Task Force proposals turn into bills for consideration
Legislation benefiting, improving law enforcement in Arkansas part of ‘Back the Blue’ Movement.
By Dorothy Spector, AAC Law Clerk
Photo by Brent Walker
On June 8, 2020, the bill entitled “The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020” was introduced to the U.S. Congress. The bill seeks to change the procedure and regulations on immunity for law enforcement nationwide. Sections 101 and 102 of the bill would change the willful standard to a recklessness standard, which would explicitly qualify any act by a police officer that is a substantial factor contributing to the death of an individual to equate a death resulting act. Furthermore, Section 102 would amend Section 1979 of the Revised Statutes of the United States (42 U.S.C. 1983) to no longer allow immunity or a defense for local law enforcement that acted in good faith or without knowledge that their conduct was unlawful. Consequently, it would be easier for individuals to sue police officers and other members of law enforcement. It will also work to end racial and religious profiling and ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants. This bill passed the House of Representatives on June 25, 2020, and was placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders. Calendar No. 490.
At the state level, locations such as New York, Connecticut, California, Illinois, Utah, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., have prohibited the use of chokeholds, with some identifying the technique as a method of aggravated strangulation. Individual cities and counties also have taken the initiative to ban the use of chokeholds. Houston and Austin, Texas, announced executive orders banning chokeholds; Dallas announced a formal ban on chokeholds and any force intended to restrict a person’s airways; Broward County, Florida, will prohibit chokeholds to restrain or secure persons except when deadly force is justified; Miami is prohibiting lateral vascular neck restraints (LVNR), chokeholds and any other restraint that restricts free movement of the neck or head or the ability to breath; Chicago will ban “carotid artery restraint” chokeholds and “any other maneuvers for applying direct pressure on a windpipe or airway would be classified as a deadly force technique”; Denver will be banning chokeholds with no exceptions; Minneapolis announced an order to prohibit all neck restrains and chokeholds, requiring officers to physically intervene against unauthorized use of force, and requiring officers to notify a supervisor if they see inappropriate use of force; and Seattle voted unanimously to ban chokeholds and crowd control methods. Even the government of France has announced that police will be prohibited from using chokeholds during arrests.
The Task Force
In Arkansas, chokeholds are outlawed as not being “objectively reasonable.” Therefore, chokeholds are not taught in Arkansas, nor are they advocated or supported. If a chokehold were to be used in a situation wherein it is not warranted, the officer would be subject to investigation. Even so, understanding the widespread unease within the community due to the events throughout the country in the past year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson created the Law Enforcement Task Force with the purpose to ensure best practices for law enforcement and to guide the advancement of Arkansas’ law enforcement. The Governor appointed Department of Public Safety Secretary Jami Cook and Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy Deputy Director Fred Weatherspoon to lead the efforts of the Task Force, members of which he also appointed. They range from law enforcement leaders to community activists, and they serve as an advisory body of the Governor to propose recommendations on how to advance the state of law enforcement in Arkansas. The Task Force is divided into four subcommittees, each with a chairman appointed by the Governor. Each subcommittee has seven to eight members. According to a news release on the Governor’s website (http://bit.ly/2OFy7jM), each member of the Task Force has the responsibility to “review the adequacy of law enforcement training, policy, and operations, specifically as they relate to cultural, racial, and community relations, ... study and analyze the processes of accountability of standards, obstacles for recruitment and retention of law enforcement officers, etc.” When he created this Task Force by Executive Order 20-30 (https://bit.ly/38sfWVR), the Governor told the media, “It’s going to be dynamic. It’s going to be listening to the community. It’s going to be addressing the serious issues that we’ve seen reflected across the country.”
Task force members were allowed to be part of more than one subcommittee and were able to listen to the other meetings even if they were not a member of the subcommittee. The individual subcommittees met virtually at least once a month from June 18, 2020, to Nov. 13, 2020. After intensive, honest, and collaborative dialogue in these subcommittees, the Task Force subcommittees made recommendations to the Governor regarding enhancing trust between law enforcement and communities, and improvements or changes that need to be made to ensure compliance to standards of the profession. The findings of the Task Force have been formulated into 27 official recommendations, compiled in a final report submitted to the Governor on Dec. 31, 2020.
