After an afternoon press conference to address public safety at continuing social protests across the state, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he has had meetings with participants of some of the recent mass assemblies to discuss solutions to their concerns.
Like much of the U.S., the state has seen widespread public protests over the last week in the wake of the nationally reverberating death of George Floyd, an African-American, by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, in Minneapolis. While many protests in Arkansas have been peaceful, there have been instances of police force to disperse crowds that have resulted in crowd injuries and property vandalism.
Hutchinson spoke to the role of law enforcement in his 1 p.m. press conference on Wednesday (June 3), a day after he signed an executive order to activate the Arkansas National Guard for a state of emergency due to “civil disturbance.”
“We will not tolerate the destruction of private property and the expression of violence. We want to protect peaceful protests, but we want to make sure that we have an environment where people are safe in their persons and their property,” Hutchinson said. “Their [coordinated law enforcement’s] goal was to keep the peace, protect the free expression of protestors and to prevent violence.”
In his press conference, the governor said he was pleased murder charges were brought against Chauvin and he said more charges should be brought in the case.
In a subsequent exclusive interview with Talk Business & Politics, Hutchinson said he has had conversations with some of the protesters that have staged rallies around the state, though he did not identify them.
“I have had meetings with some of the protest participants. I welcomed the opportunity to have additional meetings and we’re working to set some of those up, but I think that is important to listen to their concerns. They’re clearly outraged and frustrated and angered, and that’s understandable and it’s important to hear them out. And part of it is what they see as a criminal justice system that disproportionately goes after minorities,” he said.
“Of course, it’s what they see across the national news repeatedly over the last decade, which is incidences of police brutality directed at minorities. And so that’s a level of frustration, but everybody, it’s typical that many of them express it in different ways. Some talk about the disadvantages that the minority community have in terms of opportunity and education, and so it’s not just a matter of policing. It’s also a matter of opportunity,” Hutchinson added.
The governor said there are some “bad apples” in law enforcement that act in a discriminatory way. He also said there is “institutional” discrimination in the criminal justice system. As a former federal prosecutor, Drug Enforcement Administrator, and deputy at Homeland Security, Hutchinson said he has seen issues evolve for decades.
“A good example is the disparate treatment that I’ve dealt with for decades and tried to remedy and that’s how crack cocaine and powder cocaine are treated differently. That has the disparate impact on minorities and through my efforts and many others, that disparate treatment was reduced, but those are the kinds of institutional changes that have to be looked at,” he said.
“And you’ve got to look at [law enforcement] training obviously, but it’s more than training, right? It’s also about getting rid of them and the consequences of bad actions and being able to fire an officer that has a track record of discriminatory conduct. And the other frustrating thing is that, many of these issues are dealing with their local law enforcement, which is part of the political system. Who controls the law enforcement operation and the decision making part of it? So all of that’s a part of the discussion. Those are some of the things that I heard in my listening session with some of them and I hope to continue that,” he said.
Earlier this week, Gov. Hutchinson said he was a “concrete” person and hoped to put forth solutions to the problems at the center of protestors’ grievances. He is in a “listening, communicating and understanding” phase at the moment, but said he has offered and asked for suggestions to move toward improvements based on his discussions.
“That’s dialogue and that is important and you can’t diminish that. You understand each other better. We learn from each other. In terms of – and I am a concrete thinker – and so what action can be taken? For example, they [protestors] had a lot of questions about community policing. They had a lot of questions about: what is excessive force or what is the kind of use of force?
“I offered to bring in our team at ALETA, the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy. They’re the ones that actually teach police officers. And I thought it would be very good, they loved it. They liked that idea because then those that instruct and teach police officers policy on policing, can listen to minorities that are impacted, but also it helps them to understand what the police face and understand what the existing policies are and that they’ve taken a lot of steps to reduce that.
“So those are the kinds of, one specific discussion point that we could follow up on. But it is about making sure that we have adequate education for the children in minority communities, adequate investments there. And those are issues that we can look at from both the legislative standpoint next year. And it’s a part of the political process and that’s a longer discussion, but I think when you have those discussions, then you have specific ideas that can flow from there,” he said.
Has the governor given thought to putting together a commission, task force or conference to publicly engage those who are protesting for changes to police brutality and racial inequalities?
“That’s a possibility, but I would want to hear more from the participants and the community leaders as to whether that’s a beneficial step or whether there’s other ways that it should be addressed. So we’re not there yet. And we also have to remember, this is not a Little Rock issue. I mean, you’ve seen thousands of protesters from the Northwest Arkansas, Jonesboro, and South Arkansas. So this is a statewide issue that people feel strongly about. I have seen it’s the minority community that is most directly impacted, but everybody feels strongly, not everybody, but a large contingent of Arkansans feel very strongly how awful it was, what happened in Minneapolis,” he said.
“What you’re suggesting is very likely necessary. I think it is important for the public to understand that there is communication going on between the state leadership and law enforcement and those that are expressing their frustration. So we hope that can be accomplished,” the governor said.