When Eric Higgins went to work for the Little Rock Police Department in 1985, he never dreamed that would be the start of a 30 career with the department, 10 of those as assistant police chief. He had never actually considered a career in law enforcement at all.

“I was going to school at UALR and I needed a job,” Higgins explained. He said a friend who worked in the LRPD cadet program, which was available to people aged 17-1/2 to 21, and encouraged him to apply. He was accepted into the program, which he said gave him exposure to several areas of police work, including the detective division. It was there that he had an encounter that changed the course of his life.

“The idea of the cadets was to get a taste of what it’s like to work in several different departments,” Higgins recalled. “One of my jobs was working the detective division going to pawnshops to pick up stolen property and return it to the owners.”

Higgins said he had returned some property to an African-American man, who responded by thanking him for treating him with respect, saying that he would have to change how he viewed police officers.

“I didn’t treat him any differently than I would treat anyone else. I treated him with respect, the way my mom and dad taught me,” he said, then added that it was that encounter that changed the way he viewed police work and made him think of the impact police can have on the community.

“When I joined the police department I didn’t care anything about police officers,” he said. “I didn’t want to be around them or anything like that, but I realized the impact I could have in that job.”

As he rose through the ranks, Higgins said his increased sphere of influence gave him the ability to affect the actions of others in the department, which he said he used in an effort to promote positive relations between the department and the community. As a part of that effort, Higgins brought a program to Little Rock called Our Kids, known as the OK Program, which partners churches, the school district and the business community to provide mentors to African-American males 13 to 18.

“We used to have a summer program, a free youth camp for children 10 – 12 years old, but it got shut down sometime in 1999 for lack of money,” Higgins said. “When I became assistant chief in 2004, I reached out to all of the organizations that received prevention/intervention funds from the city of Little Rock, sending them letter asking to speak with them. What I heard from them was we need to bring the summer program back, bring the youth camp back. They thought it was a real positive program.”

Higgins said the program was brought back in 2005 and has been active since that time.

The camp was started in the mid-90s as part of an effort by the Clinton Administration to increase the number of police officers on the streets and to foster closer ties between police and the communities they served. Dubbed the Community Oriented Policing Program (COPP), participating departments received grants intended to pay the salaries of additional police officers for five years with the assumption that once the program ended, departments would have had five years to come up with a funding source to take over payment of those salaries.

But, a number of cities, including Little Rock, said Higgins, were never able to bridge that funding gap, the result being layoffs of many of the officers hired through the COPPs grant and the suspension of many outreach programs that were started to support the effort.

“After five years the funding stopped. I don’t think the cities were invested in the program and unfortunately, that didn’t continue,” said Higgins. “As officers were promoted or reassigned, we didn’t replace them. Personally, I think we should have continued the program. A lot of what we are dealing with now I think, is the result of that failure to continue the program.”

Higgins said a few months ago, an ad on the sheriff’s office website caught his eye. He said the ad was touting jobs with the sheriff’s office that offered excitement, which he said he took issue with.

“They’ve since changed that but to sell the department, you have to sell what it is,” he said. “You don’t want people who are just looking for an exciting job. The sheriff’s office is a prevention organization. It’s about community engagement, and we’re looking for people who want to make things better in the communities they serve. It’s not just about making arrests. Arrest is part of what we do but that’s not the focus.”

Higgins said the primary focus is to act as a mediator, a problem solver, with training that enables officers to de-escalate tense, potentially violent situations, as opposed to wading in and possibly making things worse.

“A lot of the time, people call the police because they don’t know who else to call,” he explained. “This has to do with how we train officers and we’ve made a mistake in the last 10 years in moving away from community policing to become more of an enforcement agency, the emphasis on enforcement, and in doing so we’ve pushed away from the relationship.”

Higgins said none of what he says is intended to create the impression that police work isn’t dangerous, but he said often times, negative pushback toward police sometimes results from how people perceive the police as thy enter a neighborhood when responding to calls for service.

“What we need to bring in to the county is CSI, which is a play on the TV series, but actually means something,” Higgins said. “We have to be community focused, to be aware of what the needs are in the community. We need to be safety driven, not arrest driven. When crime is high in the community and we come in hard and fast to arrest a lot of people and write a lot of tickets and people want to know what we’re doing to address the problem, if our response is to say, well we’ve made this many felony arrests, this many misdemeanors. Well, I think the whole idea of going in like that is a mistake.”

Higgins said his idea is to engage with people, to work with the community to identify unsafe conditions or activities and address those issues.

“That’s not about arresting people. Even if you’re sitting on your porch in the city limits drinking a beer, that’s not creating an unsafe environment. We have to identify what is and address that,” said Higgins. “Finally, we have to be integrity based. Everything we do, we have to do what’s right. Whether talking at the coffee shop or transporting someone to jail, we have to do what’s right and treat everyone with respect. The job is hard. If I have probable cause to make an arrest, I’ll make an arrest. I’m not punishing anyone.”

Higgins said the same goes for police officers themselves, and that not everyone is suited to law enforcement work, sometimes to the point that it becomes necessary to compel some individuals to seek counseling, or even remove them from the agency.

“Not everyone can do this, and sometimes the pressure builds and builds until something bad happens,” said Higgins. “Our responsibility is to recognize when this is happening and to address it, because if it’s not addressed, someone may get hurt.”

Higgins said if he is elected sheriff, he will seek to provide counseling that is available to all deputies and to encourage them to seek help whenever needed, and to do so in such a way that it doesn’t create a stigma. He also said he intends to introduce accountability training to teach deputies how to hold themselves accountable for their actions, and to hold one another accountable as well.

“As administration, the responsibility is there to communicate to officers the expectations of leadership, to not reward bad behavior, and to make clear the importance of officers taking care of one another and to demonstrate how that is appropriately manifested.

Higgins said his main goals will be to encourage deputies to do the right thing, to foster closer ties between the department and the communities they serve, to engage youth in an effort to provide positive interactions between law enforcement and young people in the community. As a part of that effort, Higgins said his goal is to reactivate the school resource officer program with an eye toward enhanced safety and a positive role model for students, to act as a mediator first, only making arrests when absolutely necessary.

“The sheriff’s department has the resources to do a lot more,” he said. “I bring to the table a unique perspective, having worked in upper management, in patrol, and even having been racially profiled. We can do a lot to make the whole county better.”

Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office Major Carl Minden was profiled in last week’s issue. It can be read online.