LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Little Rock has seen its share of gangs, drugs and homicides with 1992 as one of the worst years to date. The city is currently sitting at number 29 for 2014, leaving many people wondering if we are headed right back where we were 22 years ago.
"I was there. It's amazing. I was there," Leifel Jackson recalled. Jackson is a former gang banger who remembers exactly what it was like living in the heart of Little Rock's worst gang epidemic. After spending 10 years in federal prison, Jackson turned his life around and is now helping troubled youth. "The majority of the homicides were basically gang related."
In 1992, Little Rock reached a record of 61 homicides. Two years later, when Little Rock was still considered one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, HBO released Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock—a documentary that brought attention to the crime problems in the city. Following the documentary, the Little Rock Police Force was quadrupled, and the street gang problem was nearly eradicated. As of July, Little Rock has already seen 29 homicides.
"It was a problem when we reached number one," Jackson reflected. "Twenty-nine is awful for our state; it's awful for our cities."
While gangs and drug crimes were a major influence in the past, newer reported data suggests something else driving higher homicide numbers in 2014.
"Many of those homicides we've had aren't directly related to gang violence or narcotics activity, although that may be a small factor in some of those instances," explained Lt. Sidney Allen with the Little Rock Police Department.
"Now we're having a lot of pop up shootings having to deal with Facebook, fights, drugs," added Jackson.
Peer pressure, gang banging, and drug use is what every parent worries about the moment their child walks out the door in the morning—it is particularly on the minds of parents with Little Rock reporting 29 homicides only half way through the year. Seven out of 29 of the reported homicides in Little Rock were between the ages of 15 and 21. To put that in perspective, that's an alarming 24 percent.
"We said absolutely can't wait. We have to go ahead and release some of our federal funding now and get these resources out into the community as soon as possible," said director of the Division of Youth Services (DYS) Tracy Steele. This is the first time in three years DYS used a large portion of their federal funding to award grants to be used for prevention and intervention programming. "We put out 22 grants that accumulated to $533,000 to community programs to help fight crime."
Programs like the Independent Youth Football League, which is already meeting to make plans for the upcoming season, is giving city children the opportunity to get out and play.
"Awesome. I meet new friends like every year," 11-year-old Cedric told the cameras.
For his mother, it is deeper than just a game. It is giving young people like her son, the chance to be involved in something positive and keep them off the streets.
"He's at that impressionable age where he can get involved before he gets to middle school and high school where he has something positive to do in the evenings," she said.
Redious Yancy remembers the day her son died like it was yesterday.
"I paged him, I couldn't get him, I would call him, I couldn't get him, and I just started praying. I said 'Something done happened. Something done happened,'" she recalled. All Yancy is left with are photographs. Her 26-year-old son, Omar Yancy was killed in December of 1999. "My heart breaks every day because I have no closure… This year, in December, it will be 15 years."
According to the Little Rock Police Department incident report, a woman told police she went to a parking lot on the 2000 block of Louisiana Street to check on her vehicle that she had loaned to a friend. There, she reportedly found an unknown black man in the trunk, dead. It was Yancy's beloved son.
"I get up, I think about him, and my heart just… My heart breaks every day because I can't talk to him. I can't see his face. I can't touch him, but I carry him in my heart every day," Yancy continued. The alarming number frustrates her. "Whether it's gang-related or killing someone because they did something to you, or you didn't like them, or something like that. That's sad because what you're doing is you're taking a life and that mother's hurting."
To this day Yancy hurts. She still does not know who is responsible for her son's death, but her faith helps her push on.
"No matter who has killed my son, I have forgiven them," she concluded.
Breaking down cultural and language barriers could be key in helping the Little Rock Police Department solve crime. When other people come to this country with negative views and perceptions of law enforcement, it's hard to change that. This is why experts believe it's going to take more involvement to break down those barriers.
Of the murders reported in 2014, four of them are still unsolved. In October 2011, 20-year-old Patricia Guardado, a student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), was reported missing. Just days later, she was found in a pond, dead. Her case is still unsolved.
With the United States being somewhat of a melting pot, there will always be cross-cultural differences, which lead to communication barriers between the public and law enforcement, but why?
"There is a big distrust of the police, so a lot of the Hispanic population in Little Rock just won't call the police for practically anything," explained Dr. Jeff Walker, chair of the department of Criminal Justice at UALR. "There's the fear of being deported. There's the fear of just general corruption by the police because that's kind of the culture they came out of."
In a UALR departmental study, 72 Hispanics in Little Rock were sampled. Thirty-two were males and 39 were females between the ages of 18 to 66 years old. According to the study, nearly 59 percent of the people surveyed believe they will be deported if they call police for help. Fifty-four percent think they will be targeted for retaliation from the offender if they report the crime to police.
While making the effort to hire bilingual employees is a step in the right direction, Walker believes it is mostly about just getting into the community and letting them know police are there to help.
"If the only time a Hispanic person sees a police officer is when they're getting arrested or if they're investigating a crime, those aren't the ideal circumstances for building rapport," Walker added.
Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner hasn't even been on the job for a month, and he admits he doesn't have any concrete plans on how he'll decrease crime now, but he vows that doing so is his number one goal.
"The problems that exist here are historical; they've been here for a very long time. They're very complex. They will not be solved overnight," Buckner explained in a one-on-one interview. "That will be my goal every year that I am here. Violent crime in particular, but crime as a whole needs to be reduced."
Buckner most recently came from the Louisville Metro Police Department, a city comparable in size and crime to Little Rock. He spent 21 years there and knows his experience on the force will help him implement plans to diminish crime in Arkansas' capital city.
"I don't think that you can say that you have developed any strategies or plans after being here for what is the end of my second week," he continued. "I think that the main thing I would need from (Little Rock residents) is to get involved in some shape, form, or fashion in our community. We cannot have spectators with the level of crime we're having in our community, and I ask for their patience."