The mayors of Pine Bluff and Blytheville on Wednesday said they do not support defunding the police during a panel on policing and race held as part of the 2021 winter conference of the Arkansas Municipal League.
In rebuffing the idea of defunding police, Mayor Shirley Washington of Pine Bluff and Mayor James Sanders of Blytheville were responding to a rallying cry that gained national prominence during the George Floyd protests in the summer.
Though interpretations and goals tied to the phrase differ, activists generally call for redirecting monies typically reserved for police departments into other areas like social services and investing in historically neglected communities.
"We cannot defund the police at this time," Washington said during the panel, explaining that police salaries in Pine Bluff as not seen as competitive compared with Little Rock, hindering the city's recruitment efforts.
"We must increase funding so that we can have good, strong, competitive hiring practices and hire officers that are ... properly trained and capable of [handling] the job of policing our community so that our citizens feel safe and secure at all times," Washington said.
Sanders said he agreed with Washington.
"This is your security," he said. "Are you going to get some substandard security for your home?"
Like Washington, Sanders said police hiring has become competitive across the state, and referred to the difference in salaries in larger cities and rural areas.
He suggested properly funded and trained officers are needed so that "any criminal element" understands there is a proper law enforcement presence in the community to address crime.
Sanders acknowledged, however, that he has heard the phrase before and understood it to mean not directly defunding, but examining social issues and placing additional funding in those areas.
"Not taking anything from our law enforcement community, but actively placing funding to assist in the mental health issue or the situations that involve poverty that happens throughout our community that helps breed crime," he said.
If people are talking about addressing issues of poverty and mental health, "then yes, let's fund those areas, but please, let's not defund our law enforcement community," Sanders said.
Both Washington and Sanders are members of a task force Gov. Asa Hutchinson created in June during the Floyd protests. The group, the Task Force to Advance the State of Law Enforcement in Arkansas, submitted recommendations to the governor in December.
Sanders is a former police captain who worked for the Blytheville department and the Arkansas State Police. He briefly served as sheriff of Mississippi County.
The Municipal League's winter conference this year is being held virtually.
The panel featuring Washington and Sanders on Wednesday was part of a broader session that was billed as an opportunity for members of the governor's task force to air their findings and thoughts on topics like decertification of officers, bias, community policing and the use of body cameras.
Other featured participants included Fayetteville Police Chief Mike Reynolds, activist Layla Holloway and Bob McMahan of the state's prosecutor coordinator office.
During the session with Washington and Sanders, written prompts flashed on-screen to which the mayors could respond.
Washington recently experienced a brush with the strong emotions attached to the police official in her own community. In August, she terminated Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant over the department's response to crime and so-called vehicle caravanning, only to reinstate him two days later.
At the time, Washington told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the response to Sergeant's firing "was almost like an upheaval in the community, people saying we terminated Sergeant and he just has nine months until his retirement."