Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington has called foul on reports that she was abusive toward police at a recent crime scene, reportedly even shoving an officer as she left the scene of the city's 19th homicide -- at 3101 Lilac St., at the corner of Howard Drive.
"The Fraternal Order of Police is coming up with a lot of erroneous information," Washington said. "It's mixed with some of what happened but most of it is being exaggerated."
Washington admitted to being emotional at the crime scene and to raising her voice, but she said at no time did she push any police officer, and she said she was never verbally abusive toward anyone.
The crime scene was the site of the Sept. 3 shooting death of Horace Harrington, 69, and has been the site of problems in the Shady Grove neighborhood for several years.
"There's been a lot of crime there, a lot of gun violence over there in the last 2½ years," Washington said. "Gang-related gun violence. Now, Shady Grove has streets like Violet, Howard Drive, Lilac, and it's been reported that a lot of this violence has generated from 3101 Lilac at the corner of Howard and Lilac."
Washington said she has been in frequent contact with the police administration in an attempt to get the violence brought under control, to no avail. Last month, after three homicides and a mass shooting that wounded seven people in a gas station parking lot, Washington fired Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant and named Assistant Chief Ricky Whitmore to head the department.
She was frustrated, she said, with inaction on the part of the department. But in less than 24 hours, the mayor reversed her decision and reinstated Sergeant.
"I've been on the police department about getting this under control, let's squash this, let's take care of this problem," she said. "Never would do anything, and then the residents started calling me, back to back to back. We're afraid because the boys who live in that house, they had guns but they didn't have means of transportation."
Washington said she was told that the teens who lived in that area would stand on the street with assault rifles as rival gang members would come past.
"So the guys in the cars were shooting at the guys on the corner, and the guys on the corner were running around chasing them with their assault rifles shooting at them," she said. "In the process, the other houses in the neighborhood were getting shot up, cars were getting shot up, people were afraid to sleep in their beds at night. People were afraid to go out and mow their grass because they never knew when this was going to break out."
Two area residents who were willing to discuss the situation said the neighborhood had become little more than a shooting gallery, with gunshots echoing through the streets at least three to four times a week, and sometimes several times a day.
Takita Burnett, who lives across the street from 3101 Lilac St., said she has lived in the neighborhood off and on for 25 years, moving there most recently in May. At that time, she said, activity in the neighborhood seemed to be mostly confined to speeding and loud music, but shortly after, she said, things began to take a more sinister turn.
"There were a lot of shootings, but no one ever actually got shot," Burnett said. "But sometime in June or July it was like it was happening every other day."
She said police officers she talked to told her there was only so much that could be done, that knowing who was causing the problems did little good if evidence could not be collected to prove it.
"I understand that because as much as you can call the police, if they do arrest someone, when they get out they can go back to doing the same thing," Burnett said. "Or something worse."
Burnett said she worries about her family, about what might happen while she is mowing the yard, taking out the trash. She worries about her parents who live two blocks away.
She said despite the problems at the house at 3101 Lilac St., Harrington minded his own business and never bothered anyone.
"He just sat outside in his carport and didn't bother anybody," she said. "But he knew the people who came over, family members and what have you, he knew but he didn't say anything."
Washington said she had visited with Harrington just days before he was shot to death, sitting in his carport, she said, smoking a cigarette and minding his own business.
"I still remember the day I met him, he was just sitting in his kitchen and was nice as he could be," she said. "This is the man who was sitting out in his carport smoking a cigarette the day he was killed. One of the grandboys in that house had had an altercation with another gang member while [the rival] was with his mother earlier in the morning."
Washington said that altercation soon took a deadly turn.
"I was told this boy came over, and he calls for this boy to come outside," she said. "The boy won't come outside. Now the boys across the street were watching this, and somebody was doing a live Facebook streaming. This man was sitting there smoking a cigarette, sitting there in that chair, and the boy couldn't get the boys in the house to come out, so he shot the man in the head, twice."
Washington said that when she learned Harrington had been shot, she had to go to the scene.
"I've never been to a crime scene, not one time, and we've had a lot," she said. "But this day, when this call came through, it was different, because I'd been reaching out for so long about this same house at 3101 Lilac St."
Washington said she was emotional and did raise her voice, but she denied yelling directly at anyone and said she never shoved any police officers.
Bill Wiegand, president of the Fraternal Order of Police chapter in Pine Bluff, was at the scene that day, and said he didn't see any shoving, but he heard about it from a number of people.
"I heard somebody yelling, and I turned around to see who it was," Wiegand said. "I figured it was a family member because we have family members show up at crime scenes often, and they are generally pretty emotional, as I'm sure I would be if a family member of mine were killed. But it wasn't a family member, it was the mayor."
Wiegand said he heard Washington say the police department was "sorry" and that "we've been dealing with this for going on 2½ years."
Wiegand said he was told that when the mayor left, she pushed an officer in the back.
"He turned around to me and said, 'I know she didn't just do that, you know?'" he said. "And she had, and she left shortly after that."
Gloria Garner-Evans, another neighborhood resident, said she was watching the crime scene as events unfolded. She said although Washington was upset and was talking to police at the scene, she never saw the mayor push anyone or yell directly at anyone.
"She was pretty upset because people had been calling in and trying to get some kind of protection, something to be done about what was going on," Garner-Evans said. "So she was pretty upset, and she came down and was talking to the officers that was there, and that was pretty much it.
"I know that she was upset because she was pacing up and down," Garner-Evans continued. "Up and down. But as far as hollering or pushing or cursing or anything like that, I didn't see anything like that."
She said gunshots in the neighborhood are a common occurrence.
"Two or three times a week," she said. "Sometimes the police would come out, sometimes they would stop and try to investigate a little, and sometimes they would just ride through."
She said traffic through the neighborhood is almost constant, and speeding is a constant problem.
"It's like there's no speed limit down through here," she said.
Wiegand said addressing violent crime is often a more complex process than some people realize as police not only have to respond to criminal activity, but also have to gather evidence and provide proof, not only that a crime was committed, but who committed it. In a city with high crime like Pine Bluff, he said, the pressure takes a toll.
"We're frustrated too," Wiegand said. "We told the mayor, if we take two guys out of that house and we ask them who shot up your house, if they tell us 'I don't know,' they're not going to tell because they want revenge themselves. So we have two choices. We can let them go, or it's not 1980 so we can't shut the lights off and hit them with the phone book. So we're back to, if they don't want to tell, where are you?"