Damascus officials said 20th Judicial District Luke Ferguson's decision to keep speed-trap sanctions in place against the city's police department is unfair.
"Having reviewed Mr. Ferguson's letter and the bases for his decision, it goes without saying that I am gravely disappointed with his judgment to extend the sanctions until the end of 2018," city attorney Beau Wilcox said in an email statement to the Log Cabin Democrat.
On Wednesday, a letter stating speed-trap sanctions that were placed against the city in 2017 would remain in place was sent to Wilcox, despite a recent request to have the sanctions dropped.
"First, the extent of the abuse of police power discourages me from removing the sanctions," Ferguson said Wednesday in a letter to the small-town city attorney. "As demonstrated by the original findings from May 2017, no reasonable method of calculating revenue would result in a finding that Damascus was not clearly a speed trap according to the relevant statue."
Wilcox maintains Damascus officials have worked to improve the city and believes the sanctions should be lifted.
After learning his request to have the sanctions removed was not approved, Wilcox said he feels area officials are making an example out of the small town and not taking into account recent policy changes.
"I feel the city of Damascus has been made an example of bad policing all over speeding tickets that by and large are validly written, while other departments across the state get away with far more flagrant, actual abuses," he said.
Ferguson’s letter was a response to a request Wilcox made earlier this month to have the sanctions placed against the Damascus Police Department lifted.
The city was found in violation of the state’s speed trap laws last year and was ordered to cease patrol of all highways. Former prosecuting attorney Cody Hiland found in February 2017 that Damascus was, in fact, in violation of the Arkansas speed trap statue because the city’s revenues from fines exceeded 30 percent of the city’s expenditures for each of the two previous years.
Wilcox had proposed that city officials be held to stricter auditing scrutiny in return that the sanctions be lifted, citing past concerns about the Damascus Police Department’s alleged abuse of police power in generating high revenues for the city though traffic fines. The small-town city attorney also said Damascus officials have eliminated the city’s police chief position and will continue to leave decisions that would be made by a police chief up to the mayor.
Keeping in mind that Damascus is home to 382 residents, Ferguson said he would not lift the sanctions and that the personnel history cited in Wilcox’s earlier letter “underscores the [department’s] abuse.”
"The letter advising me of the decision reflects two of the main problems that we have long attempted to underscore, to no avail, to the media and the public in general: one, Damascus' modest population has no relevance to the issues at hand, because this matter concerns traffic volume and public safety, not a mere census number; two, the practical effect of these sanctions has been not to curb alleged police abuse, but to essentially freely advertise to motorists that Damascus police will be powerless to stop and cite those who legitimately violate traffic laws within the community, thereby encouraging more flagrant violations.," Wilcox's response to Ferguson's decision reads in part.
Referencing the city's former police chief alleged mishandlings was "a red herring" and not a reflections of recent measures the city has taken in dissolving the police chief position and handing administrative duties that would require a police chief's decision over to the mayor, Wilcox said.
"The observation about the former chief of police being dismissed from his position and then not being prosecuted due to allegedly lax standards of oversight by city officials is a red herring," he stated. "There is no discernible logic that supports keeping these punitive measures in place because a former employee, who was terminated, was investigated for possible misdeeds related to the use of a city credit card or the sale of departmental property. This is a public safety issue and always has been, but it has been twisted into something else entirely today."
In his previous request to have the sanctions lifted, Wilcox referenced the city's need to have its police department's rights reinstated so that it could properly monitor the city's increased traffic flow with the summer season approaching. He said officials are also working toward installing a traffic light at the intersection of highways 64 and 124, noting the traffic light would help regulate traffic and that County Judge Jim Baker has requested funding from the Arkansas State Highway Department to make this improvement possible.
While the city and its police department "are not perfect," Wilcox said officials are committed to keeping the city safe and that the sanctions currently in place are impeding on their ability to maintain public safety.
"These ongoing sanctions have hamstrung those efforts greatly, and stigmatized the city unfairly," he said. "It is shameful that the 20th Judicial District prosecuting attorney's office has elected to keep these in place as a punitive measure while other agencies charged with taking up the slack have done precious little to ensure the motorists abide by plainly posted speed limits and commonly known and embraced traffic laws generally."