The Four Subcommittees
Subcommittee 1, chaired by Conway Citizen Advocate Jimmy Warren, was formed to review the adequacy of law enforcement training, policy, and operations, specifically related to cultural, racial, and community relations.
Subcommittee 2, chaired by Craighead County Sheriff Marty Boyd, was to study and analyze the processes for accountability, discipline, removal, and decertification of officers who do not meet standards, including an evaluation for the creation and implementation of a statewide, public database of complaints and resolutions concerning law enforcement officers.
Subcommittee 3, chaired by Van Buren Citizen Advocate Layla Holloway, was tasked to study and analyze the effectiveness and sustainability of community policing efforts, including the impact of law enforcement officers living in the communities in which they are policing.
Subcommittee 4, chaired by Little Rock Police Sgt. Allen Hamby, was formed to study and analyze the standards, requirements, and obstacles for recruitment, hiring, and retention of law enforcement officers, including resiliency programs, educational opportunities, and compensation and benefit packages available to law enforcement officers.
Subcommittee 1 evaluated current law enforcement training programs in Arkansas in order to make recommendations for improvement. Programs under evaluation included, but were not limited to, the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy (ALETA), Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute (CJI), and Field Training Officer (FTO) Programs. While these programs already provide mandatory racial bias training through required courses on de-escalation and cultural, racial, and community relations, one of the main areas of discussion centered on further improving cultural competency. As such, the subcommittee identified that increasing the minimum training standards for FTO programs and guidelines established by the Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training (CLEST) will allow law enforcement officers to be better prepared to navigate cultural and racial issues with improved skills of cultural competency.
Likewise, the Task Force is committed to improving race and community relations and has recommended various methods of reinforcing the correct legal behavior of both law enforcement and citizens. Recommendations to this aim include developing a multi-lingual “know your rights” campaign and applying for funding of body cameras for all front-line duty officers. Another key area of focus was the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, which trains officers to identify behavior indicative of a mental health crisis, how to de-escalate violent situations, and how to divert those who are mentally ill to mental health care systems instead of to jail. This training involves three elements: mental illness awareness and recognition, de-escalation, and the utilization of resources. Arkansas is the only state in the country to establish a crisis intervention partnership with law enforcement agencies, state government, and counties, and due to its success, the Task Force encourages the expansion of Crisis Stabilization Units (CSUs).
Official recommendations made by Subcommittee 1:
To include the following into the minimum standards for all FTO programs:
Communication skills (making sure officers are effectively communicating internally and externally)
Implicit bias (how to identify blind spots and uncover what the officer is not seeing)
Ethics (going above the law to protect the highest standard in duty)
Duty to intervene (holding every officer to the highest standard in duty)
Cultural competency (consisting of cultural decorum, customs, religious practices, and slang)
De-Escalation (how to bring a situation under control)
Crisis Intervention Training (reducing the risk of injury to mentally ill persons and law enforcement)
Maintain and expand awareness and use of the established Arkansas CSUs to allow for better public access, both in and outside of law enforcement and/or community mental health providers
For CLEST, increase the mandatory annual racial bias training component of continuing education from two hours to four hours.
Law enforcement agencies within Arkansas should seek out and apply for federal, state, and local funding to aid in the implementation of state-of-the-art body cameras, as well as adequate server storage to aid in better surveillance for all agencies. Specifically, the subcommittee advocated for funding legislation that helps ensure all front-line duty officers will be wearing state of the art body cameras by 2026.
Create a strong multi-lingual “Know Your Rights and What to Do When You’re Pulled Over” campaign that is coordinated at the state and local levels to increase community trust, knowledge, and awareness.
