The conference room at the Hot Springs Police Department was full with community leaders concerned about the prevalence of violent crimes in our nation and passionate about finding actionable ways to prevent incidents in our city at a Community Roundtable organized by Police Chief Jason Stachey on Wednesday, August 7, 2019.
Stachey thanked those in attendance and asked for a moment of silence “for the 30-plus victims of the senseless shootings that occurred in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio,” before getting opening remarks from Mayor Pat McCabe and City Manager Bill Burrough.
“We welcome your input and attendance this evening, and we look forward to continued engagement with you and other community members,” said McCabe. “We have a diverse group here, we are a diverse community, and no one entity will have the answer, but by working together we will be able to pool our talents and move this community forward.”
Burrough echoed the chief and mayor’s sentiments. “It’s really encouraging to see the number of people that came out to discuss these issues we have in our community. We have had a rash since Mother’s Day of some very heinous crimes that we really want to get our arms around. We may not solve the issues tonight, but with some information on new programs and our diligence to make sure we keep our community safe, both in the city and the county, and working closely together to make that happen, we will achieve success.”
Stachey expressed his confidence that everyone in the room could contribute toward the two major issues that have emerged in recent months: domestic and inter-personal violence. He then introduced U.S. Attorney Dak Kees: “As the chief federal law enforcement officer for the Western District of Arkansas, Dak has met with me and I can tell you first hand he is concerned and committed to making Hot Springs a safe and prosperous community.”
Kees shared that Hot Springs will be the first jurisdiction in the Western District to start the program Project Safe Neighborhood. He explained that 85 percent of law enforcement is at the local level, and that Project Safe Neighborhood involves analytical targeting of potentially violent offenders. If convicted at the federal level, violent offenders serve more of their sentence at a federal prison, essentially “closing them down.”
Along with enacting Project Safe Neighborhoods, the police and sheriff’s departments have had officers certified in Crisis Intervention Training with a time-tested model used in Memphis. Undersheriff Jason Lawrence at the Garland County Sheriff’s Department said that employees at the county and city have been certified to be instructors, and that what has been done already in learning de-escalation techniques is working even though there are no local crisis intervention centers, whereas Memphis has four in their city.
Dr. Robert Gershon of Ouachita Behavioral Health and Wellness listed the establishment of a crisis stabilization unit as the first initiative that could be undertaken to make a difference towards the public health issue of violence in the community. When asked how such a unit could come to be, Lawrence said it would take legislation. State Senator Alan Clark was in attendance, and welcomed contact from constituents interested in pursuing this idea or others toward combatting these issues.
Other ideas for the community shared by Gershon included changes in legislation regarding mental healthcare treatment, increased access to mental health services, improving access to services for the homeless, more resources for prevention programs, the decriminalization of mental illness and substance abuse, and continued active involvement from the community.
Above all, a focus on minimizing trauma and providing mentorship for our youth was a key theme. Dr. Stephanie Nehus, Hot Springs School District superintendent, said that there are a lot of things taking place in the school setting, but the challenge is overcoming what may be happening in the home. “School-based mental health is a big piece of what we do with our collaboration with many agencies across our community,” she said. “Mental health is a huge issue with our kids, I mean it’s huge.” She said that their district has implemented Capturing Kids Hearts, which is focused on relationships and building intrinsic motivation, soft skills, and communication. Just after a year of using the program, they have experienced a significant decline in discipline referrals. She also recommended getting children into the school system as early as three or four years old through universal pre-K to expose children to books and reading. Lastly, she described the importance of diversity. “We embrace diversity. We love diversity in Hot Springs School District, but I can tell you there’s people in our community who don’t; and it’s the adults, it’s not the kids. The kids love each other and they accept each other.” She said this issue is something that needs to be talked about. “We have to admit it, that it’s an issue, and work through it because it’s the adults who have to be a model for our kids so that they can be successful in our community.”
Stachey said that for this upcoming school year, the police department’s school resource officers will develop new anti-violence curriculum and programs to work with staff and students. He then said he appreciated the invitation to meet with area clergy this past week before asking insight from Rev. Donald Crossley at the roundtable.
“Let me first say to the police department and law enforcement that I think our law enforcement is doing a good job,” said Crossley. “We have had a couple of meetings in the black community because we were really concerned about the violence, and we are concerned because each time it seems like those things are getting closer and closer to home.” He said a decline in church attendance might have to do with the fast-paced world we live in, and children are confronted with so many things.
Sally Carder of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church’s outreach program touched on the challenges facing our community’s homeless population, namely the lack of an emergency shelter and the lack of transportation for them. Ashley Thompson of Ouachita Children, Youth, and Family Services followed Carder by sharing what their organization offers for victims of domestic violence. Although it’s not an overnight shelter, they do provide emergency shelter, advocacy outreach services, legal advocacy, and support services to all victims and children of domestic abuse.
Prosecuting Attorney Michelle Lawrence commended National Park College’s upcoming initiative to offer law enforcement and citizen training in association with Domestic Violence Awareness Month. She said that her office is reaching out to offer proactive services, including domestic battery protection.
Anna Claire Butler, Hot Springs High School graduate and senior at University of Arkansas, followed her presentation at the August 6 City Board of Director’s meeting with a suggestion that members of the police department continue speak at schools and reach out to children. “People in our community think they can take things into their own hands. Youth have to know that the police are on their side, as you are,” she said.
Kees followed suit with the importance of connecting to our youth, particularly young males. “The last two generations of this country have produced more violent criminals than the rest of the generations of this country combined,” he said. “We, as a society, are producing violent criminals. Those violent criminals are young men. The statistics are there.” He stated that our young men are growing up without a two-parent home, and admitted that his next recommendation would not be sponsored by the Department of Justice. “What are we going to do for these young men. The first thing we have to do is we have to love them. Why? Because love gives them hope. Second thing we have to do is we have to educate them. And I’ll tell you this, I’m the son of educators and education does not stop at 3:30 when they leave the schoolhouse. Education is in the home. Education is in the neighbor’s house. Education is a little-league coach. Education is anyone that loves a child.”
In a wrap-up of the evening, Chaplain Bryan Smith reverberated the idea of mentoring youth as a key takeaway. “We have a responsibility. If you see a child doing something wrong, don’t be afraid to call them out on it. Don’t be afraid to tell them no. We are all role models whether we want to be or not. You’re either a good one or a bad one.”