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Little Rock police chief talks at downtown forum; reporters barred from meeting

by Joseph Flaherty | June 9, 2021 at 7:11 a.m.
Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey talks about the graffiti spray painted on buildings, police cars and the fallen police officers monument on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey addressed residents at a forum on policing and crime in the River Market hosted Tuesday afternoon by the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, but an event organizer barred news reporters from attending.

As a result, what the police chief said during his remarks to the crowd of about 75 people gathered at the Ron Robinson Theater is largely unknown.

Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the event was not intended to be open to the media despite an email that described it as a "public forum."

"Recently, we met with Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey and members off [sic] his team to discuss the recent the [sic] uptick in challenges we have seen downtown," Holmstrom wrote to Downtown Little Rock Partnership members Friday.

"As a result of the meeting, we are inviting interested DLRP members, downtown business owners and property owners to join a public forum to further discuss these issues and share additional information."

Recipients could "feel free to invite other interested parties," Holmstrom wrote, but he requested they RSVP.

Humphrey declined to answer questions from the newspaper after the forum and asked that the reporter address police spokesman Mark Edwards.

Likewise, Holmstrom declined to answer questions in person after the event concluded. He asked to be contacted by email.

"After meeting with Chief Humphrey a few weeks ago, as a service to our members, we decided to facilitate a dialogue between our members and the Little Rock Police Department about issues they were experiencing while in the River Market district," Holmstrom wrote in response to questions from the Democrat-Gazette. "It was our decision not to invite members of the media in a professional capacity to this event."

He did not address specific questions regarding what was discussed at the forum, why members of the media were barred or whether city personnel had requested that the meeting be closed to media.

Charles Blake, the chief of staff to Mayor Frank Scott Jr., attended the meeting.

Brad Workman, 66, the president of the property owners association at the River Market Tower at 315 Rock St., attended Tuesday's meeting.

He said Humphrey spoke about a lack of staff, difficulty with enforcement related to Arkansas statutes and the issue of "not necessarily having the right communication vehicle" between residents and police.

According to Workman, Humphrey said caravanning -- a practice where large groups of vehicles travel together, to the consternation of Little Rock residents and city officials -- "is not just in this particular area, it's all over the city."

Workman described noise as the primary concern among residents of the downtown residential area.

He acknowledged that he and others understood they were moving to an area where there would be noise, and he then referred to the emptying of dumpsters early in the morning as an example.

"But this goes way beyond that. The noise is off the scale," Workman said. "And it's disturbing our neighborhood." He added, "I think any of your readers, if they had this type of disturbance in their neighborhood, at those hours, they would be as up-in-arm[s] as anybody here is."

He said the noise included car noise, revving of engines, muffler-less vehicles and loud music. Workman said one individual at the meeting described windows on the 17th floor rattling around 1 a.m.

As violent crime rises, Humphrey also has had to contend with frustrated members of the city board.

A little more than two months ago, city directors at a March 30 meeting took Humphrey to task over the city's response to incidents of caravanning and street racing.

Since that meeting, city directors have approved an ordinance meant to address caravanning, but general concerns about crime have persisted.

The first iteration of Scott's proposed 1 percentage-point sales-tax increase, which would fund quality-of-life improvements across the city, was later revised to include a specific line-item allocation for community-oriented policing after the proposal met resistance from some board members.

A final vote on whether to call an election on the sales-tax increase was delayed until at least July 13 in an 8-2 vote of the board May 11.

On Tuesday afternoon, during a board meeting to set the agenda for next week's formal meeting, Vice Mayor Lance Hines asked Scott to consider asking the Arkansas State Police as well as federal law enforcement authorities to intervene to assist the city's response to rising crime.

Hines based the request on "what seems to be the escalation in shootings and homicides we've had over the last month" as well as what he described as a shortfall in patrol officers.

He named the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. attorney's office.

Hines referred to past collaboration between the city and state or federal authorities.

"I think we've got to have an all-hands-on-deck, where the state, the feds and our [department] officers are involved," he said.

Scott said Humphrey was working on "numerous" plans to fight the uptick in violent crime.

The mayor disputed the characterization of a shortfall of patrol officers, describing the departmental vacancies as between 30 and 34, "which are lower than it was several years ago." Scott said the vacancies were closer to 80-85 in 2017.

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