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Little Rock park users express frustration with rise in vehicle break-ins

by Grant Lancaster | January 30, 2023 at 6:40 a.m.
The parking lot near the Two Rivers Park Bridge, seen here in this Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023 aerial photo, has been the site of an increasing frequency of vehicle break-ins in recent years. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

At a parking lot near Two Rivers Park, a persistent rash of smash-and-grab vehicle break-ins continues to frustrate residents who walk and bike the park's trails, leading some to take steps to mitigate a problem that they feel police aren't equipped to rein in.

Thieves, who police think are mostly young men working in groups, break windows of vehicles in the parking lot near the park's pedestrian bridge and grab valuables, mainly electronics or wallets and purses, while visitors are in the park on the other side of the Little Maumelle River. The culprits are usually gone before anyone can do more than get a description of the suspects' vehicles.

The parking lot is part of Little Rock's River Mountain Park. The nearby Two Rivers Park is co-owned by the city of Little Rock and Pulaski County and is located just west of Interstate 430, near the confluence of the Little Maumelle and Arkansas rivers.

Two frequent visitors said that in addition to making sure no valuables are left in their vehicles when they leave the parking lot, they've resorted to just leaving their doors unlocked so thieves have no reason to smash their windows.

Having someone go through her car and belongings is "a yucky feeling," Capi Peck, city director for Little Rock's Ward 4, said, but it beats having to fix a window, something she's had to do before after having her car burglarized in the parking lot by the bridge.

Chris Faught, a longtime resident of the city and a frequent bicyclist, said he's adopted the same tactic after seeing windows smashed in the parking lot on what seemed to him like a daily basis. One day last summer, he returned to his truck to find the passenger door ajar, but there was nothing to take and his window was intact.

"It's not a great solution," Faught said.

At the end of December, Faught said he was biking in the park when he noticed a vehicle with a broken rear window parked within sight of a surveillance tower owned by Little Rock police. The incident, which matches up with a police report provided by the department, frustrated him, he said, and made him think that police don't care about the break-ins.

"It just seems like a total lack of interest. I've developed a really dim view of the Little Rock Police Department," Faught said.

Two Arkansas Freedom of Information Act requests filed with Little Rock police turned up just 35 incident reports linked to the park from 2019 to 2022, but police spokesman Mark Edwards said he has no doubt there have been at least twice as many in that time.

Of the reports, 25 were filed in 2022. Some reports detailed the break-in of multiple vehicles in one day.

Edwards said these incidents are cyclical, and that stopping the people doing it is difficult.

"It's a loop, and the ones we arrest somehow get back out and go back at it," Edwards said. "It's the same people, literally."

The surveillance tower in the parking lot is unmanned, Edwards said, with cameras that send footage to the department's Real Time Crime Center, which is intended to assist officers by providing additional information, including suspect information.

Officer Jonathan Tolentino, who used to work property crimes and now is another department spokesmen, said that usually two or more people will work together, with one driving and the other in the back seat. The driver will pull up next to a target vehicle and the other person will hop out and break into the vehicle before the suspects drive off, he said.

The tower in the parking lot is mostly used as "a scarecrow," Tolentino acknowledged. The thought is that potential thieves will be dissuaded from breaking in because of the camera coverage.

In addition to the tower, there's also a license plate reader camera in use in the parking lot, Tolentino said.

The reports retrieved from the two public records requests showed only one apparent arrest in connection to the break-ins, one that seemed to be a result of an effort to crack down on these thefts. Edwards and Tolentino said Thursday that they were sure more arrests had been made in the break-ins but weren't immediately able to provide further details.

On Jan. 13, police spotted a vehicle in the parking lot by the bridge that matched the description of a vehicle used in other break-ins there.

The vehicle escaped, but police located it not long after and arrested Ellis Yahsir, 19, who had a warrant for his arrest after he was identified as a suspect in an October break-in at the park. Yahsir's name did not show up in an online database of court records.

Inside the vehicle were multiple credit cards with different names on them and multiple Walmart Visa gift cards, the report states.

Thieves will sometimes steal a credit card and quickly use it to buy Visa cards so they can transfer the money and ditch the stolen card, Tolentino said.

Another incident report indicated that additional police patrols were routed through the park in mid-December in an effort to deter the break-ins specifically.

Vehicle break-ins, in the park and elsewhere, are concerning to police because a majority of the guns stolen in the city are taken from vehicles, said Maj. Casey Clark, which can feed violent crime.

Clark said that while they try not to victim-blame, police strongly encourage people to not leave any valuables in their vehicle, and certainly nothing in plain sight that might lure thieves.

Peck said that when she's talked to police officials about the break-in problem at the park, they often mention the limited number of officers on patrol.

"We don't have the staff to patrol parks," Peck said.

However, she's talked to a parks official about the problem and wants to suggest some other solutions. For example, it might be viable for police cadets or non-police city employees to be present in the park some of the time, just to serve as an additional deterrent to the thieves.

Alternatively, the park could install lockers for residents to place their valuables in if they don't want to take them with them when at the park, Peck said. That would leave little in vehicles to entice thieves.

Either of the solutions has the potential to make a dent in the problem, she said.

"I don't think it's getting better," Peck said.

Faught said he's frustrated that police seemingly aren't doing more to crack down on what is obviously a problem for people coming to the park, whether they're residents or visitors from out of town. He described the department as "completely impotent."

"You can't just let stuff go. You have to have law and order," Faught said.

CORRECTION: A parking lot near the Two Rivers Park Bridge that has been the site of frequent vehicle break-ins is part of Little Rock’s River Mountain Park. An earlier version of this story was unclear about the park to which the lot belongs.


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