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Earlier this year, at Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s urging, the Little Rock Board of Directors passed a resolution declaring community violence a public health emergency. Rightly so.
Little Rock has been gripped by a gun violence epidemic. Accordingly, we should demand a policy response from our elected officials commensurate with the problem that increases safety and justice for the residents most affected by the violence.
Yet in this election cycle commentators with large platforms frequently employ tropes about race and violence that further marginalize the communities suffering most. Candidates at both the state and local levels have proposed policies that echo the War on Drugs and 1994 Crime Bill that are still having disastrous impacts on marginalized communities today. These include calls for a “police state” and a return to “broken windows policing” in select communities and decrying “Black-on-Black crime” to deflect against calls to end racially discriminatory police violence.
To many, these points may sound like common-sense, “tough on crime” solutions. Critics argue those calling for systemic change are just “playing the race card” and choosing “wokeness” over public safety. But empirical evidence and the life experiences of residents tell a different story about what causes violent crime in Little Rock and which solutions will effectively keep communities safe.
Developing effective solutions to violence that are grounded in justice must begin with an understanding of history. Little Rock is a racially and economically stratified city still bearing the wounds of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining. As Rutgers sociology professor Paul Hirschfield writes on American police lethality, “…the benefits [the institution of slavery] conferred and the racial hierarchy and ideology that sustained it remained long after abolition and have indelibly shaped the contemporary social and institutional order.” In other words, these problems of the present are shaped by the past, and we must understand history to cultivate safety without sacrificing justice.
Yale Law Professor James Forman Jr. details in his book “Locking Up Our Own” that in the 1970s and 1980s Black leaders championed an “all-of-the-above” approach to addressing violence that included both punitive policing and community investment. But as Forman recounts, sustained funding only went to policing and criminalization, fueling the rise in racially disparate mass incarceration.
We make a critical mistake when we treat the police as a panacea for the city’s problems. We treat the police as a lid to tamp down inevitable incidents of violence and disorder that are an outgrowth of an unjust societal arrangement. This problem is compounded by the enduring resistance of the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police to even the most basic reforms. Furthermore, investments in police surveillance technology, particularly ShotSpotter, burn a hole in the city budget as studies of ShotSpotter in other cities show that ShotSpotter wastes officers’ time and places already overpoliced residents in further danger of volatile police encounters. It is unfair to both police and the communities they serve to ask them to solve a problem for which they neither have the resources nor proper training to address.
We also make a critical mistake when we expect individual people overcoming historically rooted systemic barriers to entirely solve broader societal inequities. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columnist Rex Nelson recently suggested the solution lies in Black residents getting college degrees and joining the middle class. He discounts empirical evidence that even highly educated Black Americans still face disparities in wealth, health outcomes, and encounters with law enforcement compared to their white counterparts. Even those who can overcome systemic barriers do so at a cost. Violence and racism are systemic problems we can’t rely on individuals to solve alone.
If policing and personal responsibility can’t solve this problem alone – what will? A good place to start will be to listen to the recommendations of the H.O.P.E. Advisory Council when they make their upcoming presentation to the City Board. Listen to Tim Campbell when he talks about engaging youth and taking seriously their hopes and fears instead of browbeating them with respectability politics. Listen to Leta Anthony when she talks about a lack of mental health resources, housing insecurity, and the need for a statewide warranty of habitability law. Listen to those who have been working to keep their communities safe and pushing for equitable solutions since long before the current panic over crime in Little Rock.
The next step should be to implement evidence-based community violence prevention policies that other cities have found effective. The Brookings Institution has released invaluable reports with suggestions for municipalities to address gun violence (including how best to use federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, which the City Board has not yet fully allocated). The city should invest strategically in the streets where violence occurs the most by improving street lighting and other forms of public infrastructure; leverage state and federal funds for workforce development and support spaces for the expressive arts and recreation to flourish; explore sustainable funding for violence interrupters who have credibility among their peers to broker peace. Too often, these initiatives aren’t given the sustained resources needed to thrive.
But the most immediate change we could all make is to uplift the voices of the marginalized communities bearing the brunt of violence in Little Rock, amplify their perspectives, and use those perspectives to inform policy solutions that really work to increase safety and justice.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of their employers or institutions.
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