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story.lead_photo.caption “Enforcement is not the primary thing that we do. The primary thing that we do is prevention. That’s through the relationships we build with the community.” -Eric Higgins - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

Eric Higgins was clearly the underdog. His opponent was endorsed by the retiring Pulaski County sheriff. He was outspent almost 2-1 — leaving him without the money to buy new yard signs. And Pulaski County had never elected a black sheriff.

But Higgins — a career cop who retired in 2014 as assistant Little Rock police chief — says he didn’t have any doubts that he would be elected sheriff.

“I knew I was going to win,” he says of the May 22 election night. “I just felt in my heart that it was going to happen. It felt like God had put me in this position, giving me this opportunity.”

Higgins defeated Carl Minden — a 20-year veteran of the Pulaski County sheriff’s office — in the Democratic primary. With no challengers in the November general election, Higgins will be sworn into office in January.

But life as a police officer was not what Higgins envisioned when he enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He wanted to get a job in computer science. But he also wanted spending money. A friend recommended he apply at the Little Rock Police Department.

“I told him I didn’t want to be a police officer. I had no desire to be a police officer,” he remembers.

Another friend persuaded him to apply, saying the department offered a lot of benefits, including working around his college schedule.

“My dad told me, ‘Son, don’t take that job. If you take that job, you are going to buy a new car, you are going to move out of the house and you are going to quit school,’” Higgins says.

“I told him I wasn’t going to do that. ‘I have no desire to be a police officer.’ Well, I took the job and ended up buying a new car — a 1984 Nissan Maxima — and a little while later I moved out of the house and got an apartment and eventually,” he says, “I ended up quitting school.”

“He was right on the money,” he says of his dad.

His parents were Ignatius and Gertrude Higgins. Ignatius was a bricklayer, and Gertrude worked for the Little Rock Housing Authority. The couple, who are deceased, had eight children — six boys and two girls. Higgins is their youngest son.

The family moved from Lake Charles, La., to Little Rock when Higgins was a toddler. The children were brought up Catholic and went to parochial schools. Higgins graduated from Catholic High School for Boys in 1983 — one of just a handful of black kids in his class.

“Enforcement is not the primary thing that we do. The primary thing that we do is prevention. That’s through the relationships we build with the community.”

“Dad worked hard and sacrificed to put us through school. He told us, ‘I can’t afford to send you to college, but I will make sure you get the best high school education.’” Higgins eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies and a master’s degree in human services from Liberty University in Virginia. But his father was not alive to see him graduate.

The family lived at 28th and State streets in the south end of Little Rock. “I didn’t particularly care for law enforcement as a kid,” he says. His first beat was his old neighborhood.

During his years of policing, Higgins says he has tried to change the perception of police officers.

“Enforcement is not the primary thing that we do. The primary thing that we do is prevention. That’s through the relationships we build with the community.”

GIRL NEXT-DOOR — SORT OF

Higgins has known his wife, Caron, practically all of his life. They lived across the street from each other and were childhood friends when she was 14 and he was 12. But the two never dated — until she moved to Dallas.

Caron came home for a holiday, and Higgins was at his parents’ house. The two started talking and eventually began a long-distance relationship. She was Pentecostal and he was Catholic and they agreed they weren’t going to be able to convert each other.

They married on March 9, 1991, with three officiants — a Catholic priest, a Pentecostal preacher and her brother-in-law.

Over the years, the Higginses have transitioned from different churches, including Fellowship Bible Church and most recently Lakeshore Drive Baptist Church — which held its last service the day before this interview. They are searching for a new church home.

They have two daughters. Janay, 24, works for an audiovisual company in Dallas. Jessica, 17, is a senior at Parkview Arts and Science Magnet School. Caron is assistant registrar at Little Rock Central High School.

RETIREMENT AND EXODUS

Higgins worked his way up the police ranks, starting as a cadet in 1984. Early in his career, a sergeant told him law enforcement is “probably 95 percent boredom and 5 percent sheer terror. Enjoy the boredom.”

After about 30 years with the Little Rock Police Department — including 10 years as assistant police chief — Higgins decided it was time to retire. But then Chief Stuart Thomas announced his plans to retire, and Higgins decided to apply.

“If the Lord is willing, I would get the job. If I didn’t, I would retire,” he says he thought at the time.

Higgins was passed over for Kenton Buckner, a 21-year veteran from the Louisville, Ky., Metro Police Department. Buckner was sworn into office in June 2014. Not long after, Higgins retired.

In retirement, he was quickly recruited by members of Fellowship Bible Church to get involved with the Exodus Project — Out for Life. The project is a Christian-based re-entry program for inmates who are near the end of their prison sentence. Inmates accepted into the program spend several days a week in classes about ethics, recovery and religion.

Higgins says he wasn’t sure if convicted felons would welcome a retired assistant police chief, but he decided to give it a try. He told the inmates about his professional background and shared stories about his days in uniform.

“I had a great time. I don’t know if the students were enjoying themselves, but I sure was.”

