“Criminals Don’t Like Being Talked To”

So says the Mayor of Paragould, Arkansas, Mike Gaskill, speaking of the  recent increase in violent crime in his town.  After thinking long and hard, he’s come up with a solution.

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.

22 comments on ““Criminals Don’t Like Being Talked To”

  1. TomH

    As I recall from a reading of another take on this (from Balko?) Mssr. Stovall, rather obviously, conceded that he had not consulted an attorney to evaluate the new plan.

    I have individualized suspicion and probable cause to believe that Mssr. Stovall is an idiot.

  2. David

    Since it’s of no concern to police and I’m not qualified to address it anyway, I’ll leave the legality of this aside and simply ask why we always go for the extreme solution? While I can understand the desire to “do something” in response to high crime(Although I wish the “do something” might treat the cause rather than the symptoms, I don’t get the need to immediately go to SWAT gear AR-15s & interrogating pedestrians. Isn’t just patrolling the area enough? Couldn’t we try “just walking around” first?

  3. SHG

    I believe you’re correct, that Radley emphasized that point. I think non-lawyers put much greater stock in such things than lawyers do, which is why I didn’t deem it sufficiently significant to mention.

  4. SHG

    My view is that extreme measures are more easily grasped and digested by people, who find nuanced and limited measure far harder to understand and appreciate. To do so, they would have to think, and thinking makes most people’s head hurt.

  5. SHG

    While I believe that’s likely accurate, it’s not quite what I meant. What I meant is that legal advice neither validates nor invalidates much of anything; if the town’s lawyer said it was hunky-dory, so what?

  6. Nigel Declan

    Nothing strikes fear into the heart of honest citizens like the prospect of uncorrected-for skewness.

  7. John Burgess

    Man… wouldn’t you know it! Here it is, the holiday season, just when I could use a little extra cash, and I’m not living in Paragould, Arkansas!

    Even after my lawyer’s cut, I could probably buy a bag of Santa Cheetos.

  8. Bruce Coulson

    In World War Z, one of the characters comments that fear is the most marketable product in existence. You can sell anything, as long as fear is attached.

  9. Dante

    If you think there are abuses comitted by our “public servants” under the blanket of “public safety”, you should see what they are accomplishing in Washington D.C. by using the two words “National Security”.

    I know, I know, and my apologies. That’s a topic for another day.

  10. SHG

    No, no, don’t let the hundred times national security has been discussed here prevent you from going off topic, while still being painfully obvious. No really.

  11. Thomas Stephenson

    Small correction: I’ve heard of Paragould, and it’s long had a reputation for being virtually all-white. 98% white at the 2000 Census. Don’t know if it’s changed since then, but if it’s still that white then racial profiling wouldn’t be at issue: the people targeted would likely be white as well. (Not that this makes it any better, and if the demographics have changed at all based on its reputation it seems like the kind of place that would beat up on minorities.)

    BTW, member of the Slackoisie who got an acquittal in a jury trial yesterday.

  12. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    He wasn’t far off the mark . . .

    The way I look at it, all human behavior is based on one of two motivators. Either fear or greed . . .

    Fear that you’ll lose a resource you already have . . .

    — or —

    Greed to obtain a resource you don’t yet possess or that you had and then lost . . .

    It’s a simple model, but you can apply it to any action ever taken by all the human beings who have existed . . .

    For example, my ex-wife says I lost my soul somewhere along the way and do you know what?? I want back — because I’m greedy . . .

  13. SHG

    1. Congratulations on the acquittal.

    2. “I’ve heard of Paragould” is not a reliable foundation for factual expertise.

  14. Joe

    I grew up near Paragould. The only problem in your article is the comment “They will head straight to the “high crime” neighborhoods, which are usually noticeably darker, and where the good citizens want them to go.” Paragould is nearly and even in the poorer neighborhoods 100% white. There are pleny of rednecks that’ll tell the chief to shove his AR15. They’ll have bigger weapons

    about the darker

  15. John David Galt

    Police hanging around with machine guns have been common for decades in places like Mexico and Argentina. I doubt if the people there are, or feel they are, much safer as a result. Congratulations, guys, we are now a banana republic.

  16. Paul Majors

    Notwithstanding the illegality of the tactic, this is quite a stupid idea that politicians always keep going back to the well for even though modern policing abandoned the tactic in the early 1950s. A brightly painted patrol car covers 50 x’s the area of a foot patrolman and creates a sense of “omnipresence” in a high crime neighborhood. The only people who benefit when they do this are the politicians who give the “scared citizens” a false sense of security with foot patrolmen, no matter if they are in combat gear. Criminals need an opportunity and a desire to commit a crime. Where ever the foot patrolman is the “opportunity” is anywhere he isn’t and the time it will take him to walk or run there. Its bad enough they hassle these poor citizens its worse that it accomplishes nothing. Its kinda like having to go through TSA at the airport to catch a flight.

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