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NWA EDITORIAL: A missed opportunity

Catch-and-release didn’t protect community by NWA Democrat-Gazette | July 14, 2021 at 5:25 a.m.

The tragedy of Pea Ridge Police Officer Kevin Apple's death naturally puts -- or should -- discussions of public policy issues on hold as the community wraps its collective mind around a senseless loss.

Apple was doing his job. As he had many times before, he put on the uniform and went outside the confines of safety most people devote their lives to staying within. He stepped into the community he'd sworn to serve, certainly unaware it would be his "last watch." Like all of his brothers and sisters in blue, though, he knew his duty involved the risk that any day could turn deadly.

The day was June 26. The pulse of the small Benton County town wasn't really all that different from a hundred other summer Saturdays. To the west, officers in the much larger town of Rogers had attempted to stop a older blue Jeep. Rogers put out a "be on the lookout" call to area agencies.

The Jeep's driver had gone east, eventually pulling alongside the gas pumps at a station in Pea Ridge. Apple and another officer, aware of the Rogers call, approached the vehicle in their units, one parking in front of it, the other behind.

Whatever was going on, the Jeep's driver wanted out. As Apple approached, the driver rammed one police vehicle. Then moved the Jeep toward Officer Apple. In a split second, Officer Apple lay mortally wounded.

An otherwise normal summer afternoon in Pea Ridge, Arkansas, became a day the community will never forget.

A week later, Pea Ridge paid its condolences, along with officers and state officials from all over Arkansas.

•••

When a death results from an act of violence, there are always questions that haunt. The "what ifs" come because our minds want to rewind that day, to somehow go back and make some small change that would alter the outcome. Those questions are amplified to an entire community when the death involves a law enforcement officer, one of the sentinels every community sends out in the name of public safety.

Could things have been different if ... ? The mind can run through all sorts of possibilities, like pondering what might have happened if Lincoln had decided not to go to Ford's Theater. Perhaps it's all part of coming to grips with a loss that is so difficult to comprehend.

From a public policy point of view, such questions are a necessary response: Did our public policies and systems meet the greater community's values and expectations? Based on what's known today about the criminal justice history of the woman arrested in connection with Officer Apple's slaying, the answer is no.

At 22, Shawna Rae Cash of Pine Bluff has a long history of arrests and a record of not showing up for court in Benton and Washington counties. She was, according to police, behind the steering wheel of the Jeep when it ran down Officer Apple.

Over the last three years, Cash has been a frequent presence -- in name, if not in person -- in the court systems of Benton and Washington counties: three times charged with theft by receiving; two times with possession of methamphetamine or cocaine; two charges of theft of property; and single charges of residential burglary, fraudulent use of a credit or debt card and possession of drug paraphernalia for methamphetamine or cocaine.

In all, court records show seven instance in which Cash failed to appear in court to face charges. And yet she got out of jail by paying bond five times. When the courts finally imposed a sentence four times, she was given only probation in every instance.

It was just two days before the blue Jeep pulled up to the gas pumps in Pea Ridge that Cash was arrested, again, on a failure to appear charge. She got out of jail on bond.

•••

Incarceration has been a big topic over the last couple of years as sheriffs say there's a need for more jail space to hold inmates. Advocates for jail reforms say our nation incarcerates too many people and keeps them in jail unnecessarily, asserting approaches other than jail can do just as well at discouraging further criminal behaviors.

Other county leaders have resisted the addition of jail space on a fiscal basis, prioritizing an aversion to new taxation over building costly new holding facilities.

It would be easy to point to Officer Apple's death and say it's the result of policies that too severely limit local judges' and prosecutors' capacity to keep people jailed. It is, of course, not that simple. One cannot ignore the recent reality of covid-19 and the demands on jailers to keep jail populations as low as possible as a way to avoid spreading the virus.

Officer Apple's death is the nightmare scenario for those working to release more people from jail. It's unfair to suggest reforms have no merit for hundreds or thousands of inmates on the basis of one horrible outcome.

But those making or seeking to influence decisions about jail capacity, bail reforms and other incarceration issues must recognize the high stakes involved in trying to divine who among criminal defendants ought to stay in jail and who shouldn't.

Cash is responsible for her choices. But from a public policy viewpoint, it's impossible for government decision-makers, jail reform advocates, prosecutors, judges and jailers to entirely wash their hands of the impacts of their actions or inaction.

Shawna Cash's criminal history contained nothing to suggest she would kill a law enforcement officer. But the catch-and-release nature of the 22-year-old's experience also showed no signs the criminal justice system was having any serious impact on Cash's criminal decision making. It can be convincingly argued, though, that had she been in jail on June 26, Officer Apple would still be with us.

Incarceration reform is a delicate issue. Advocates are right when they assert communities cannot afford to lock up everyone and need to look for alternative means to get people back on a productive course. Success stories involving such reforms represent saved lives, too.

It only takes one failure, though, to experience dire consequences. Lives are at stake, and every discussion about the criminal justice system must fully appreciate that.

More News

What’s the point?

A woman accused in the killing of a Pea Ridge officer got too many opportunities for freedom from the judicial system.

Print Headline: A missed opportunity

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