Community activist Jack Foster said Monday that he was among a group of people that a Pine Bluff Police Department detective turned away from a board meeting of the Area Agency on Aging of Southeast Arkansas last week that should have been open to the public.
Foster spoke to the Pine Bluff City Council during the period set aside for public comment.
“I want to speak to you about an incident that occurred last week,” Foster said. “We were attempting to attend a meeting that we had previously attended with no trouble in the past, when Detective [Jeremy] Oswalt stopped us from entering the building. He told us that we were on private property and that we couldn’t enter.”
Foster said that he had secured a legal opinion from Department of Human Services Chief Counsel Breck Hopkins confirming that Area Agency meetings are to be open to the public.
“As far as I’m concerned my constitutional rights were violated,” Foster said. “A legal opinion by the chief counsel for the Department of Human Services makes it clear that Area Agency board meetings are open to the public.”
In a conversation earlier in the day, Foster said that he had phoned Pine Bluff Police Chief Jeff Hubanks to inform him of his officer’s actions.
“I called Chief Hubanks and he told me ‘I’m not getting in that,’” Foster said.
Hubanks confirmed that Foster called him on the day of the incident.
“Jack called me and told me his constitutional rights were being violated by my officer and he started to give his phone to my officer to I guess get me to correct my guy,” Hubanks said. “I told Jack that I wasn’t going to do things like that.”
Hubanks said his understanding of the situation was that Oswalt had been hired by the Area Agency to work security for its board meeting.
“If an officer is involved in an off-duty job then any issues that come up are between a complainant and the entity that hired the officer,” Hubanks said.
When asked if off-duty officers working security were allowed to wear their department badges, Hubanks said that the matter was not one of allowance.
“They are actually required to wear their PBPD badge and their service weapon,” Hubanks said. “People need to know that he or she is a PBPD officer even when they are off duty. They still maintain their powers of arrest.”
Foster said that Oswalt had driven a PBPD car to the Area Agency and Hubanks said that this was allowed in certain circumstances.
“If an officer’s off-duty job site is en route to the department and they would otherwise have to turn around and go back home to pick up their department-issued vehicle, they are allowed to drive the department car to their job site,” Hubanks said.
Hubanks said that if Foster was concerned about his constitutional rights he should have pressed the issue.
“If Jack and his cadre are so convinced that they are right then they should have tested my officer and seen how it worked out,” Hubanks said. “Instead of taking exception, they backed off. If they believed they were walking in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau then, by God, they should have kept going and been placed under arrest. But they didn’t do that. They just stood sulking on the sidewalk and called my officer names.”
Foster said his group wanted to discuss several grievances with the Area Agency board.
“We wanted to address the board to discuss the way that Area Agency Director Betty Bradshaw runs the agency,” Foster said. “It is funded with taxpayer money but Bradshaw runs it the way that she wants to.”
Foster said that Bradshaw has named several housing units and other buildings after family members, including her grandson who was killed in Afghanistan in 2012.
“She’s doing what she wants to do without any input from the board,” Foster said. “Also, while about 80 percent of the people served by the agency, only three of the 18 agency board members are African-American.”
Bradshaw did not return a call for comment Monday.