Little Rock police chief answers black officers’ bias claims

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN --12/5/2016--
Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner speaks to the press at the scene of an officer involved shooting at 34 Harrow Drive Monday, December 5, 2016.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN --12/5/2016-- Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner speaks to the press at the scene of an officer involved shooting at 34 Harrow Drive Monday, December 5, 2016.

Complaints from a black police officers association in Little Rock have prompted a departmentwide memo from Police Chief Kenton Buckner, who wrote that disagreeing with agency decisions is not the same as being discriminated against.

In a letter sent to the city’s Board of Directors earlier this month, the Little Rock Black Police Officers Association called for an investigation into the “discrimination, inequities, and disparaging treatment of minority officers and supervisors” under Buckner’s leadership.

Buckner on Friday responded to the complaints from the black officers group by sending out a four-page memo to all police personnel.

In the memo, Buckner said he strives to be consistent and fair in his decision-making while keeping in mind the best interests of the department and the city. He said discipline is a subjective area of his duties as chief, and criticism of discipline is often based on rumors and partial information.

“Officers have the right to disagree with management decisions, but disagreement does not mean you have been the victim of discrimination,” Buckner wrote.

City directors say the association’s letter is unlikely to lead to an investigation by the city board. City Director Joan Adcock said she has not heard any other directors talk about conducting an investigation, and the city board does not involve itself with personnel matters.

“That’s not anything that we would take under consideration,” she said.

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The city has an internal process for complaints, she said, and the Board of Directors is only responsible for direct oversight of two employees — the City Attorney Tom Carpenter and City Manager Bruce Moore.

City Director Doris Wright said the issues raised in the association’s letter involve personnel matters, and any complaints should be dealt with through the city manager’s office and the city’s Human Resources Department.

Ken Richardson, a city director who represents Ward 2, said the letter raised serious issues that warrant some sort of investigation.

Besides calling for an investigation, the letter from the black police officers association, sent July 5, also addressed racial issues in the department.

“We allege that black officers and supervisors are disrespected by white officers regularly, and black supervisors are only allowed to render discipline to a certain degree,” according to the letter.

The association also called into question Buckner’s leadership and accused him of being “very reluctant” to discipline white supervisors and officers while having “no hesitation when it comes to disciplining black officers and supervisors.”

Buckner, who is black, was also accused of continually denying requests from the black officers group, according to the association’s letter, while investigating and prioritizing requests from the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police.

“The listed concerns are only a small percentage of the turmoil and inequity going on inside the Little Rock Police Department,” according to the association’s letter.

In a letter released this weekend, John Gilchrist, president of the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police, said he thinks the request for an independent investigation into the discrimination complaints violates the Statement of Agreement between the union and the city.

Gilchrist said the union, which represents the Police Department’s sergeants and officers in negotiations with the city, represents over 94 percent of the department’s sworn officials.

“This attempt by the [black officers association] to request an independent investigation is improper because it violates and circumvents” the prescribed process, Gilchrist wrote in the letter.

Gilchrist said in an interview that complaints of discrimination should have gone through the Fraternal Order of Police’s grievance process before being presented to the city.

Melvin Vester, president of the Little Rock Black Police Officers Association, said Monday that the association was simply trying to air concerns.

Buckner said in his July 14 letter that executive staff members often receive complaints of favoritism, but that he has made it “abundantly clear” to his executive staff that transfers and assignments to specialty units should be determined through a fair process.

Of the people assigned to specialty units during his time as chief, 55 percent have been white, 43 percent have been black and 2 percent have been Hispanic, according to the memo.

A total of 46 people have been promoted during Buckner’s tenure as chief, according to the memo. Of those individuals, 57 percent have been white and 41 percent have been black, Buckner reported.

In June, the department had 519 sworn officers, of which about 65 percent are white, 30 percent are black, 4 percent are Hispanic and fewer than 1 percent are Asian, according to department data.

“An objective person would see that the [Police Department] is genuinely committed to diversity and being reflective of the community that we serve,” he wrote, mentioning that he has personally implored the Fraternal Order of Police and the black officers association to help in getting candidates to move up in the department.

Buckner also wrote in the letter that the black officers association’s concerns with the department predate his tenure as chief, which began in 2014.

Buckner in the past has spoken publicly about racial tensions within the department.

“We are a microcosm of America, and we have black and white officers who don’t see eye to eye along racial lines,” Buckner said last summer at a panel discussion at the Saint Mark Baptist Church in Little Rock.

At the same panel, Buckner said one of the most frustrating issues to deal with as chief is racial tension. He said that some black officers feel there are separate books of justice within the Police Department for white and black officers.

Buckner declined Monday to discuss any personnel matters but said harmony within the ranks is important to him as chief.

The black police officers association in their letter outlined allegations that Assistant Chief Alice Fulk, who is white, may have violated department policies. The violations are related to discrimination and preferential treatment, according to the memo.

Sgt. Willie Davis, who serves as second vice president of the black officers group, said he is not sure if the allegations are true, but the association wanted the allegations to be investigated.

Instead, Davis said Buckner declined to conduct an investigation into the allegation’s against Fulk.

“That was shocking to me, and it was disrespectful,” Davis said.

“This is about accountability,” he said.

Davis said Buckner does not respect the black officers group — an organization Davis said stands up for black police officers and the black community in Little Rock as a whole.

In his departmentwide memo, Buckner said the black officers group is still displeased with him over a statement he made three years ago, when he was being considered for the position of chief. Buckner said he made a statement that he would like to see Little Rock police represented by one organization.

Buckner wrote that several black officers interpreted the statement to mean he wanted to disband their association.

“I have tried to clear this up with the organization on several occasions, but to no avail,” Buckner wrote.

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