All Pine Bluff schools, including Watson Chapel Junior High School, have been without school resource officers for about five months because the Pine Bluff Police Department doesn't have enough officers to patrol the streets, according to Alderman Ivan Whitfield.
Whitfield's comments were in response to a shooting at the junior high on Monday that left a 15-year-old hospitalized. Another student has been arrested and is being held.
The problem, Whitfield said, is that the Pine Bluff Police Department is not getting the support it needs or is asking for.
According to Whitfield, Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant had to remove all of his resource officers because of the low number of officers on the street.
"Chief Sergeant had to move them because we are really short of officers for the call for service; therefore we had to remove the officers from the school," said Whitfield, who added that the schools have been without SROs for about five months. "I want to say I hate this happened, but being that I've sat in that seat that he's at, I understand why he made that call."
Whitfield made the comments in an interview after Monday night's Pine Bluff City Council meeting, saying that the presence or absence of a school resource officer makes a significant difference on a campus. He said he had already received a phone call from a schoolteacher about wanting to have a school resource officer back.
"I've been where the chief is at," said Whitfield, who explained that SROs build special relationships with the students and are needed. "I feel sorry for the chief that he has to go through this, but he just doesn't have the support he needs to handle what's before him. We have a responsibility to work with the chief to assure we stop the bleeding at the Police Department."
Phil Blaylock, an Arkansas Safe Schools executive board member and past president, agreed with Whitfield, saying that having an SRO presence in a school is vital.
"When you're driving down the interstate and you see a police car, you may not be speeding, but you slow down," said Blaylock. "Same with an SRO. When we are active in schools, we make the bad person think twice."
Blaylock, who had just gotten off the phone with the SRO who used to work at Watson Chapel and is now a patrol officer, said the SRO was heartbroken about what happened because she had built a rapport with those students, both the suspect and the victim.
"The relationship that we build with these kids, we are the gap between the community and law enforcement," said Blaylock. "You lose that when you take that away. We're there to take a proactive approach."
Whitfield said he hopes some action will now be taken to address the issues he feels are needed in the Police Department.
Whitfield said there is $900,000 that was put into a reserve two weeks ago that he felt could have gone toward the needs of public safety.
"I have a problem that we passed a budget this year without addressing the needs of the Police Department, and I voted against that budget," he said. "I said to the mayor and the council, we got public safety issues that we need to work on. Why would we put $900,000 in the bank for reserves when our public safety is going under?"
Whitfield said the city cannot afford to lose any more officers and must come up with a plan of action to keep those the department has and to recruit more to fill the needs in public safety.
"We are in some tough times now. I think if we can't put it on their salary -- if you're here and you stay with us on Dec. 15, we ought to give a $3,000 bonus per officer," he said. "It's getting that critical."
The Pine Bluff City Council meeting on Monday night was filled with grieving hearts over the shooting. The session opened with a prayer for healing from pastor Matt Mosler as he asked God to give the community the strength to rise up against the evil that is trying to destroy the city.
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, who had 38 years in the school system before running for office, said she was devastated by the shooting.
"We all know that school shootings are a tragic occurrence in any city, but the reality of the tragedy is driven home when it happens in your own community," said Washington.
Also heartbroken was Alderman Glen Brown Sr., who said the victim was his brother's grandson. Brown said his nieces and nephews were frightened to go back to school.
"It's painful when you think about it that they're frightened to go to school," said Brown.
In a post-meeting interview, Brown said he was especially heartbroken because the victim is a relative.
"As I speak of it right now, I can feel the pain," he said. "With three or four other relatives that go to that school, the school district is in my heart."
Washington said she was grateful for the rapid response. She also said she had spoken to Guess, who praised the Pine Bluff Police Department, the Jefferson County sheriff's office, the Arkansas Department of Corrections and the Arkansas State Police for apprehending the suspect in a short period of time.
Washington said the Watson Chapel School District will have support from the Pine Bluff Police Department and sheriff's office for the next few days as they follow up on the shooting. School is expected to continue virtually today and in-person for the rest of the week.
She also said she has visited with Sergeant and that they will further discuss the enhancement of security and what the city, community and the district can do moving forward.
For right now, Brown is asking for prayers that his loved one pulls through.
"It's a very painful thing, and I hate it happened to two families as well as everyone that was around them," Brown said to the Pine Bluff Commercial after the City Council meeting.
Brown said he hopes the school shooting doesn't cause Watson Chapel students to transfer to another school district where they believe they will feel safer. He also said his prayers were with both families.
"I feel for the two families," said Brown. "The victim as well as the person that did the crime because those are two families that are going to suffer some tremendous pain for the rest of their lives."