Leader Blues

Saturday, October 31, 2009

EDITORIAL >> South Pulaski inhospitable

Those who prefer suburban governance to the big city should be thankful they live north of the great divide, the Arkansas River. Our sisters on the southern fringe of the metroplex can’t seem to get the hang of self-government. The towns of Wrightsville and Alexander are forever in the news, answering to the state auditors or federal investigators for the misuse of their puny treasuries.

This week, the disclosures in federal court about law enforcement and municipal governance in Alexander (pop. 614) were especially alarming. Alexander will take its place as the poster city for racial profiling, an evil that has plagued law enforcement everywhere but which we like to think is a rare and fading phenomenon.

Not in Alexander. Several Hispanics sued the city, its policemen and a towing service alleging that the city targeted Hispanics, who were mostly poor, to fill the town’s coffers. The testimony this week from men who were arrested along with a former city attorney and a former auxiliary cop was shocking. As bizarre as anything was the revelation in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that this town of 600 has six full-time and seven part-time policemen, all busily writing citations. They bring in a lot of money for a hamlet. At that rate, Jacksonville, Cabot, Ward, Austin, Lonoke or Beebe would have hundreds of full-time and part-time policemen.

The allegations centered mainly on one policeman, Tommy Leath, who has since been promoted to assistant police chief for training. While many Hispanics live in the southern part of the county and in neighboring Saline County, the population of Alexander is only 2.3 percent Hispanic. But in one two-month period in 2007, 53 percent of the 115 traffic citations Leath wrote went to Hispanics. About half of the citations were for driving with an obstructed view. Hispanics are mostly Catholic and many hang rosary beads from their rearview mirrors. Others had a small air-freshener hanging from the mirror or small stickers on the corner of their rear windows.

That would get them stopped, cited and searched for other violations — not carrying a driver’s license, faulty lights or brakes, no proof of liability insurance. Their cars would be confiscated and towed. Their cases would be postponed repeatedly in traffic court. It would take days and $300 to $400 in towing and storage fees to get their cars back. These were the poorest people in the vicinity, their vehicles usually old and decrepit.

A former city attorney testified that when she took the job in 2007, the courtroom would be full of Hispanics. She convicted many but dismissed other cases because there was no evidence about what the “obstruction” was. She received a letter from the mayor warning her that if she dismissed any more cases, the lost city revenue would be taken out of her paltry pay as city attorney.

Thus did the government, which ought to be the protector of the poorest, become their exploiter.

A church youth director who served a while in 2007 as an auxiliary policeman worked with Leath. “We’d sit around and we’d look, and if they looked Hispanic we’d try to find probable cause to pull them over,” the man testified. “He knew that most of them didn’t have their driver’s licenses, and it would be an easy ticket and an easy tow.” He said the policeman joked that if anyone complained that he was targeting Hispanics, he would point out that his wife was of Hispanic heritage.

Since then, the policeman has shed the Hispanic wife and taken up with the youth director’s wife, who happens to be the Alexander court clerk. They are engaged to be married. She testified for him in the federal suit Thursday.

Leath insisted that he had never targeted Hispanics. They just happened to be the ones violating the law about visual obstruction. For her part, the mayor said she just didn’t believe that her policemen would single out people because of their ethnicity.

We have had a little experience on this side of the river with corrupt and discriminatory law enforcement. It does not engender confidence in government. Our advice to the city fathers and mothers on the other side of the county is that they treat people evenhandedly and finance their government services in ways that do not encumber the backs of the poor. Fewer cops and a salary cut for the mayor would be a good start.