Mayor Carl Redus responds to a question posed by the moderator Steve Barnes during the mayoral debate held at the Pine Bluff Convention Center on Thursday October 18, 2012. (Special to the Commercial/William Harvey)
Audience members gave cheers and applause throughout, what at times was a contentious debate between mayoral candidates during the event at the Pine Bluff Convention Center on Thursday. (Special to the Commercial/William Harvey)
Although their views on crime control differed, Pine Bluff’s mayoral candidates were in apparent agreement at Thursday night’s Commercial-sponsored debate that the enhancement of public safety is the No. 1 issue with most voters.
Peter F. Daniels Jr., who had already publicly pledged to fire controversial Police Chief Brenda Davis-Jones if he’s elected, said that crime’s impacts go far beyond an offense’s immediate victim. He rated crime as the top “driver against economic development,” and while he acknowledged that the police department is indeed at its strongest level ever with 155 officers, he said many of the officers are inexperienced “rookies.”
Daniels also suggested that the department might be able to attract more seasoned officers if it offered higher salaries and said that as mayor he would make certain that Pine Bluff officers were the state’s highest-paid.
Alderwoman Thelma Walker questioned whether the city could afford such a salary hike, but she did promise an increase, although she qualified a raise with the expectation of “more work.” Walker echoed Debe Hollingsworth in saying she didn’t believe that the city’s overall crime rate is down, as the police department has reported for 11 consecutive months. Walker also called for a more aggressive police effort on drug dealers and drug-related offenses.
Incumbent Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. touted the effectiveness of the department’s new crime suppression unit and its contribution to the proclaimed reduction in all crime categories except homicides. Redus recently said he is troubled by the spike in homicides and that authorities are placing special emphasis on lowering those numbers as well.
Hollingsworth said the homicide totals are more indicative of the true crime picture here, asserting that other figures can be manipulated. If elected, she said she would work toward reducing black-on-black crime and partnering with various organizations to prevent rather than having to respond to offenses.
Kent Broughton didn’t criticize Davis-Jones or Redus by name, but said as mayor he would incorporate an “ACT policy — accountability, commitment and transparency,” within the police department. John James Jr., in addition to saying he would get youth more involved with the police and help the men and women of the department to “understand they’re officers” on- and off-duty, referenced Davis-Jones by saying the city “can’t have the chief moonlighting.” Davis-Jones recently took on a part-time security role in exchange for free rent at an apartment complex in which she resides.
Alderman Steven Mays repeated his intention to, if elected, give officers a “green light” in enforcing laws with “zero tolerance,” but went a step further by saying he would become personally involved with crime response if that might help a crime victim. Clarence Davis took a different approach, saying he believes “neighbors helping neighbors” is a reliable method of improving public safety, and as mayor he would “make sure” neighborhood watch groups “get involved” and have the support and tools they need.
Tim Whisenhunt — like Hollingsworth, Daniels and Mays — called for the reestablishment of a civil service commission to help ensure there’s no political influence in personnel matters involving the police and fire departments’ administrators. Whisenhunt said, too, that police officers might produce better results if they were “properly motivated.”
When asked what he might do as mayor to actively partner with public schools, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College, Whisenhunt said that although some efforts in that arena have been made, “We can always do better.” Whisenhunt received applause when he said that the city should extend some energy toward recruiting UAPB and SEARK students so they might be incorporated into the city’s “future workforce.”
Davis, who said what citizens need more than anything else is “love for one another,” figures the city should “do more” in helping obtain part-time jobs for UAPB and SEARK students, putting “money in their pockets” and training future full-time employees for local businesses and industries. Hollingsworth stressed the importance of a “working partnership” with schools at all levels.
Mays described SEARK and UAPB as “gold mines” and said the city and Jefferson County governments should make a concerted effort to better serve both institutions and their students. Broughton stated similar thoughts, noting that education “is the key to growth.”
Daniels said that a “poor utilization of skills, resources and talents at UAPB” is a root cause of the city’s currently dismal image. He wants to see UAPB as the center of the city’s development into the state’s entertainment mecca, saying he envisions Pine Bluff becoming another Branson, Mo. Jones said he thinks it would be wise to utilize UAPB students in hosting activities within the city.
Walker has a straight-forward philosophy on both UAPB and SEARK, saying whatever’s done in bettering the institutions “will make for a better city.” She agreed with Whisenhunt that the city should do more in supporting student recruitment.
Redus said his administration has added muscle to both institutions with city-financed developments of their campus areas and employment of some students in a summer work program. The mayor said additional enhancements are ongoing and more is planned. Redus said previously that his administration is responsible for the most progress ever in the UAPB/University Park area.