LITTLE ROCK A plan in Paragould to have police officers saturate high-crime areas and ask people in them to provide identification has generated controversy in and outside the small northeast Arkansas city with some questioning the constitutionality of the operation.
The Paragould Police Department reports on its website that it will use its Street Crime Unit to "curb criminal behavior" in problem parts of the city by saturating the area with officers who will at times carry AR-15 rifles. Messages left with Police Chief Todd Stovall and Mayor Mike Gaskill weren't immediately returned Tuesday morning.
The agency said officers will typically be making contact with people in the neighborhoods, handing out business cards and asking whether they live nearby. But at times with high crime rates, the program will become more "stringent," the department wrote.
"We will be asking for picture identification" between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., police said in the website statement. "We will be ascertaining where the subject lives and what they are doing in the area. We will be keeping a record of those we contact."
More than two dozen people have posted on the Police Department's Facebook page in recent days with many questioning whether the tactic should be allowed under the Constitution.
One posting on the page from a Facebook user identified as Mike Holifield questioned the legality of the plan as well as its likely effectiveness.
"Going into a neighborhood after the fact and harassing EVERYONE will only create more fear and mistrust of the department," Holifield said in the post.
Others, though, voiced support for the operation as a way to keep streets safe.
Brenda Dunavin, who owns Terry's Cafe in Paragould, said she favors the police plan because she's seen firsthand how crime has increased. She said her business has been broken into multiple times.
Dunavin said she is not concerned that the tactics might violate the Constitution.
"I really don't feel like that matters right now," she said, noting someone threw a brick through the back door in the latest incident. "It's not constitutional for [criminals] to behave that way. Something's got to be done to protect everyone."
The Police Department said the contact would not constitute harassment of residents, adding that the record-keeping will be beneficial because it will create a "list of 'go-to' suspects" in the event of a crime. The activity is not a constitutional violation, police said.
"Once we have an area that shows a high crime rate or a high call volume, it is our duty and obligation to find out why this is occurring and what we can do to prevent the trend from continuing," police wrote. "Therefore, identifying subjects in those problem areas help us to solve crimes, and hopefully to prevent future crimes."
Police said the officers would not always be armed with AR-15s on their foot patrols, but that it would be possible if they were deployed "into areas where there is the potential for contacting several subjects in a high-crime area."
The agency had scheduled four town-hall meetings to discuss crime rates and the new policy, but the agency's website indicates that only two were held before the rest were canceled in "the interest of public safety."
"As the police department, it is our duty to protect ALL residents and non-residents from harm," police wrote in a separate statement on the meetings. "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."
Paragould, which has a population of roughly 26,500 people, sits about 20 miles northeast of Jonesboro in Greene County.