County and local law enforcement agencies should work with community organizational leaders and academic institutions to study and analyze any potential negative impacts of a 287(g) program, including any unintended consequences associated with rebuilding community trust among minority populations.
These recommendations took form in the 2021 Legislative Session as Senate Bills 292 and 346, filed by Sen. Jason Rapert. SB292 represents Establishing the Public Safety Equipment Grant Program administered by the Department of Public Safety. If passed, this bill will allow Secretary Cook to grant money to local law enforcement specifically for the purpose of providing non-lethal equipment and to support detention centers and correction through the process of accreditation. This bill aims to improve communication and transparency with Arkansas citizens. SB346 represents Retention of Audio/Visual Media by Law Enforcement Agencies and addresses the use of audiovisual media by law enforcement and the how long this media must be retained. This bill also will improve body camera retention and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
Subcommittee 2 placed its emphasis on accountability in relation to community policing and interactions, in addition to the review of President Donald Trump’s Executive Order on “Safe Policing for Safe Communities.” Two key ideas discussed in these meetings were 1) developing a database with public access to complaints relating to law enforcement officers and their resolutions, and 2) how to speed up the de-certification process. The hope for this component is to remove the “bad officers’’ through de-certification at a faster rate than the system currently facilitates. To that effect, as stated by Chairman Boyd, “No one wants a bad policeman off the street more than the good policemen.” As such, this subcommittee made six recommendations to the Governor stemming from clarifying policy verbiage and enforcing strict standards on the transparency of discipline and decertification. For instance, the Task Force proposed new categories to specify in the reporting requirements if an officer was separated for excessive use of force, or if separated for dishonesty and untruthfulness.
These recommendations will build upon and help improve the various existing programs for law enforcement and community interactions organized and run by Arkansas sheriffs. Devoted to serving the state of Arkansas and its citizens, the sheriffs organize and participate in community outreach programs to aid access, communication, and understanding between Arkansas citizens and law enforcement. Community engagement events include hosting educational forums on workplace violence and neighborhood crime watch, “Shop with a Cop,” “Roadside Trash Pick-up,” “Polar Bear Plunge,” and “Cereal Drive and Badges for Backpacks Food Drive.” In addition, sheriffs participate in food delivery and Pantry Box programs. With these programs, Arkansas sheriffs collect food and deliver food packages to community individuals in need. Through the Pantry Box Program, sheriff’s departments build, fill, and maintain pantry boxes for the community. Sheriffs are involved in many other community programs such as Church Security Training, School Safety Programs, Special Olympics, Cyber Crime Education, Women’s Self Defense Training, Coat Drives for Kids, PACT Program, Make-a-Wish, Trunk or Treats, Cook for Communities, and more.
Youth engagement is another passion area for law enforcement. Members of law enforcement routinely visit elementary schools to read to students, to host Christmas Parades and Parties, and to participate in “Career Day” to teach children how to become a Law Enforcement Officer. As these students become older, they see the same sheriffs actively engaged at schools in discussing drug programs, cyber bullying, and active shooter scenarios. They also join students for lunch. The school Drug Program is currently in 11 school districts and reaches 2,700 students. This is in addition to the Red Ribbon Grant. More than $22,000 has been awarded to 16 different counties through this program.
Official recommendations made by Subcommittee 2:
CLEST should meet a minimum of six times per year instead of the current four times per year to speed up the decertification process.
CLEST should publish on its website adjudicated decertification records into a public database similar to the process recently established in the state of Oregon to increase transparency.
Legislation should be proposed to restrict the number of part-time law enforcement officers allowed within a law enforcement agency that resemble the requirements for auxiliary law enforcement officers under Ark. Code § 12-9-306.
Amend Ark. Code § 12-9-118 to require new or inactive agencies to employ a full-time chief of police to provide clarity and establish administrative structure and organization.
Amend Ark. Code § 12-9-602 to separate untruthfulness and excessive force into independent elements.
