(Ryan Saylor) 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.
Stovall told the group of almost 40 residents that beginning in 2013, the department would deploy a new street crimes unit to high crime areas on foot to take back the streets.
“[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.”
Gaskill backed Stovall’s proposed actions during Thursday’s town hall.
Stovall said the foot patrols would begin on the east side of town and would eventually snake into the Pecan Grove area.
He said the police would follow where crime was taking place in order to snuff it 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.”
Stovall further elaborated on the stop-and-ID policy Friday morning, claiming the city’s crime statistics alone met the threshold of reasonable suspicion required to lawfully accost a citizen.
“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.”
Stovall said he did not consult an attorney before announcing his plans to combat crime. He even remained undaunted when comparing his proposed tactics with martial law, explaining that “I don’t know that there’s ever been a difference” between his proposals and martial law.
Stovall said task force members would not even be required to be looking for a specific suspect before stopping citizens on the street.
“Anyone that’s out walking, because of the crime and the fear factor, [could be stopped],” he said.
Should an individual not produce identification, Stovall said his officers would not back down. Individuals who do not produce identification when asked could be charged with obstructing a governmental operation, according to Stovall.
“I’m hoping we don’t run across [any] of that,” Stovall said. “Will there be people who buck us? There may be. But we have a right to be doing what we’re doing. We have a zero-tolerance. We are prepared to throw your hind-end in jail, OK? We’re not going to take a lot of flack.”
On Friday, however, Gaskill retreated from the severity of the plan he and Stovall offered to citizens at the town hall.
“The only people who are really going to be impacted by this are mostly the unknowns,” Gaskill said.
The mayor said the street crimes unit would not be positioned to cause problems for law-abiding residents.
“We just want to make a presence out there for the criminal element,” Gaskill said. “And we want to make a presence for the people who are concerned and give them a sense of security.”
Gaskill added he was not concerned about potential profiling by the police department. Even though Stovall had said police would enter neighborhoods with the highest crime rates, Gaskill said officers would respond to where they received calls.
“It would be based on where people have called us and said things are going on in our neighborhood,” he said.
Gaskill made clear Friday that when residents called about problems in their neighborhoods, they needed to provide police with information.
“Give us a description — what kinds of clothes they’re wearing, [license] plate number. We’ll be looking for descriptions,” he said.
City Attorney Allen Warmath echoed Gaskill’s statements on Friday.
“It is my understanding that if they get a call in an area and they go to an area because of some calls of suspicious activity, they’ll make contact,” Warmath said.
Warmath said while he had not directly spoken to Stovall, he understood that the street crimes unit would actually be less confrontational than Stovall let on.
“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.”
As for having IDs, he said citizens wouldn’t have to worry about that, either. He said the police would not arrest residents solely for failing to produce identification when asked.
Attorney Curtis Hitt of the law firm of Hitt and Kidd said officers were allowed to engage in “consensual questioning” with citizens, though if any circumstances arose that led to an arrest, a judge would have to look at the “totality” of those circumstances.
“The bottom line is it would have to be determined on a case by case basis,” he said.
Hitt said he had a high regard for Stovall and the Paragould police. He said he felt their intentions were in the right place, which he believed was preventing crime and making Paragould a safe community.
“At the same time, as an attorney who reads police reports and keeps up with the law, I certainly will be careful of that for any of my clients.”
Thursday’s town hall meeting was the second of four meetings Paragould officials will host to discuss crime statistics in different parts of town. Officials will meet with residents Tuesday at Center Hill Church of Christ and Thursday at the Paragould Community Center. Both meetings begin at 7 p.m.