Planned police patrol stirs ‘strong feelings’ in Paragould

Arkansas News Bureau

LITTLE ROCK — The Paragould Police Department is trying to assuage public concern following statements by its chief that he will deploy police in SWAT gear and semiautomatic rifles on city streets to question residents and check identification.

No such unit is in place and "we’re not declaring marshal law," a woman who answered the phone in Mayor Mike Gaskill’s office said Monday. She said the mayor was on vacation this week and said a statement posted on the police department’s website would answer any questions in his stead.

Neither Gaskill nor Police Chief Todd Stovall returned calls to their offices seeking comment Monday.

The two announced at a town hall meeting last week that next year the city would deploy a new street crimes unit in certain areas in response to rising crime.

"If you’re out walking, we’re going to stop you, ask why you’re out walking, check for your ID," Stovall said, according to a report in the Paragould Daily Press.

"They may not be doing anything but walking their dog. But they’re going to have to prove it," Gaskill added, according to the newspaper.

The report apparently cause a stir in the city of 26,500 about 150 miles northeast of Little Rock. The police department posted a statement on its website Sunday that it said was in response to questions and concerns raised by citizens regarding the tactics and methods under which the new police unit would operate.

The statement said officers would patrol areas where police have received a high volume of calls for service and would respond to requests from residents with concerns about safety in their neighborhoods. It said officers would work to identify residents of the neighborhood.

"Most often, this identification process will be nothing more than making contact with a subject, handing them a business card and asking if they live in the area and if there’s anything we can do for them," it said.

"During hours in which crime seems to be more prevalent (i.e., between the hours of 11pm and 5 am), our process will become more stringent. We will be asking for picture identification. We will be ascertaining where the subject lives and what they are doing in the area. We will be keeping a record of those we contact," the statement said.

We are not out to violate anyone’s rights. Once we have an area that shows a high crime rate or a high call volume, it is our duty and obligation to find out why this is occurring and what we can do to prevent the trend from continuing. Therefore, identifying subjects in those problem areas help us to solve crimes, and hopefully to prevent future crimes," the statement said.

Felecia Epps, a criminal law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said police have authority to stop and question suspicious individuals for reasonable cause, but that police powers are limited because of the 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

"When you’re talking about just stopping someone and asking for ID and there’s nothing to lead you to believe that they’re up to no good, there’s no basis to do that," Epps said. "You need to have a reasonable suspicion that that individual is up to criminal activity.

"Of course citizens want to be safe, but (not) live in a police state with officers walking around with the freedom to stop everybody."

On Monday, the police department posted another notice on its website saying the city’s remaining town hall meetings have been canceled "in the interest of public safety" after officials received a flood of responses to comments by the police chief and mayor.

"We feel that with the strong feelings on both sides of the Street Crimes Unit issue, a safe and productive meeting would not be the probable outcome," the statement said.