Law enforcement agencies should participate in the National Use of Force Data Collection effort to resemble the recommendation recently published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police because participation “will help law enforcement, elected officials, and community members better identify and understand the totality of incidents and trends associated with use-of-force incidents, and other outlying factors.”
These recommendations from Subcommittee 2 took form as House Bills 1007 and 1197. HB 1007 is The Law Enforcement Integrity Act of 2021 filed by Rep. Fred Love. This bill is intended to address concerns of abuse of power and civil rights by creating the Law Enforcement Integrity Unit within the Division of Arkansas State Police. This unit will be designed to investigate allegations of civil rights violations and abuses of police power. The unit will be staffed with both law enforcement officers and civilians to report criminal offenses. Furthermore, the bill will establish a 24-hour hotline for citizens to report such abuses and establish a searchable, statewide database containing the names of the officers who have been accused of violations or abuse and the allegation itself. Recommendations from Subcommittee 2 are also represented in HB1197 filed by Rep. Carol Dalby and Sen. Dave Wallace. The bill proposes to amend two codes in Title 12. It would restrict the number of part-time law enforcement officers to two for each full-time officer. It also would amend Ark. Code § 12-9-602(b) on the notice to the Law Enforcement Commission on Standards and Training for any notice of employment, appointment, or separation from employment of an officer to add if applicable: (1) the law enforcement officer retired while the subject of a pending internal investigation; (2) the law enforcement officer was separated due to excessive use of force, and (3) the law enforcement officer was separated for dishonesty or untruthfulness.
Subcommittee 3 of the Task Force has expanded upon these community outreach needs by analyzing community policing efforts, including the impact of law enforcement officers living in the communities they serve. Chaired by Student Activist Layla Holloway, the subcommittee consisted of 10 official members, who met approximately six times. With the help of Dr. Heather Yates from the University of Central Arkansas and Dr. Jennifer Adams at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, Holloway created a 19-question survey designed to measure community views of policing efforts, from which to base the committee’s analysis and recommendations to help mend the identified gaps. This survey was distributed statewide by the Arkansas Municipal League to mayors who then distributed the survey to their constituents and law enforcement agencies, in addition to posting it on social media platforms. There also was a Spanish version of the survey in order to include Hispanic communities.
From these survey results, the subcommittee discovered on-going collaboration and engagement with minority communities may help reestablish trust between law enforcement and Arkansans. Combining this process of dynamic discourse with data analysis of citizen and law enforcement opinions, the guesswork of the citizen’s standpoint on law enforcement and community relationships was removed. As such, the two main recommendations made were centered on 1) including a certain number of hours to be part of the voluntary community engagement programs; and 2) requiring there to be intentional and specific efforts to mend the gap between minority communities, recognizing that not every community is the same in these needs. Holloway said by using the survey data to aid in formulating recommendations, “it was pretty eye opening for everyone. We did a lot of great things, and I think we did go forward. I believe, for the country, we set a tone and made a model for how other states can go about their Task Force if they choose to do so.”
Official recommendations made by Subcommittee 3:
Law enforcement recruits should be required during training to accumulate a certain number of hours within local communities, to observe and interact with community members. CLEST will credit officers with training hours for their participation in community engagement events.
Law enforcement agencies should develop intentional efforts with minority community organizations (community leaders, non-profit programs, faith-based programs, business, etc.) to assess the needs of minority communities and to rebuild trust that will increase public safety for all Arkansans.
Subcommittee 4 focused on the concerns of recruitment statewide and the obstacles for recruitment, hiring, and retention of law enforcement officers, which have been long-standing issues across the country. This subcommittee also used a survey to gauge the opinions of Arkansas law enforcement administrators on the obstacles in their profession from a structural standpoint. Results gathered from 74 survey responses showed the biggest hurdle in recruitment of officers to be: 1) low salary, at 89.2 percent and 2) lack of qualified applicants, at 81.1 percent. The biggest hurdle in retention of officers was found to be low salary, at 95.9 percent. In addition to the data collected, the subcommittee conducted in-depth assessments of Arkansas law enforcement, CLEST, State of Arkansas Law Enforcement: Health Insurance Coverage, Law Enforcement Resiliency Programs, Law Enforcement Educational Opportunities, and Arkansas Law Enforcement Retirement Systems in order to make recommendations.
