LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The shooting at a Little Rock nightclub that injured 28 people has elevated what had been a local issue — a rash of violent crime in Arkansas’ capital city — into a state concern. But Arkansas’ governor and lawmakers are likely to find what City Hall already knew: there’s no simple long-term answer.
A task force Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced last week to combat violence in Little Rock was an acknowledgement by state officials that they can’t ignore the spate of shootings that have rattled the city in recent months, and also a sign they’re worried about the ripple effects the incidents are having on Arkansas.
“The looming cloud of violence harms us all, not just Little Rock, but the entire state,” Hutchinson said as he announced the effort.
Hutchinson announced the plan less than a week after gunfire erupted at the Power Ultra Lounge in downtown Little Rock. So far no suspects have been named or arrested in the shooting. The concert’s headliner was Memphis, Tennessee, rapper Ricky Hampton, also known as Finese2Tymes. Hampton was arrested in Alabama about 24 hours after the shooting on outstanding charges of aggravated assault with a gun out of Forrest City in eastern Arkansas. He’s accused of shooting someone in the neck days before performing at the Little Rock concert.
The shooting capped a violent week in Arkansas’ largest city. Police had responded to a dozen drive-by shootings over the previous nine days. The violence has been especially jarring for a city that faced an explosion of gang violence in the 1990s that gained national notoriety, including an HBO documentary called “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock.”
The task force will consist of agencies including the Little Rock Police Department, FBI and Arkansas State Police. The agencies will assign officers to the group to share intelligence about violent offenders and threats in the city, the governor said. The task force will target violent offenders, particularly those known to be affiliated with gangs, and work to get longer prison sentences for offenders, he said.
“One of our teammates, the Little Rock Police Department, needs help and we’re going to give them help,” said Col. Bill Bryant, director of the state police.
Whether the task force stems the number of violent incident in the short term remains to be seen, but the club shooting and other recent crimes in Little Rock highlight a number of policy issues that bedeviled Arkansas lawmakers in recent years. They include ongoing efforts to curb the state’s rising prison population and how to ensure that parolees don’t return to the prison system after being released. Days before Hutchinson’s announcement, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said he wanted the panel to focus on better monitoring of parolees as well as ways to keep guns out of felons’ hands.
“Certainly, from a broader context, we’re reaching out to the community in a variety of ways, asking for their participation and help, whether it’s helping to mentor a child that needs direction or whether it’s helping a felon that’s been released that needs to find some gainful employment,” Stodola said. “We’re trying to work both ends of the spectrum, the people who haven’t gotten in trouble yet and the people who have already been in trouble and want to go straight.”
The shooting is also likely to put even more of a spotlight on the state’s efforts to expand gun rights, including a new law that will allow concealed handguns in bars and dozens of other places where they’re currently banned. The law, which requires additional training by concealed handgun licensees, won’t take effect until September and the training necessary likely won’t be available until early next year. Gun-control advocates hope to put more pressure on the Legislature to revisit that law, but they face long odds in the majority-Republican House and Senate.
The efforts by the state and local officials in the coming weeks to crack down on crime could determine how much Little Rock’s safety dominates Arkansas’ agenda. For now, the governor’s made it clear it’s impossible to separate the two.
“If Little Rock is not safe, then we cannot succeed in our goals as a state,” Hutchinson said.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo
An AP News Analysis