The Republican National Convention in Cleveland ended with all of the excitement, near-violence and rancor having happened inside the arena. Before the convention, Cleveland's Division of Police Chief Calvin D. Williams promised restraint toward protesters: "We are not going to be out with helmets and shields and all this other kind of stuff. We are going to be in regular uniforms. And if in fact there is a need to deal with something that is more aggressive, they will escalate according to the need. But it will be appropriate."
Chief Williams seems to have delivered. There were protests outside the "secure zone," to be sure. They were all reportedly contained peacefully by the CDP. A few people attempted to burn a flag and 23 protesters were arrested altogether. But between the rotten rhetoric of the Republican candidate and the volatile cocktail of groups who planned to be there, the stage was set for something more explosive.
The relative order was especially striking because the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014 delivered a scathing report of its investigation into the Cleveland Division of Police, which found the CDP had engaged in a pattern of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. A consent decree reached by the Cleveland police and the DOJ included recommendations for a community police commission and a mental health response advisory committee. The agreement went unmentioned in the doomsday law-and-order Republican speeches delivered at the 2016 RNC, as did the high-profile 2014 killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland at the hands of an officer who mistook his toy gun for a real weapon.
Here in Little Rock, Police Chief Kenton Buckner has been called on to address the outrage surrounding the recent fatal police shootings of Delrawn Small in New York, Alva Braziel in Texas, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castille in Minnesota. Even without projecting outside tragedy onto Little Rock, our city's recent history looks a lot like Cleveland's.
Little Rock Police Officer Josh Hastings' fatal shooting of 15-year-old Bobby Moore in 2012 happened before the protest movement around police violence spread nationwide, two years before Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland. The fatal shooting of Deon Williams in the summer of 2013 sparked instant protests on 12th Street. Eugene Ellison, a 67-year-old father of two Little Rock police officers, was shot and killed in his home by an off-duty officer, Donna Lesher, while Lesher was standing outside on a balcony with three other officers. The investigation into Ellison's death was assigned to officers supervised by Lesher's husband (the Ellison family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, which was settled earlier this year with the city agreeing to a public apology, payment of $900,000 and a memorial bench to Ellison). Between 1992 and 2014, Little Rock police fatally shot 22 people, 15 of whom (nearly 70 percent) were black, according to police records.
Meanwhile, as part of a national survey of police militarization, the ACLU found that between 2011 and 2013 Little Rock police tossed flashbang grenades into homes on 112 occasions, or 84 percent of raids — nearly all of them in predominantly black neighborhoods. The 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said in 2000 that "police cannot automatically throw bombs into drug dealers' houses, even if the bomb goes by the euphemism 'flash-bang device.' "
In December 2014, President Obama created the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which encouraged transparency and community engagement. Not six months later, every certified officer of the LRPD was outfitted for riot gear. In a city that has seen few protests (and certainly none on the scale of Ferguson), there is some unjustified paranoia parading as preparation.
Reckoning with excessive force requires much more than riot gear. At a "We Speak Forum," hosted by St. Luke Baptist Church on Monday, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola intimated that he was "not sure" that police profiling was unique to African-American communities, but that he was sure there was some racially motivated profiling. It would be a measure of goodwill, at least, if the city and the LRPD considered proposals to establish officer residency requirements and to create a citizens' board to review policing practices. (Although I am not convinced residency requirements would mean very much: There is a marked difference between a police officer who lives off Pike Avenue in North Little Rock and one who lives in Hillcrest.)
We are not Ferguson, Baton Rouge or Cleveland, but the volatile mixture is there. The opportunity to address the crisis in advance is ours to be missed. What happens to action deferred? "Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"
Rev. Ryan D. Davis is an associate pastor at Bullock Temple CME Church in Little Rock.