Paragould, Arkansas — Residents of a small city in Arkansas are expressing concern after police unveiled a plan to deploy a new rifle-toting crimes unit next year that will seek identification from those on the streets in high crime areas.
At a meeting last week at West View Baptist Church in Paragould, Mayor Mike Gaskill and Police Chief Todd Stovall explained the nature of the unit.
“[Police are] going to be in SWAT gear and have AR-15s around their neck,” Stovall outlined. “If you’re out walking, we’re going to stop you, ask why you’re out walking [and] check for your ID.”
Gaskill stated that while many of those that will be stopped may not be involved in any wrongdoing, they still must indicate their whereabouts and motives to police.
“[Residents] may not be doing anything but walking their dog,” he said. “But, they’re going to have to prove it.”
The men advised that because crime has become a severe issue in some areas, they believe that the new police measures are both warranted and necessary.
“To ask you for your ID, I have to have a reason,” Stovall explained. “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.”
However, city attorney Allen Warmath told the Paragould Daily Press that he believed matters wouldn’t be as strict as they seemed during the city meeting.
“If they have a call that there’s some problems in the area, they’re at least going to talk to you,” he said. “Maybe that person walking their dog saw something. It gives them some information and some leads to find out what’s going on.”
Warmath also stated that it was unlikely that police would arrest anyone who declined to produce identification.
Nonetheless, many Paragould residents still oppose the plan.
“I understand the crime rates are going up, but that does not mean [that you should] treat all your citizens like criminals simply because they are out walking,” one commenter wrote. “That just goes to show you’re not innocent until proven guilty anymore.”
“Martial law in Paragould, eh?” another said. “This will be nationwide before long folks.”
In response to concerns from residents, the Paragould Police Department issued a statement to further explain the reasons for its actions.
“Once an area has been identified as a high crime neighborhood, the select group of officers will saturate the area in an attempt to curb the criminal behavior that is plaguing that particular neighborhood,” it explained. “Officers will accomplish this in a variety of different methods. Officers will be working to identify residents in the affected area so that we can better serve our affected neighborhoods. 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.”
“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,” the department continued. “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.”
Police also responded to citizen concerns by stating that it believes that the new crimes unit will be staying within the bounds of the Constitution.
“Many citizens, through various media outlets, have expressed a concern about the police ‘violating rights’ or ‘violating the Constitution.’ We have to abide by the same rules, regulations and laws that our citizens do. We are not out to violate anyone’s rights,” the department stated. “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.”
Because there remains much to be discussed about the matter, police have been hosting several meetings on the issue. Its next and final meeting will be tomorrow night at the Paragould Community Center.