demands riot gear without any historical justification to deploy with riot gear, riot or not.    

Police-community relations in Little Rock sank to a new low last night.  Thanks, Manager Moore, Chief Buckner, and the seven city directors who voted for the riot gear, for making bad matters worse. 


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