Today's Paper Latest Elections Coronavirus 🔵 Covid Classroom Cooking Families Core values Story ideas iPad Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive
story.lead_photo.caption Police lights

State Sen. Alan Clark said he has been unaware of systemic racism in Arkansas, but that his perspective was not the only one that counted.

Then he told a story about a Black friend from his young adult life who worked with him in the lumber business. His friend told him that certain large companies refused to do business with him because of his skin color.

"I'm not a bleeding-hearted guy," the Lonsdale Republican said. "Please keep in mind there are things happening that we don't see."

Clark is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. On Friday, his committee and the House Judiciary Committee held a joint session to hear testimony from activists, police officials and members of the public -- all of whom spoke on their knowledge and experiences on race relations involving police.

Among those who addressed the committee was Scott Hamilton, chief executive officer of the Urban League of Arkansas.

"This is my topic today, and this could be yours tomorrow," he told legislators. "Understand what people are asking and why."

Hamilton said it was important to "make sure that this topic gets to the [right] level of attention and respect. ... I think that's where solutions come."

Clark said the joint committee meeting would have been held sooner had it not been for the pandemic. Protests were held in Little Rock and across the country over the death of George Floyd, who was asphyxiated while in custody of Minneapolis police, officials said. Four police officers were charged in Floyd's death and are awaiting trial.

Legislators heard Friday from a Little Rock couple who testified that on the night of June 2 a North Little Rock police officer who was assisting the Arkansas State Police on riot detail, pointed a rifle directly at them as they were driving home.

James Andre Pendleton, an insurance agent and Realtor, said he and his companion, Keya Cooley, a nurse, were heading to his house near the Governor's Mansion.

As they drove behind the mansion, a police officer in SWAT gear pointed a rifle at them, he said, adding that the laser sight of the rifle was fixed on Cooley.

Another police officer approached him and asked the couple where they were going.

Pendleton said they were going home and motioned toward his house.

"Why is this guy pointing a gun at us?" Pendleton recalled asking the police officer.

"We're trying to keep everybody safe," the officer told him.

Pendleton asked the question again, more forcefully, and heard the same answer, he said.

A furious Pendleton wrote letters to the Arkansas State Police and other state agencies, as well as to Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Cooley told legislators that she has remained shaken since the incident.

"I understand there was a protest, but there's a way to handle things," she said. "I just think our rights were violated for no reason."

Pendleton, who in 2018 ran for the state Senate, said he eventually met with a top official with the North Little Rock police, who agreed to visit Pendleton's office to discuss the matter.

Pendleton said the official told him that the officer only had one flashlight, the one that was attached to his rifle, and that's why it was pointed into his vehicle.

"I had to look down the barrel of an M-16 because that's the only light [he] had?" Pendleton said Friday. "You'll have to excuse me, but that's bt."

Pendleton said he has heard nothing else from the North Little Rock police about the incident, including whether the police officer was disciplined.

Jonesboro Police Chief Rick Elliott also testified before the committees Friday.

Clark asked Elliott whether it was ever permissible for an officer to point a rifle at a motorist in such a situation.

Elliott said he wasn't there and didn't see it, but added that "it's not part of routine business" of a police officer.

Elliott spoke about the need for police officers to interact more with the public, especially younger officers. The younger generation, he said, tend to struggle more with public interaction because they are so accustomed to communicating by smartphone or tablet.

"These young officers are coming in with barely any life skills," he said.

Elliott also brought up the recent drain of experienced officers, either through retirement or voluntary career changes, and the policing shortage is becoming problematic across the state and elsewhere.

Also addressing that issue Friday was Jami Cook, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Public Safety, whose voice got louder the more she talked about it.

"We are in a crisis and the crisis is that we cannot retain officers in this country," Cook said. "I've been [in Arkansas law enforcement] for more than 30 years and I've never seen it this bad."

Cook also addressed the matter of low-performance police officers and sheriff's deputies. She said the state was unique because when an agency terminates the employment of a law enforcement officer and that employee is decertified, it becomes final. Those rulings are not reversed, she said. Other states are comparatively more lenient.

"[Even] if you've been decertified in another state, you can't be a police officer here unless the commission gives them permission," Cook said. "That hasn't happened. No decommissioning has ever been overturned."

During her testimony, Cook was joined by Fred Witherspoon, deputy director of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy. Witherspoon said police recruits are trained to "treat everyone appropriately" and that open discussions are encouraged when it comes to race issues.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, asked Witherspoon about police officers and deputies "tailgating" motorists before pulling them over, adding that her office has received complaints alleging that such acts were occurring too regularly.

Witherspoon, who is Black, said a similar incident happened to him.

One of the lessons he stressed to his recruits has always been to "make legitimate stops," based on real probable cause. He stressed this point after hearing stores about police officers in his community pulling over motorists on the bogus allegation that they were driving "left of center."

One day, he was driving home while his sons were in the back seat. A police car passed him, made a U-turn and pulled him over. The young police officer approached the car and noticed Witherspoon was the driver.

"He looked at me and said, 'Oh my God,'" Witherspoon said. "He was one of the young men sitting in that classroom. His first words to me were, 'Sir, you were driving left of center.'"

Witherspoon told him, "Young man, you're wrong. I was not."

The police officer got back into his car and left.

Witherspoon told Chesterfield that he can only train police officers to the best of his ability. A few may not be 100% compliant with that training.

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," he said.


Sponsor Content

COMMENTS - It looks like you're using Internet Explorer, which isn't compatible with the Democrat-Gazette commenting system. You can join the discussion by using another browser, like Firefox or Google Chrome.
It looks like you're using Microsoft Edge. The Democrat-Gazette commenting system is more compatible with Firefox and Google Chrome.