In response to a recent increase in crime, Paragould Mayor Mike Gaskill and Police Chief Todd Stovall offered residents at a town hall meeting Thursday night at West View Baptist Church what could be considered an extreme solution — armed officers patrolling the streets on foot.
“[Police are] going to be in SWAT gear and have AR-15s around their neck,” Stovall said. “If you’re out walking, we’re going to stop you, ask why you’re out walking, check for your ID.”
Stovall said while some people may be offended by the actions of his department, they should not be.
“We’re going to do it to everybody,” he said. “Criminals don’t like being talked to.”
Public safety is one of a mayor’s foremost responsibilities, and when you happen to have a police department at your disposal, the solution seems obvious. The only problem, of course, is that the law forbids it. Police can’t stop people because they’re “out walking.” Police can’t “check for ID” because they feel like it. And while it may be true that criminals don’t like being talked to, neither do non-criminals. And, hard as it may be to accept, even criminals have rights. I know! But they do.
Police Chief Todd Stovall, highly trained in such matters, recognizes that even Paragould police operate under certain limitations, but he’s got it all figured out.
Normally, police would not stop individuals for simply walking on the street, but Stovall said the level of crime in certain areas and concerns from residents gave his officers the right to institute the actions announced at the town hall event.
“This fear is what’s given us the reason to do this. Once I have stats and people saying they’re scared, we can do this,” he said. “It allows us to do what we’re fixing to do.”
“To ask you for your ID, I have to have a reason,” he said. “Well, I’ve got statistical reasons that say I’ve got a lot of crime right now, which gives me probable cause to ask what you’re doing out. Then when I add that people are scared…then that gives us even more [reason] to ask why are you here and what are you doing in this area.”
While lawyers may find this simultaneously outrageous and amusing, in the sense of utter cluelessness and rhetorical irrationality, the fact is that this perspective largely mirrors the prevailing public view. There’s a problem and an easy solution. Make it happen.
Which prevails, the criminals’ right to walk the street unmolested by the police. Others think of people’s right to walk the street unmolested by criminals. See how easily the rhetoric can be gamed? So what if there’s a fundamental flaw in the reasoning? It shines on its surface, and more importantly, does what the good citizens of Paragould want it to do. We all have within us that bone that allows self-serving rationalizations to prevail over logic.
But it’s not just the elimination of cause for street stops of criminals that raises concerns, but that Stovall’s force will walk the mean streets ready for battle. As Radley Balko notes, this isn’t a new concept:
Using SWAT teams for routine patrols isn’t uncommon. Fresno did this for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The city sent its Violent Crimes Suppression Unit into poorer neighborhoods and stopped, confronted, questioned, and searched nearly everyone they encountered. “It’s a war,” one SWAT officer told Christian Parenti in a report for The Nation (not available online). Another said, “If you’re 21, male, living in one of these neighborhoods, and you’re not in our computer, then there’s something definitely wrong.”
At Current.com, another, closer to home, analogy is drawn:
Stovall is labeling his initiative “Stop-and-ID” similar to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “Stop-and-Frisk” policy in New York City, a program that’s had disastrous results and stirred outrage among the African-Americans and Latinos who’ve become targets of racial profiling and police harassment and brutality.
While it’s a bit facile to beat up on poor Paragould, Arkansas, the parallels are undeniable. When you think about it, the solution in some backwater in Arkansas doesn’t strike too far from that of Gotham. Balko goes further to note that the embrace of such extreme tactics is less a matter of the prevalence of crime than the fear it causes.
But Stovall’s comments show that it isn’t so much a rise in crime that allows these sorts of police actions to happen, it’s the fear of crime.
Stoke the flames and it’s perfectly understandable why the public not only permits the police to don their most fearsome costumes, and go into the neighborhoods where other people live to clean up the mess, but demand it. It’s their right to feel safe, and the right to feel always trumps the rights of other people. Doesn’t the Declaration of Independence mention something about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Aren’t the good people entitled to these things as well? Why is it always the criminals who get rights?
Whether it’s true, as Mayor Gaskill says, that criminals don’t like to be talked to, isn’t the point. The police in Paragould won’t be asking for IDs in the good neighborhoods, or seizing the walkers of Golden Retrievers out for their evening constitutional. They will head straight to the “high crime” neighborhoods, which are usually noticeably darker red-neckier(?) and where the good citizens want them to go.
And it’s not a whole lot different than the way it’s done in New York City, so don’t think too ill of Paragould, Mayor Gaskill or Chief Stovall. If they can do it here, they can do it anywhere. Perhaps the rhetoric is a bit less polished, but tossing the poor over nothing is becoming a staple of American policing, and why shouldn’t Paragould enjoy the same tactics as Manhattan?
Addendum: Apparently, Chief Stovall has decided to cancel additional town meetings on the subject, citing “public safety.” It’s amazing how useful two little words can be. It seems that people are a bit upset by the Paragould PD’s plans, which suggests two reactions. He can either change the plans or shut down discussion. He’s made his choice.