Little Rock's elected officials have scheduled an emergency meeting Sunday with the police chief regarding the recent rise in gang violence and how to stop it.
There have been 12 more homicides so far this year than in the same period last year, with 19 recorded as of Thursday. At least five of the first 17 were related to gangs or drugs, officials have said. Police haven't released a motive for the latest homicide, which occurred Thursday.
There were 71 people who received nonfatal gunfire injuries in Little Rock as of Thursday, a 92 percent increase compared with the 37 recorded at the same date last year. Officials said that at least 16 of those shootings involved a victim who was participating in gang activity, a drug deal or some kind of crime. One in five victims refused to cooperate with police, they said.
Police initially had been hesitant to call any of the crimes gang-related in interviews, but City Manager Bruce Moore sent a memo to the city Board of Directors last week that confirmed several of the shootings were linked to fighting between "two rival parties."
The crime increase began in November, when a 2-year-old was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting while riding in the back seat of a vehicle with her mother. The toddler was related to members of one group, and her death intensified the "long-running" feud between the "rival parties," the memo said.
Mayor Mark Stodola said he can't speak for police or the city manager on the language used to describe the crimes, but he said that while the groups could be described as gangs, they don't necessarily fit the usual characterization of a gang.
"It's been characterized to me as two different groups of people who have a relationship with each other, and therefore you could characterize that as a gang, but it's not color-based like the Crips and Bloods, it's not territorial-based, it's not geographically based, it's not based on criminal activity, which is what in the past gangs were affiliated with," Stodola said.
"That's why this is a distinction from what people typically thought about gangs in the past. We've got retaliatory shootings going on here based on some incident that happened in the fall. It's been retaliation back and forth. It's based in certain old areas, but I don't think they are necessarily going by a gang. It's more based on family and extended family relationships. You could call them a gang in the sense it's a group, but it's not a color," Stodola said, adding that police don't have a gang name associated with either group.
The Board of Directors will meet at City Hall at 3 p.m. Sunday with Moore, the mayor and the police chief. The announcement of the meeting sent out by a city spokesman Friday didn't mention gang violence, but instead said the gathering is to discuss the "recent increase in violent crime."
The public is allowed to attend, but there will not be an opportunity for residents to address officials on the matter Sunday. Instead, Stodola is opening Tuesday's regular board meeting an hour early to allow residents to address city directors before the start of the 6 p.m. meeting.
"I need to get the board updated on what we're doing to address this. We'd like to do this in an organized way," Stodola said.
Police Chief Kenton Buckner is to give a presentation Sunday about the recent crimes, the department's efforts to solve them, strategies that have been implemented and new initiatives that are planned.
The meeting was called Friday after a day care worker was killed Thursday by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting on Park Lane near 18th Street. A shooting Wednesday at a midtown apartment complex left a 17-year-old dead. A second drive-by took place Thursday about 20 minutes after the first. No one died in that shooting, and police are investigating whether the two are related.
"It's time to stop playing hug a cop and start being a cop," City Director Lance Hines said in a phone interview Friday, referring to the department's community-policing initiative, which focuses partially on officers building relationships with community members.
Hines said it's common knowledge "on the street" that the slain toddler's father is a gang member.
"They know who the suspects [in the toddler's death] are, but won't cooperate with police. The rest of the shootings have been retaliations," Hines said.
Stodola also said the matter of uncooperative witnesses has been a challenge for police investigating crimes.
The Fraternal Order of Police, Little Rock's police union, responded to the recent drive-by shootings and homicides on its Facebook page Thursday by blaming Moore and the city board for not filling roughly 70 officer vacancies.
The department is authorized to fill those vacancies, but too few graduating recruits each year paired with retirements have kept the vacancies consistent.
"Another homicide last night and one today at a daycare! When is enough, enough!" the union's Facebook post read in part.
Hines said the staffing shortage can't be used as an excuse.
"We're short-handed, I understand that. But we have the police force we have, and we're going to have to do the best with what we got," he said.
"I just think the community-policing effort, until we are fully staffed, needs to be put on the back burner. We need to go back to the old-school police tactics and do zero tolerance for any criminal activity, whether that's panhandling on the corner or littering or anything," he said.
"We should have a top 25 hit list of most wanted gang members, and if they spit on the sidewalk, litter, jaywalk, we ought to be running them in. We need to put the word out that we are not going to tolerate this kind of behavior on our streets."
Stodola said Buckner will give city directors an update Sunday on what the department's Violence Reduction Unit is working on. He said the city also has been organizing a group of ex-felons who might have some "street credibility" and be able to reach youths potentially involved in crime.
"The recent retaliatory shootings in Little Rock have justifiably upset our community," the mayor said in an emailed statement. "We are committed to finding answers to bring a stop to this violence and we want to let the public know what the city is doing about it."
Moore said he wants the public to know that city officials hear their concerns.
"We're dedicated to keeping our residents safe and are actively working with the Police Department to address these issues," he said through a spokesman. "During this meeting we'll also discuss staffing needs that will help our Police Department with its goal of protecting and serving."
A Section on 04/29/2017