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Last May, Centerton Mayor Bill Edwards fired the top two leaders of his city's Police Department. Days later, Chief Cody Harper and Capt. Kristopher Arthur were reinstated, but placed on administrative leave with pay.

The same month, Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith asked Arkansas State Police to investigate whether any officer or officers misappropriated city property or used city credit cards for personal reasons. The investigation, Smith said, should also examine whether the police department violated the state's speed trap law.

What’s the point?

Should prosecution of local police be deferred to a special prosecutor, if necessary at all, in a more timely way?

Early this month, as the citizens of Centerton marked more than eight months of paying two police officers who are barred from doing their work in a small department that could use the manpower, Smith got back the State Police review.

That triggered the fast-paced act of a prosecutor to ... punt. Smith said on Feb. 7 that he'd asked for a special prosecutor to decide whether to pursue any criminal charges in the case of Centerton's police leaders.

Why? Smith said he needed to do that so his office and Centerton police can continue to work together.

"Obviously that would be made very difficult if we are investigating or prosecuting a chief of police," he said. "That's a different thing than prosecuting a police officer."

Silly us: We thought prosecuting was prosecuting. And we thought local Arkansas prosecutors have, for years, managed to bring charges as necessary against law violators within their jurisdictions.

Let's not downplay how hard it can be to press charges against people you know. And only Smith knows whether he can, internally, separate acquaintance and accountability when it comes to questions of enforcing the laws of the Great State of Arkansas. He might not be the first local prosecutor who would simply rather avoid the shenanigans that can happen in smaller towns.

When it's all politics, who can blame him? Small towns can produce big-time friction among those tugging at either end of the ropes of power. But when it comes to enforcing the laws, is there really an insurmountable barrier that prevents him from fairly applying the law and pursuing a just outcome?

That's what special prosecutors are for, we're told. It seems to be an eye-of-the-beholder evaluation, and according to Smith, he's got to protect his ability to work with local law enforcement when regular folks stand accused of crimes.

At the least, if there were such concerns about conflicts or some ability to fairly evaluate the cases, Smith should have said so back in May. This standard of requesting special prosecutors certainly could have been triggered back then if the interest is keeping a prosecutor out of entanglements impacting local law enforcement.

Meantime, the off-duty officers continue to collect pay while the special prosecutor request is made. Centerton taxpayers might have reason to be gruff about that.

Commentary on 02/20/2019

Print Headline: Pressing on

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