Official recommendations made by Subcommittee 4:
That state, local, and county governing bodies reappropriate funding to ensure that entry-level salaries for law enforcement officers are equivalent to or above the average annual wage in Arkansas.
That incremental salary increases for law enforcement officers be equivalent in their years of service, rank, and responsibilities.
The proposal of legislation to exempt a portion of an active, full-time law enforcement officer’s salary from state income taxes.
That CLEST work with subject matter experts to ensure that CLEST Rule 1002 provides the following assessments: comprehensive psychological assessments regarding aggression, implicit and racial bias pre-screening; physical fitness assessments; extensive character, employment, and criminal background investigations; and current bias assessments to better evaluate that law enforcement candidates are physically, emotionally, and mentally fit to serve.
That CLEST conduct a study on the necessity for officers to be periodically re-evaluated throughout their service at years three, seven, and 10.
That state, local, and county governing bodies reappropriate funding to provide healthcare coverage for full-time law enforcement officers and their dependents who participate in an annual wellness assessment. Annual wellness assessments should not be required for dependents who are minors.
The Arkansas Department of Public Safety, in conjunction with existing programs, should develop and administer a robust, statewide wellness and resiliency program available to the law enforcement community, including officers, jailers, dispatchers, coroners, and civilian staff.
The proposal of legislation and funding to support a loan forgiveness program for law enforcement officers similar to a program recently enacted in Texas. The alternative to this recommendation is that the Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program be amended to allow for forgiveness eligibility following 12 months instead of 120 months of qualifying payments for law enforcement officers.
The proposal of legislation and funding to allow for a full-time, certified law enforcement officer to attend a state-supported institution of higher education tuition free, similar to the legislation for soldiers or airmen in the Arkansas National Guard.
The proposal of legislation that the first 50 percent of benefits received by a law enforcement officer of this state from an individual retirement account or the first 50 percent of retirement benefits received by a law enforcement officer of this state from public or private employment-related retirement systems, plans, or programs, regardless of the method of funding for these systems, plans, or programs, be exempt from the state income tax, with no age requirement.
That actuary studies be conducted on all applicable retirement systems to determine the cost and feasibility to reduce actual service for retirement of law enforcement officers to no more than 25 years with at least a 3 percent multiplier. Specifically, actuarial studies should include separating law enforcement officers from civilian employees in the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System (APERS).
That actuarial studies be conducted on all applicable retirement systems to determine the cost and feasibility of allowing law enforcement officers who medically retire due to work-related injuries to receive equivalent retirement benefits as if the law enforcement officer reached full retirement eligibility.
That law enforcement agencies provide long-term disability insurance for all law enforcement officers.
Some of these recommendations entered the 2021 Legislative Session as Senate Bills 234 and 304, filed by Sen. Rapert, and HB 1274, filed by Rep. Stu Smith. SB234 represents Retirement Enhancement for State Police. Currently, law enforcement officers are allowed to retire after 30 years of service. This bill seeks to reduce the number of years to 25, which would call for a 3 percent contribution from a member’s salary.
Ultimately, the bill was amended to reduce the number of years of service from 30 to 28, rather than the orginally proposed 25 years of service, for State Police.
Of that change, Rapert said, “I had hoped to have our state join every single state that surrounds us by lowering to 25 years the years of service required for any law enforcement officer to retire. I look forward to working with my legislative colleagues and state leaders going forward to make this goal become a reality. I am extremely happy that we found consensus to allow the Arkansas State Police retire with 28 years of service, which puts them in parity with other law enforcement officers in our state.”
