Constitution thwarts council crusade

Every time Pine Bluff Chief of Police Jeff Hubanks appears before the city council, he must feel like the mythological King Sisyphus. Surely he must as council members Thelma Walker, George Stepps and Glen Brown always find a way to critique, interrogate and otherwise impugn his judgment.

Lately, their questions invariably circle back to Hubanks’ decision to remove police officers from the three local nightclubs where officers formerly provided off-duty security services.

The pretext for a recent backtrack was found in a discussion of last week’s march of so-called “open-carry” supporters. As The Commercial reported, about 20 people openly displaying firearms marched from the Sahara Shrine Temple north on the Main Street sidewalk to the Jefferson County Courthouse and back again.

To be clear, neither Walker, Brown nor Stepps were fans of the march — nor are we for that matter — but disliking another person’s opinion when expressed in a non-threatening and non-violent manner does not a crime make.

Given his judgmental questioning of Hubanks about the march, Brown may not understand how several Amendments to the Constitution work. As evidence of this fact, Brown asked why Hubanks didn’t have the marchers searched and run out of town.

As Hubanks explained, the marchers have First Amendment rights to conduct their demonstration. Moreover, the marchers were relegated to the sidewalks and closely monitored by police.

Even so, Walker, Brown and Stepps continued to lambast the chief. In the acme of reductio absurdum Brown tried to compare the marchers’ potential for danger to the recent spate of mass shootings in other parts of the country. If Brown honestly thinks these people came to Pine Bluff just so they could spark a replay of the gunfight at the OK Corral, we worry for him.

Hubanks repeatedly attempted to clarify the legal and constitutional constraints placed on his agency with regard to this march. “Under Act 746, the issue of whether open carry is allowed is unclear,” Hubanks explained. The chief further explained that he consulted the city attorney’s office and the prosecuting attorney’s office and was told, in short, that the police department had no legal standing to arrest the parade participants. As Hubanks put it, “I’m not going to have my officers arrest people when I know that no charges will be brought against them.”

Additionally, in the face of unclear language, we as members of a free and open democracy have the luxury of assuming that all acts that are not expressly prohibited are therefore permissible. Such logic found no purchase among the three inquisitors.

After several minutes of discourse, the topic took its inevitable turn when Walker attempted a highly questionable conflation of topics as she tried link the march to the removal of officers from the three nightclubs.

Speaking to Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, Walker said, “Mayor, you said before that Sheriff [Gerald] Robinson’s officers were not working in clubs. Well, I see they weren’t escorting these people on Saturday either.”

Walker seems to forget that the Pine Bluff Police Department officers at the march were on duty, not working part-time; and that they were in the city limits, not out in the county.

This inexplicable, yet somehow unavoidable leap from one topic to another completely unrelated issue begs a serious question: Why are these council members so determined to force police officers back into three (or perhaps one in particular) nightclubs? Why are they so moved to carry the water for this extremely limited constituency? What could drive such zeal to revisit a settled issue?

Unlike virtually every other type of business in our community, these clubs are a locus of numerous police calls each month. Why then do they deserve such special, focused advocacy?

We understand that these are popular places for a certain segment of the public, but just because a business is popular doesn’t mean it should enjoy inordinate city council protection; nor should that discussion be allowed to repeatedly highjack a substantial portion of council time.