There’s a climate of lawlessness in Bald Knob, and some of that climate comes from its police.
First, the town’s chief of police arrested Richard Chambless for openly carrying a firearm (although open carry is legal in Arkansas). Then that chief made some inaccurate comments about the gun laws in Arkansas, revealing a frightening view of how to police his town. Then the town’s police officers detained and harassed photographers when they were (quite legally) photographing the police station.
The Arkansas Project has been covering the story of Richard Chambless for a while. As our blog pointed out, Arkansas law appears to allow an individual to openly carry a gun — as long as the carrier does not intend to use it for unlawful purposes. Bald Knob’s chief of police, Erek Balentine, doesn’t agree with this interpretation of the law.
A recent twist in the Bald Knob story came when the truck belonging to Chief Balentine was vandalized and set on fire. Open-carry advocates say there are several inconsistencies in the chief’s story, and by doing so suggest that his story is inaccurate — although their differences with Chief Balentine likely make them somewhat biased about this situation.
But the statements that Chief Balentine made in an Arkansas Times story on this incident also merit concern. He said, “The issue I have with open carry is there are no regulations on it — a felon can tote a gun.”
That’s untrue. It is against both Arkansas and federal law for a felon to possess a firearm. State laws that allow open carry do not override state or federal laws that ban felons or others from possessing firearms. The chief law enforcement officer of Bald Knob should know this.
Another troubling aspect of Chief Balentine’s worldview came out when he defended the arrest of Richard Chambless (who was openly carrying a firearm in McDonald’s) with this statement: “If this subject had gone in and shot that McDonald’s up or killed a bunch of people then I would have had to live with that for the rest of my life.”
There was no indication that Chambless was going to do that, however. He had a firearm, as he is allowed to possess under Arkansas law. Merely taking a weapon into a restaurant does not indicate imminent violence.
The chief is embracing a ludicrous proposition: that law enforcement must overreact to any situation that may conceivably lead to some sort of harmful act. It’s the same sort of thinking that recently got Ahmed Muhamad arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school. In that case, school officials and law enforcement used Chief Balentine’s rationale that it’s better to overreact when there is no danger on the slight chance that they may be preventing some unknown future harm.
While this type of thinking may produce job security for law enforcement, it is not how our system works. The police should arrest people when they break laws. They should not engage in some sort of legal “precautionary principle” that carts anyone off to jail based upon the whims of a law enforcement officer.
Unfortunately, this attitude of Chief Balentine seems to have spread to his police force. Two of his officers recently detained men who were taking pictures of the town’s police station. The men were openly carrying firearms, but neither that nor photographing a public building is illegal..
Here’s how the blog Photography is Not a Crime describes the interaction between officer Chester Wright and photographer Kalab White:
“Are we being detained,” asked Kalab White, a 22-year-old open carry advocate who regularly does audits on Arkansas police departments and their reaction to open carry.
Wright confirmed they were being detailed, ordering them both to place their hands on the hood of his patrol car.
“Under the suspicion of what crime” White asked, keeping the phone in his hand, letting it continue recording.
“Taking pictures,” Wright responded.
Wright continued pressing the officer to articulate a reasonable suspicion that they were both committing a crime, but the officer was unable to do so.
“I have reasonable suspicion ….,” the officer said.
“Of what crime?” asked White.
“We’ll figure that out here in a minute,” the officer responded.
To clear up any confusion, a police officer must have a reasonable suspicion of a crime prior to detaining someone. They are not allowed to detain a person and then discover a reasonable suspicion to do so. And to repeat: it’s not against the law to take photographs in public, even if those photographs are of a police station.
Eventually, the police released the two photographers. Regardless, this appalling ignorance of the law and this heavy-handed crackdown on anyone the town’s police don’t like should trouble every Arkansan.
Chief Balentine has resigned from his position. It would have been nice if he had been forced to do so because of his utter ignorance of the law or his office’s blatant disregard for the Constitution. Instead, he said he feared for his family’s safety after his truck was set on fire. Clearly, it is impermissible and evil to resort to arson and terrorism to make a political point. I hope the lawbreaker who did this is caught. And I also hope that Chief Balenger’s successor will have more respect for the law that a chief of police swears to uphold.