SB304 represents the Income Tax Credit for Full-Time Law Enforcement Officers, which would create a tax exemption or tax credit for law enforcement officers. The aim of this bill is to counteract poor starting salaries and to provide a tax credit incentive for all state, local, and federal officers. HB 1274 would amend the current definition of employees under APERS to add “those persons participating in a local policemen’s pension and relief fund.” It also would amend Ark. Code § 24-4-524 to allow volunteer officers to receive reciprocal service credit from APERS earned, by the volunteer officer either under the Arkansas Local Police and Fire Retirement System or a local pensions and relief fund.
Back the Blue Movement
Many of the bills previously discussed and inspired by the Task Force recommendations have become part of what is being called the “Back the Blue” Movement, spearheaded by Sen. Rapert.
“Every single day in our state brave law enforcement officers serving our communities put on their badges and holster their sidearms to enforce the laws of our state and protect the public from criminals that may seek to harm them,” Rapert said. “I am proud to have been a part of the legislative leadership that formed the Back the Blue Caucus to support legislation that supports these courageous men and women who take an oath to protect and serve the people of our state. I will continue to do everything within my power to ensure our law enforcement officers have the resources they need to effectively do their job.”
Rapert said the Back the Blue Movement is significant for many reasons.
“I have had several family members and close friends who have served and continue to serve in law enforcement,” he said. “The public often takes the daily sacrifice that these officers and their families make for granted. With all the unnecessary and negative actions taken in some parts of our country to ‘defund the police,’ I am proud of our Arkansas legislature, our governor and the vast majority of Arkansas citizens raising our voices to ensure that all our law enforcement officers know we appreciate them and ‘Back the Blue.’ The bills that our caucus has put forward show that we mean what we say.”
SB300, To Prohibit Parole for a Person Convicted of the Offense of Possession of a Firearm by Certain Persons Another, is another important bill that is part of this. Sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Dismang and backed by former U.S. District Attorney Cody Hiland, the bill is intended to limit the scope of parole and prohibit parole in situations of repeat felony offenders for felony possession of a firearm. Arkansas currently suffers from a high rate of violent crimes, many of which Hiland has found to involve repeat felony possession offenders. When asked to expand upon his position on this bill Hiland stated:
“As United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, I was proud to work with our local and state law enforcement partners to use our federal statutes to remove violent, repeat criminals from our communities,” Hiland said. “Violent, repeat offenders must be confronted and held accountable. The truth is, no free nation ever willed itself from poverty to prosperity by being soft on crime and failing to uphold the rule of law. The ultimate success of education, infrastructure, and economic development is absolutely linked to successful enforcement of the rule of law. As we have seen in far too many cities in this nation, if allowed to continue unchecked, crime is an oppression that smothers civilization and the resulting quality of life for our people. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the tangible financial costs and the intangible, but very real, costs to freedom that crime has on individuals and businesses in our community.”
Hiland continued: “It’s why I’m working with the Arkansas Sheriff’s Association and the Prosecuting Attorney’s Association to significantly strengthen existing penalties by eliminating parole for violent, repeat felons who are caught carrying weapons. If the legislation is successful, it will give local and state law enforcement and prosecutors a critical tool similar to that used at the federal level to keep our communities safe by removing those who would do us harm from the streets.”
Members of Arkansas’ law enforcement community have expressed support for this Task Force throughout its fruition and are confident it has provided beneficial insight on how to improve the profession. Arkansas Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Scott Bradley, who formerly served as Van Buren County sheriff, believes one of the key benefits of the Task Force is that it granted “a good opportunity to take a hard look at ourselves and how we can improve.” He said he and other members of law enforcement value establishing and maintaining the trust of the community. Furthermore, Task Force members agree that while the topics of discussion during their meetings had the potential to be divisive, dialogue remained respectful and fruitful because each member was committed to the ultimate goal of making Arkansas better. As such, the Task Force was indeed as dynamic and instrumental as the Governor intended, as many of the recommendations made have become action items for the 93rd General Assembly and sparked the Back the Blue Movement. As such, Arkansas is at the forefront of progress.