Information is police officer’s best weapon against crime

By Wayne Bryan Published July 6, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Lt. Kevin Russell of the Benton Police Department celebrated 15 years of service with the law enforcement agency earlier this year. Russell and his cohorts also had reason to celebrate Tuesday afternoon when information fed to them by an eyewitness led to the arrest of a man believed to have robbed a local bank on three occasions. The lieutenant said such information plays a big role in fighting crime.

— The case was an example of crime-fighting in the 21st century.

On Tuesday morning, a Summit Bank in Benton was robbed by a man with a gun. Within two hours, a video taken from the bank’s security system was on YouTube for the entire world to see. The video was placed there by Lt. Kevin Russell of the Benton Police Department.

Meanwhile, working with agents from the FBI, Benton police detectives said they obtained information that the suspect was driving a red Mustang. That, along with other information, was shared with law enforcement agencies all over Arkansas.

Before 4:30 that afternoon, Arkansas state troopers said they spotted a car that matched the description of the vehicle on Interstate 40 near Forrest City, and an arrest was made. Soon afterward, Benton detectives said they and FBI agents from the Little Rock field office brought the suspect to the Benton Police Department.

In the announcement of the arrest, police said the suspect was linked to robberies of the same bank that took place in 2009 and 2011.

The arrest was made within seven hours after the robbery because of the swift exchange of information with law enforcement officers and the public, said Russell, who has served with the Benton Police Department for 15 years.

The lieutenant said one of the big developments in law enforcement is fast and efficient sharing of information about crime, with both the public and the law-enforcement community.

“It is vital to share information with the public,” Russell said. “It empowers our residents to take stock in their community and know about what’s going on. Then people are more willing and able to give us tips that directly help us solve a case or that lead us in the right direction.”

As public information officer for the Police Department, Russell said social media is playing an ever-increasing role in sharing information with the public.

“We are on Twitter, and our Facebook page (Benton Police Department) has received more than 10,000 likes,” he said. “We have our new app that people can download. It consolidates all the department’s content and services into one place. It will be a useful tool for keeping citizens informed.”

Along with information about crime, Russell said, the department’s Facebook page keeps Benton residents informed about special police initiatives.

“In June we placed an emphasis on conducting foot patrols in all the city parks,” he said. “Our officers had a good time taking pictures with people in the parks and posting some of them on our Facebook page. We not only let people know we are patrolling in the parks, but we had lots of positive interactions between officers and the public.”

A recent Facebook post by the department dealt with fireworks safety on the Fourth of July and even reminded residents that more pets are lost on July 4 than on any other day of the year. The Police Department announced its Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign for the holiday period. The campaign informs drivers that half of the fatalities in vehicle accidents during the July Fourth weekend in 2012 involved drunk drivers.

“The information is in a place where a lot of people see it,” Russell said. “Each reminder helps.”

Russell said today’s technology allows him to update important information at any time of the day or night, even if he is away from the office.

“In February, when a tanker truck overturned near the intersection of [Arkansas] highways 5 and 35,” he said, “we sent out push notifications several times an hour with information about the cleanup and detours people could use.”

Russell said the department works to provide a flow of information to the public as a “top-down decision,” made by Benton Police Chief Kirk Lane.

“It was part of his desire for transparency to get information out to the community as soon as possible,” Russell said.

Like many residents of Benton, Russell was not born here but has called Saline County home for a long time.

“We moved to Arkansas when I was about 10 1/2 years old,” he said. “My father was plant manager for Phillips Lighting in Little Rock.”

Russell was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia, and as the family followed his father’s career, they lived for a while in San Juan, Puerto Rico, before settling in Saline County, where Russell attended Harmony Grove schools.

After attending Henderson State University for two years, Russell returned to Benton and was studying at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock when he took a class that changed his life.

“I was at UALR’s Benton Center taking criminal justice, and a classmate was a police officer, Scotty Hodges, who is now a captain in the department,” Russell said. “We got to talking, and I asked him if I could go on a ride-along.”

Ride-alongs are opportunities for non-police officers to accompany an officer on patrol. Russell said it only took a couple of trips for him to decide law enforcement work was for him.

“When I graduated, I started with the Benton Police Department,” he said. “I think it had to do with me watching officers make a difference in their community — not just fighting crime, but interacting with people in ways that would affect their lives.”

In addition, Russell said, he enjoys the way police work is never the same, with officers responding to different calls each day.

After just over two years of duty in a patrol car, he was assigned to the Benton Bicycle Patrol.

“I love the community-oriented approach to police work that we’ve got on the bike patrol,” Russell said. “We were patrolling parks and going to classes to talk with school children.”

During part of the time he was part of the bicycle patrol, the squad patrolled Lake Norrell, which holds Benton’s water supply.

“We were on Jet Skis,” he said, laughing. “It was hard duty.”

Russell said learning to ride the personal watercraft might have been the most dangerous thing he has done as a police officer.

Seriously, while Russell said he has never fired his weapon in the line of duty, he said police work brings officers face to face with unknown dangers all the time.

“I remember thinking anytime I responded to a disturbance, especially a domestic disturbance, that I could be walking into an extremely violent situation,” he said. “You knew those kinds of calls were charged with emotion, and you have to walk in carefully.”

Budget and staff cuts ended the bicycle patrols about three years after Russell was assigned there, and he returned to patrol as a sergeant. He was then assigned to the training division. After 10 years on the police force, he was made a lieutenant. He began serving part time as a public information officer in 2002, and the work became full time in 2008.

In his current position, Russell is involved with many community programs, such as Operation Medicine Cabinet, part of the National Drug Take Back Day; and the Citizens Police Academy, which Russell said is planned for August.

Russell said crime is down in Benton, but as the community’s population grows, so does the number of calls for help received by the Police Department.

“The call load is increasing,” he said. “We answered 38,000 calls last year, and that is just the police.”

As for his own time as a police officer, Russell said he hopes to attend the FBI’s National Police Chief’s Academy in the next couple of years, but he said he has no plans to leave Benton.

“We live here,” he said. “Benton is home. I have no intention of going anywhere. I just look to do my job better every day with the safety of the community the top priority.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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