PINE BLUFF -- A string of unsolved murders in the first two months of 2019 has prompted the Pine Bluff Police Department to ask the City Council to let it offer higher rewards for information that leads to convictions.
The city has had five homicides this year, and police haven't developed any suspects in any of the cases.
Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant took a proposal to the public safety committee Wednesday, asking to allow the transfer of $50,000 from unused salaries into a reward fund. The money would be used to offer larger rewards in hopes of generating leads that could result in arrests and convictions in the homicides.
Currently, Sergeant said, the department can offer rewards only up to $500 through Central Arkansas Crime Stoppers, a program that assists law enforcement agencies in solving crimes by offering rewards and generating publicity.
Calls to other law enforcement agencies around Arkansas revealed that there is no uniform amount that the agencies offer.
"I'd like to be able to offer a substantial amount of money," Sergeant told the committee. "A larger reward might entice individuals who have information critical to us to come forward."
Council member Ivan Whitfield, a member of the public safety committee and a former Pine Bluff police chief, said many people who have information about crimes don't step forward because they fear retribution. Small rewards typically do little to entice people, he said.
"Nowadays, to convince someone to tell who pulled the trigger, they've got to really consider some stuff," Whitfield said.
Even more substantial amounts fail to generate leads sometimes. Whitfield recalled the murder of 21-year-old Keith Wilbert Jr. of Little Rock, who was shot and killed Sept. 23, 2014, after three men broke into his home near the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff campus.
Police made an arrest in the case, but a judge tossed out the capital murder charge, and detectives have made little progress in the case since.
"The young man's family put up a sizable reward, but to this day no one has come forward," Whitfield said.
There have been 91 homicides reported in Pine Bluff since Jan. 1, 2014, according to Police Department statistics. Thirty-two remain unsolved.
Sergeant told the committee that he wants to request a budget adjustment at the March 18 City Council meeting. The $50,000 would come from salary funds that were not used in January and February because of job vacancies within the Police Department. The department has 17 unfilled positions, with starting salaries of $30,846 annually.
Council member Joni Alexander said she would need more information before she could support the proposal.
"I want to see what other police departments are doing in other areas and make sure we are asking the right questions," said Alexander, who is also a member of the public safety committee. "We also need to make sure we're actually giving the department enough money to do what it needs to do."
Officials at police departments in Bentonville and Hot Springs said their departments do not offer financial incentives for information leading to arrests and convictions. Others, such as the Little Rock Police Department and the Pulaski County sheriff's office, do.
The Little Rock Police Department offers rewards of up to $10,000 for information leading to arrests and convictions in homicides, according to spokesman Eric Barnes.
Those rewards, Barnes said, are authorized through the mayor's office, and may be even greater depending on the nature of the crime. All rewards are determined on a case-by-case basis and are offered to generate leads in hard-to-solve cases, Barnes said.
"Reward funds are released according to statements from detectives that a given witness's testimony was indeed crucial to obtaining a conviction," he said. "Typically, up to $10,000 is what we have in place, but if they feel it is necessary, they'll increase it."
For crimes other than homicides, Barnes said the department works through the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and Central Arkansas Crime Stoppers to establish rewards.
Barnes did not have data available that showed the effectiveness of rewards in solving crimes, but he said the existence of a reward helps generate leads.
"When money is offered for information, it does give them one more step of confidence to step out there and do it," he said.
The Pulaski County sheriff's office offers rewards through Central Arkansas Crime Stoppers, and the money typically tops out at $1,000, according to office spokesman Lt. Cody Burk.
"There are a number of departments that pay into the Crime Stoppers fund and, based on that, they run Crime Stoppers stories and most-wanteds," Burk said. "Everything is paid out from that fund, and rewards are based on the funds available at the time."
Burk said the sheriff's office currently has one open homicide case and is offering a reward of more than the $1,000 Crime Stoppers cap. That case involves 30-year-old April Harris, who was gunned down Jan. 19, 2018, while holding her 5-year-old daughter in the parking lot of an apartment complex in North Little Rock. Harris died at a hospital. Her daughter was injured but survived.
"The Crime Stoppers board met and agreed to raise the reward amount in that case to $10,000," Burk said.
John Johnson, a spokesman for the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney's office, said the office does not get involved in decisions to reward money in exchange for information. Such decisions are made strictly at the level of the investigating agency.
"I think it gets people to come forward and talk about a situation where they otherwise might not," Johnson said. "It does, however, require that we give extra scrutiny to that person's testimony."
Johnson said in cases where a person has agreed to testify in exchange for a reward, the prosecutor's office is informed and in turn discloses that information to defense attorneys.
"I don't want to leave the impression that people are getting paid for their testimony," he said.
Kyle Hunter, prosecuting attorney for Jefferson County, said reward offers are considered potentially exculpatory evidence and prosecutors are required to turn over such information to defense attorneys under the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland.
"Anytime someone is getting money for their testimony, they should be able to be cross-examined about that if there is a trial," Hunter said.
Greg Parrish, director of the Arkansas Public Defenders Commission, said rewards are useful tools for law enforcement, but defense attorneys will closely examine such deals in a trial setting.
"I can understand law enforcement trying to get the information, but I can also understand there may be certain people, a small segment of society, who will just be trying to collect money and will say anything to get it," Parrish said. "That is something we just have to deal with at trial."
State Desk on 03/10/2019