A plan by the mayor and police chief of a crime-ridden Arkansas city to deploy heavily-armed and armored police units that will conduct spot interrogations and ID checks is being compared to martial law and a suspension of constitutional rights.
Paragould Mayor Mike Gaskill and Police Chief Todd Stovall announced the severe measures at a Thursday town hall meeting at the West View Baptist Church.
Dozens of residents listened while Stovall outlined the plan to deal with the city's high crime rate. Starting next year, the police department will roll out a new street crimes unit consisting of officers in SWAT gear armed with AR-15 assault rifles.
"If you're out walking, we're going to stop you, ask why you're out walking, check for your ID," Stovall warned. The police chief acknowledged that some citizens might be alarmed or offended by this paramilitary policing strategy but said they shouldn't be worried.
"Anyone who's out walking, because of the crime and the fear factor" could be stopped and interrogated, he said.
"We're going to do it to everybody," Stovall promised. "Criminals don't like being talked to."
Mayor Gaskill wholeheartedly endorsed the plan, which seems to shred Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of due process.
"[Residents] may not be doing anything but walking their dog, but they're going to have to prove it," Gaskill said.
Tellingly, Chief Stovall admitted that city officials did not consult any attorneys while drafting their draconian plan. Stovall even admitted that there isn't much, if any, difference between his plan and martial law.
"I don't know that there's a difference," he confessed.
"This fear is what's given us the reason to do this," Stovall explained. "Once I have stats and people saying they're scared, we can do this."
On Friday, Stovall again cited "fear" and "statistics" to justify the city's controversial plan.
"To ask for your ID, I have to have a reason," he told the Paragould Daily Press. "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 you are here and what you are doing in this area."
Paragould, a city of 26,500 residents located in the northeastern part of Arkansas about 88 miles northwest of Memphis, Tennessee, does suffer from higher-than-average crime rates. Although there was only one murder in the years 2000-2010 and the overall violent crime rate is nearly 10 percent below the national average, certain types of crimes have soared. The assault rate has increased fivefold since 2000. Burglaries and thefts are up fourfold, reflected in a property crime rate 2.5 times the national average. There are also twice as many rapes per capita as the national average.
What would happen to those Paragould residents who refuse to cooperate with the new paramilitary policing plan?
"I'm hoping we don't run across any of that," Chief Stovall told the Daily Press. "Will there be people who buck us? There may be. But we have a right to be doing what we're doing," he insisted. "We have zero tolerance. We are prepared to throw your high-end in jail, OK? We're not going to take a lot of flack."
As this story has gained national attention, Stovall and Gaskill have attempted to paint a rosier picture of their controversial plan.
"The only people who are really going to be impacted by this are mostly the unknowns," Mayor Gaskill told the Daily Press on Friday. "We just want to make a presence out there for the criminal element. And we want to make a presence for the people who are concerned and give them a sense of security."
Paragould residents reacted to the news of the city's plan with a mixture of approval and shock.
"Sorry, but I agree with the police," Mary Davis wrote to the Daily Press. "You cannot even walk to your car without scumbags making threats. We have to do something. The thugs are winning because they use the law against us."
Stanley L. Garner agreed. "I would love for the PPD to patrol my area," he wrote. "Maybe they can hinder the thumping and bumping around B Street and stop some of the thieves around this area. If I'm outside, stop me by all means to find out if I live where I say. Thank the PPD and Mayor's office."
Others were not so enthusiastic about what they perceive as a police state plan.
"Not only will this give Paragould a bad name and ruin our reputation for new businesses to come, but it will scare the hell out of our children," a local father of two named Joe wrote to the Daily Press. "The problem with the crime rate will not be fixed by creating a foot clan of crooked cops dressed in SWAT gear carrying AR-15s."
"This is going to look like the Brown Shirts patrolling Munich in 1939," an unidentified resident wrote to the paper. "Scale it back. Armed police on a bike might be a better solution. This will likely get the Friendly City on CNN's 'Ridiculist.'"
"This isn't East Berlin, it's Arkansas," Tommy Carter told Opposing Views. "I don't care how much crime there is, you have no right to infringe on my rights without a warrant. Period!"
Curiously, the Paragould Police Department's own website proudly claims that the city was recently named the safest in Arkansas with a population over 20,000.
PPD issued a statement on its website attempting to allay concerns about violations of citizens' rights. It reads, in part:
Many citizens, through various media outlets, have expressed a concern about 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. 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 solve crimes, and hopefully to prevent future crimes.