Police and prosecutors across Northeast Arkansas are using one of law enforcement’s oldest tools -information sharing – in a new way to address violent crime.
In January, 2nd Judicial District Prosecutor Scott Ellington and Jonesboro Police Chief Rick Elliott engaged a number of other law enforcement entities to establish the Organized Criminal Activity Task force, enabling prosecutors and investigators to tap into a Jonesboro Police Department database containing information about people involved with gangs.
“The shooting at The Basement (a party venue in downtown Jonesboro) in May of 2017 started bringing things to a head,” said Elliott. When prosecutors began gathering information about which people at the party were involved with gangs, Ellington said, “it became apparent that their memory coincided with their affiliation with the victims or the defendant. There were at least two separate ‘family groups’ as they were telling their stories.”
Prosecutors learned that JPD officers already had information on the affiliations of those involved in the shooting incident that resulted in one homicide and numerous injuries, Ellington said. “We realized it was time to share that knowledge. “They (prosecutors) came up with the idea” of a task force of agencies whose members could all use data district-wide, Elliott said. “I was already kicking it around, so we started talking about working with others,” Elliott said.
Blytheville Police Chief Ross Thompson and Osceola Police Chief Ollie Collins “are on board,” Elliott said, as is the Mississippi County Sheriff’s Department. West Memphis police want to participate and Memphis police “have said they want in,” Elliott added. The Arkansas State Police and the juvenile services departments in Craighead and Mississippi counties are participating, too.
JPD already has officers that are credentialed by federal agencies and work with those agencies’ crime task forces, Elliott said, so those existing partnerships with the FBI, ATF and U.S. Marshals Service will be of great value. The Arkansas Department of Community Corrections is a partner, as is the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
The Organized Criminal Activity Task Force differs from the Second Judicial District Drug Task Force, Elliott said. Ordinarily, a drug task force draws its personnel from the participating city and county police agencies, but for this information-sharing task force “You don’t have to donate a person,” Elliott said.
“We collect data and put it into the database. It’s more of an information-sharing mechanism to try to help each agency keep their communities safe … as a matter of public safety,” Ellington added.
A Department of Justice-supported multi-state information sharing system, ROCIC, has not only data it can share with its members, but also “has a wealth of training modules available to members,” Elliott said. The Jonesboro Police Department has belonged to ROCIC for a number of years and other agencies in the 2nd Judicial District have indicated an interest in joining that system, Elliott said.
While gang affiliation databases maintained by law enforcement have sometimes come under scrutiny as a possible infringement on First Amendment rights, Elliott said that “when we find out names, we will be researching and vetting that information” before it is included. Ellington has previously said that while people have the right of free association with others they do not have the right to commit crimes.
Both Elliott and Ellington have said that those who commit violent crimes in the judicial district are mobile. “If someone commits a criminal act in Blytheville (for example) they may run to Jonesboro and hide. If we have a crime here, we may not be familiar with all the players. We can circulate that information. One of our partners will know their legal names,” whereas the investigators in the city where the crime occurred may only have a street name for a suspect.
Two murders in Jonesboro in the first week of January focused attention on the fact that suspects can travel quickly from one location to another within the six-county judicial district, both Ellington and Elliott noted. In one shooting case, police arrested a Blytheville man for murdering a Jonesboro man. In the second case, one person was murdered and four people were injured. Crittenden County officers were able to provide information about the identities of the two suspects, who surrendered to law enforcement when they learned that police knew their names and held arrest warrants for them, Ellington said.
Though two murders in the first week of 2019 may have served to heighten awareness of violent crime and fueled anxiety in Jonesboro, Elliott noted that crime statistics compiled by the department and submitted to the federal government indicate that the murder rate was down slightly over the 10-year average from 2009 to 2018. In most years, the number of murders that occur in the city is between 1 and 4, but in 2017, the toll was 7.
Crimes against persons in 2018 showed a 13% increase over the 10-yeare average from 2008-2018, according to JPD. But, Elliott noted, “We have 10,000 more people in than we had in 2010,” pointing to stats from the U.S. Bureau of the Census indicating that Jonesboro’s population grew by 12.7% between April 1, 2010, and Sept. 1, 2017.
“We want to be a big city,” Ellington said. “When you’re a growing city, you can get big-city problems,” but the information-sharing strategy for addressing crime will give law enforcement a tool for tackling crime, he said.