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GREG HARTON: Is city ready to turn back on officers?

by Greg Harton | August 2, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

Most of the time, when 71 percent of voters approve $37 million for a construction project, the city leaders who asked for that approval have the good sense not to backtrack on the project.

This week, we'll see what good sense looks like in Fayetteville, where it seems the latest nationwide troubles about race and law enforcement might be having a corrosive effect on support for local police among some city leaders.

Barely more than a year ago, voters gave Fayetteville leaders authority to fund $226 million in capital projects, backed by revenue from the city's 1 percent sales tax.

Of eight questions on the ballot last year, a "cultural arts corridor" was the least popular with 54 percent approval. The most popular issues were a new fire station, drainage improvements, streets projects and a new police department. In other words, voters supported basic city services ahead of other items, such as parks, trails and economic development.

Despite its strong vote, it's now the police headquarters getting new attention.

City Council member Kyle Smith last week asked Fayetteville city attorney, Kit Williams, questions arising from a Ward 4 meeting he and fellow Ward 4 member Teresa Turk held.

Smith wanted to know whether, more than a year after the election, there was any legal process to change the bond language upon which city residents cast their ballots. He also wanted to know if a second election could be called to authorize spending the money on other projects.

Police have operated out of a former JC Penney store downtown. The department moved into that facility in 1993, quickly recognizing that while their situation had improved, the building was inadequate. Voters recognized it was time to invest in their police department for the future. Has the recent questions about police brutality in Minnesota and elsewhere eroded their desire to make that investment? I don't think so, but I'm also not up for election this year.

The city attorney, thankfully, responded to Smith's questions with a firm "no." The election is over, he said, and the bonds have been sold to investors and the money raised "for the police facility deemed necessary by the City Council and the voters in 2019."

"No second election can change these facts," Williams said.

Questions that could be viewed as undermining police in Fayetteville aren't stopping with the headquarters project, either.

Last week, Council member Matthew Petty raised questions about the city's acceptance of three-year, $250,000 federal grant to help pay salaries of two additional officers. The money would help add the officers requested by the Fayetteville School District to help protect local students, teachers and staff during the school year, and they would work as community officers during the summer months.

Petty said the reports he's seen indicate officers in the schools make white males and "people who already have a respect for police" feel safer, but not females, African Americans and others. His questions led to the grant being removed from the non-controversial "consent" portion of this Tuesday's City Council agenda to a part of the meeting where items are more fully debated.

Petty appears focused on whether the officers help with school discipline. He may be forgetting how, in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that killed 14 students and three staff members , a state task force and a Fayetteville School District task force identified trained officers as the best kind of armed protection against someone intent on killing students.

I don't think anything about the recent protests has changed whether the public wants trained, certified law enforcement officers on duty ready to respond in protecting our community's young people. And I hope city leaders aren't ready to shift money away from Fayetteville police in a misguided response to the national debate.

Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.


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