Higgins says re-entry programs are crucial to lowering recidivism rates. He points to former Exodus students who have kicked drug or alcohol addictions and have successful careers.

“Just because you have a felony record, that doesn’t define who you are,” he says. “You have an opportunity to succeed in life. To move forward.

“If you are working and providing for your family and you are doing things honestly, then you are successful. You don’t have to be a doctor. That’s not what everyone wants to do. We all have a gift and God created us with certain gifts and talents. Utilize those gifts and talents in a positive way.”

Amanda Tropf was in one of Higgins’ classes. Years of opioid abuse led to numerous trips to treatment, jail and finally her incarceration at Arkansas Community Correction. She now heads up marketing for the Exodus Project.

“Eric is a man of integrity, faith, morals and values,” she says. “He has the biggest heart and wants the best thing possible for anyone he ever meets.”

Higgins taught her, she says, to plant a “moral flag that has to be firm on the ground, giving your honor and glory to God.” Tropf adds she has always been a Christian, but during her drug addiction, she lost faith.

“God never left me. I just left him,” she says. “I try to live like Eric Higgins taught me to live.”

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“Just because you have a felony record, that doesn’t define who you are. You have an opportunity to succeed in life. To move forward.” -Eric Higgins

SHERIFF HIGGINS

In retirement — besides volunteering for the Exodus Project — Higgins taught some online classes. He teaches a criminal justice class at Shorter College in North Little Rock.

After Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay announced he would retire, Higgins was approached about running for the office. He hesitated, but then decided he wanted to develop a re-entry program at the sheriff’s office. It was his first race for public office.

Former Judge Marion Humphrey encouraged him to run, saying Higgins is a “praying man and he just believed and had faith and he went for it.”

“He is firm in his convictions. He knows how to exercise authority, and he is a person who knows how to be in charge. And he is very likable. … His demeanor is such that people are comfortable with him,” Humphrey says.

Little Rock Police Department Sgt. Willie Davis, who worked with Higgins for years, agrees.

“He is a God-fearing, responsible, intelligent man who really has a heart for the community,” Davis says. “I had no doubt in my mind that he was going to win.”

Caron says she was more convinced that he should run for the office than her husband, who had reservations.

“I just had a belief in Eric and what he was trying to do and I just felt he had a plan and a purpose,” Caron says.

His campaign mantra was CSI — Community-focused, Safety-driven, Integrity-based. He said the word “community” more than a dozen times during this interview.

As he works on building his staff, he is looking for employees who are focused on thinking, “This is my community. How can I make people safer? What can I do to make a safer environment?”

“It doesn’t mean arrests,” he adds. “Yes. We are going to make arrests. And, yes, we are going to write tickets, but improving the quality of life of the people in the community requires us to have a strong, strong relationship with the community.”

But building his team does not mean he is going to come in and clean house.

“There are so many rumors that fly around about me coming — all of the things I am going to do — like I am going to fire everybody,” he says. “How would we function?”

He is going to work on that re-entry program but realizes it will take time to iron out the logistics with the Arkansas Department of Correction to “ensure good partnerships and the success of those individuals coming out.”

The program he envisions would focus on inmates who are within three to five months of the end of their sentences. He hopes to trade bed space with the Department of Correction — exchanging inmates who are at the county jail awaiting space at a prison with imprisoned inmates whose time has almost been served.

He also hopes to partner with the Exodus Project and other organizations with “records of success” to work with the inmates on the basics — writing a resume, finding housing, avoiding bad influences and getting a job.

“Once you come out, you are trying to make decisions. ‘Am I going to go back to school? Am I going to work here or there?’ You get caught up in the moment. ‘I’ve got to pay my bills. I’ve got so much responsibility. I’ve got fines to pay.’ And sometimes in that moment you are not able to make good decisions,” he says.

“So if we can slow them down a little bit and give them some information, I think we can help.”

So what would his father — who advised him not to get into law enforcement — think of his son’s becoming Pulaski County sheriff?

“I think he would be very proud of me. My dad was there when I graduated from the police academy. He was very proud of me.

“I promised him that I would finish school, and it took me 20 years, but I finally finished. I did what I told him I was going to do.”

SELF PORTRAIT

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: May 3, 1965, Lake Charles, La.

MY FAVORITE FOOD IS: Chinese food.

MY FAVORITE MOVIES ARE: The Marvel series and Inside Out.

THE LAST MOVIE I SAW WAS: Avengers: Infinity War.

I DRIVE A: 2001 Dodge Durango. I keep my cars, but it is on its last leg.

RIGHT NOW I AM READING: Criminal justice books for my class and, of course, some Scripture.

PEOPLE SAY I LOOK LIKE: My dad.

GROWING UP MY DOG WAS NAMED: Missy. She was a terrier mix.

MY FAVORITE TRAVEL DESTINATION IS: Universal Studios in Florida.

ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Faith.

Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Eric Higgins, Pulaski County's next sheriff

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