Back in the U.S.A. | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Back in the U.S.A.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 4, 2012 at 11:14 AM

Home at last. Weather forced an unplanned overnight in Chicago last night, so my journey from 6 a.m. wakeup call Tuesday (11 p.m. Monday, LR time) in a Barcelona hotel to my Arkansas Times desk was a few hours longer than planned. The Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport was a welcome sight. Baggage handling and parking lot escape were expeditious, a reminder of the charms of a smaller city.

You didn't ask but, some topics that developed during my absence beg belated comment:

* HONORING THE VETERANS: With the cover of careful legal analysis, the city of Little Rock stood down from Mayor Mark Stodola and U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin's battle against a new home for a veterans day center on Main Street. Some people's political radar — I'm thinking of you, Rep. Griffin — went bad wrong on this one. I hope my trust in the VA's vow to complete a praiseworthy renovation of the vacant auto dealership for vets' use and responsible work with veterans will allay neighbors' fears about the operation.

* THE BRIDGE TOO FAR: Congratulations to Mayors Stodola and Pat Hays of North Little Rock for the idea to make the old Broadway Bridge a different sort of signature structure — a pedestrian/bike crossing — and to push for my long-preferred idea of a new river crossing at Chester Street. The Highway Department, naturally, wants to get busy on replacing the Broadway bridge with a thoroughly uninspiring structure. No safety need demands immediate replacement, but the money is there and the engineers want to stay busy, though other bridge jobs could use the federal money, too. Highway Director Scott Bennett didn't cover himself with glory this morning by telling the Democrat-Gazette that the better part of two years of major traffic disruption — with tens of millions of costs in lost time, job disruption and fuel costs — will pay for itself in due course. Cite evidence, please, Mr. Bennett. Better academics than the AHTD possesses have studied this issue for years and concluded that freeways and bridges primarily produce the need for more freeways and more bridges.

* TOO LITTLE TOO LATE: I can't let the opportunity pass for saying that developments above fit a pattern. City fathers come too late to the table with good ideas. The consolidated homeless services center offered up as an alternative to the Main Street vets center; a new Arkansas River bridge crossing; a Main Street culinary school for Pulaski Tech. None of these are bad ideas. They are quite good, really. But they all came very late in processes not only well in motion, but arguably prohibitively expensive or untimely to put aside. The urban institute's ideas for downtown redevelopment — mentioned recently in the great vets center debate — has only been bouncing around for a decade or so. People are thinking great thoughts. We just too often wait too long to act on them. The city has some money now — perhaps more if it runs a smart campaign for a property tax millage. We can do better. Sooner.

* CASTLE DOCTRINE: There's much more to be said about a somewhat small story that nonetheless embodies large themes. I refer to the arrest of Surgeon General Joe Thompson in his Ridgeway home after an exchange of words with a private cop employed by billionaire Warren Stephens' financial empire to patrol neighborhoods in which Stephens execs live. Thompson has an ego and, I've heard, an occasional temper. He'll suffer for his actions that night — never, never cite your employment to a cop as a reason for special handling. I'd guess his interest in running for Congress in two years has also taken a beating. That's so even if a thorough examination produces evidence Officer Chris Johannes (himself a private cop off-duty) gave too much deference to a Stephens private dick in deciding a takedown of Thompson was necessary on Thompson's own property for the crime of refusing to identify himself for Johannes' investigation of the crime of being verbally abusive to a private security guard. Even the ACLU counsels caution and diplomacy in dealing with overbearing cops and security guards, even when the men in blue uniforms or black SUVs appear to be acting outside their lawful bounds. Two things I wanted to add:

1) Johannes is the Park Plaza security guard who shot up a car occupied by black males attempting to leave the shopping mall parking deck in December after he tried to stop and question them for the offense of speaking to a white teenaged girl. Johannes said he was threatened because the car backed up in his direction before attempting to drive off. If Thompson presses his case of being improperly rousted, Johannes record will be ripe for review. As I learned through an FOI request last December, Johannes has reported 72 instances of use of force or wrecks while a patrol officer. He's been suspended three times for auto accidents. He self-reported dozens of cases in which he said force — takedowns, pressure holds and other physical actions, including pepper spray — were required for him to subdue unruly people he'd encountered in the field. Eight times, citizens complained he used excessive force on them — twice as a private cop at Park Plaza. He was never suspended for those complaints, so full records aren't available on what supervisors concluded about the complaints. It's not possible to judge Johannes on the volume of the complaints or his uses of force, but his record is more numerous than those amassed by Lt. David Hudson, accused of excessive force in the arrest of a Ferneau bar patron.

2) Stop for a moment to think what presumptions would have been made by police if Joe Thompson had been observed sitting in a car at Warren Stephens' Country Club neighborhood curb, tapping away at a computer late at night. And if Thompson had called the cops to complain Stephens had yelled at him.

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