In a special meeting Monday night, the Benton City Council voted to suspend day passes at River Center for 30 days in order for the city to address safety concerns after a number of violent incidents, including one on Saturday where a weapon was allegedly wielded.
According to Benton Parks and Recreation Director Stephanie Jones, a fight broke out July 31 during a pick-up basketball game at the River Center, just one of several recent incidents of violence.
“It came to blows,” Jones said. “There was blood on the court. At some point, from what I’ve heard from our staff, a person went to their backpack and pulled out a weapon, pulled out a gun and then from there, people were running out the front door, running out the back door.”
Benton Mayor Tom Farmer, in consultation with Benton City Attorney Baxter Drennon, decided to call the special meeting in order to protect local residents using the River Center and the employees who work at the River Center.
“This all came about from a situation Saturday that was unforeseeable,” Farmer said. “We’re trying to do everything we can in aiding our staff and allowing them to have some say in protecting our citizens…and our employees.”
As a result of Saturday’s violence, two Benton Parks and Recreation employees quit their jobs.
The ordinance temporarily suspends the issuance of daily and monthly passes or other visit-based memberships at the River Center for 30 days and allows the city to work with the Parks and Recreation Department and the Benton Police Department to put together a plan for better security.
Jones said that she has had many meetings with BNPD Chief Scotty Hodges over the past few months about the behavior of some River Center visitors.
“After the vaccine came out, we started to open things back up again fully,” Jones said. “The general public just has complete disregard for our policies and procedures, as well as our staff. (The public) is just not listening to staff.”
Jones told the council that there have been 10 to 15 documented violent incidents recently and other smaller incidents that the Center was able to handle on its own without having to involve the police. Most incidents have occurred after 5 p.m. and on the weekends.
“My job is to make sure I am protecting, not only our residents and guests who come, but also our staff,” Jones said.
Farmer praised the BNPD for its timely responses to the River Center and Jones also complimented the job Hodges and his staff have done when help was needed including recently bringing a letter to a local home informing the resident that they had been banned from the River Center.
“They’re doing everything the can,” Jones said.
Jones also added that it has been day pass holders who have been involved with the violent incidents.
According to Hodges, a plan could be worked out where the BNPD provides officers to specifically have a presence at the River Center, there are city and state guidelines involving overtime and how officers are allowed to serve as off-duty security.
One meeting attendee spoke to voice his objection to the suspension of visit based passes.
Joe Dixon, who is involved with the pickleball program, said he is concerned about the safety of the employees, but also would like a different solution in order to keep the River Center open to all who want at attend.
“We have a few bad apples that need to be dealt with and how do we deal with that,” Dixon said.
Dixon said that he believed the council could come up with a solution that does not involve taking day passes away. He also said that by removing the passes, it will discourage those who might be considering a move to the city if they can’t try-out the River Center.
“It’s really important to keep that open and keep it available to the public,” Dixon said. “I think that’s your job as a city councilman to make sure we have that availability. So, we do have a problem that definitely needs to be addressed. (Stephanie Jones) does a lot to keep everybody safe and I think it’s our job to keep those employees safe. But, it’s also our job to make public tax dollars, assets that we have available to the public.”
Some of the Aldermen questioned the amount of money the city would lose by no longer accepting visit-based passes, but Alderman Jeff Hamm said that no amount of money would be worth a person’s life.
Speaking about those who have been involved in the recent incidents, Alderman Steve Lee said that, "the few should not dictate the majority.”
Alderman Shane Knight said that part of the reason the River Center was built was to help Benton become a “destination community” with a “destination center” that brings in people from out of town for a day and that he did not want to see that opportunity taken away.
“We want to continue to have the welcome mat open,” Knight said.
Knight suggested assigning a BNPD officer to the River Center at specific times in order to not hinder those using day passes.
“I hear money thrown around a lot,” Hamm said. “There is no amount money that will replace a person. I don’t think money ought to play the big issue here. I think it should be what we have to do for the safety of the citizens. If we can do it and still maintain a certain avenue of some income, that’s great. But, if we have to give up that income for a short period of time to get somebody’s attention or a group of people’s attention, I couldn’t care less if it costs $100,000.”
Alderman Bill Donnor said having an officer full-time at the River Center would be a good deterrent similar to school resource officers.
Hodges said both an overtime scenario or an off-duty capacity plan are possible, but that the details will need to be worked out properly.
“Prevention is worth everything,” Donnor said.
After listening to the aldermen, Jones again addressed the council saying that her recommendation is that the day passes be suspended.
“This isn’t indefinite,” Jones said. “We just want to get a handle on this. An incident did occur. I spoke to the mayor about it. I just want to get a handle on it and then we can bring this back to you guys. Our intention is not to not allow any other people into our facility. River Center is a tourist attraction; we get people from all over. We love that. I look at the dollar figures too. It’s a great revenue source for us, so I’m not blind to that, but if you could just give us a month…I think a month gives us enough time.”
Farmer supported Jones saying that the council should honor Jones’ request and that her first and main concern is the safety of both visitors and staff.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure that not only the citizens are safe, but our employees are safe,” Farmer said.
Farmer added that the 30-day moratorium would allow the city, Drennon and Hodges to develop a safety plan involving added security at the River Center.
“Our department head has made a recommendation based on what her and her staff feel like is best for our citizens at this time,” Farmer said. “I just want y’all to consider that. We hire them to make these recommendations and bring them before us.”
River Center members will still be allowed to bring guests with them during the 30-day moratorium.
After a motion by Alderman Judd Hart, the original ordinance brought to the council, which had no-limit on the suspension of day passes, was amended to say that the visit-based suspension would be for 30 days and that the council should support Jones’ request. The police presence at the River Center will be addressed during that time period.
Lee echoed Knight’s earlier comments about having a police position at the River Center similar to a school resource officer, but Hodges said it would be difficult to fill.
The ordinance was passed 8-2. Aldermen Robin Freeman and Jeff Morrow were absent from the meeting and due to their absence were recorded as no votes.