Editor’s note: The Fort Smith area Dining Dialogue is sponsored by Whole Hog Cafe in Fort Smith and managed by The City Wire. The Dining Dialogue delivers interviews with personalities, newsmakers and business and civic leaders in the Fort Smith area. Whole Hog delivers fast and economical lunches combined with service that facilitates a good lunch and conversation within 60 minutes.
Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck cringed slightly at the question, but with a knowing smile suggesting the question was expected.
Does he, the top law enforcement officer for Sebastian County, support Arkansas legislative proposals allowing for open carry – rules allowing for holders of concealed carry licenses to possess a handgun on their body in open view?
“I do have some concerns with open carry. ... As a Sheriff, it’s not just about open carry, it’s also a public safety issue for me,” Hollenbeck responded during a recent interview at Whole Hog Cafe in Fort Smith.
Public safety has been a focus for Hollenbeck for more than 30 years.
Hollenbeck, whose father was a Navy and Army veteran who suffered serious wounds during combat in Korea, and whose mother is of Hispanic heritage, moved to Fort Smith during his fifth year of elementary school.
His connection to the area is deep. His parents were married at what was then Camp Chaffee when his father was transferred to the facility prior to the Korean War to help re-open what was once a large World War II training camp. Hollenbeck’s father served as a drill instructor prior to being shipped to Korea where he was shot six times during a battle in what was originally supposed to be a United Nations police action.
OFF TO DALLAS
The Hollenbeck family was not financially secure during his second year at the University of Arkansas. When the money ran out, the future Sheriff Hollenbeck began to consider what to do next. It was about the same time he happened upon a recruiter for the Dallas police force.
“He told me what I could earn there (Dallas) with just two years of college, and that really was a good deal for me,” Hollenbeck explained during a recent lunch interview at Whole Hog Cafe in Fort Smith.
Hollenbeck finished the Dallas police academy and was on the force in 1982. Part of his work in Dallas included SWAT experience, and he began providing SWAT training to Sebastian County deputies who worked for then Sheriff Gary Grimes.
Grimes offered Hollenbeck the chance to return home, and in 1990, Hollenbeck was back in Fort Smith. He worked in different departments, and in 2010 made a successful bid for sheriff – being the only Democrat elected to a county office in the 2010 general election cycle.
GUN CONTROL OPINIONS
As a Democrat, Hollenbeck is by no means a fan of President Barack Obama’s gun control proposals.
“It’s not right, and I don’t think it makes sense, to punish law-abiding citizens because you had someone who, apparently, had serious mental issues commit this heinous crime,” Hollenbeck said of proposed gun control legislation from the White House that was issued in response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. “You know, we, federally, we’re not able to enforce the gun laws on the books like we should ... and they want to add more?”
As to the debate about open carry, Hollenbeck says his years of SWAT training and his experience in real “bad guy situations” causes him to believe that open carry laws do not result in as safe an environment as concealed carry.
“You have a tactical advantage if you carry concealed,” Hollenbeck said. “A criminal can see that (open carry weapon) and know who to take out first.”
OPEN CARRY DILEMMA
And under an open carry system, law enforcement entering a chaotic crime in progress may not be able to quickly distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.
“It would make it more difficult, and I’ve been in those situations, but it would make it more difficult to assess the situation,” Hollenbeck explained. “Essentially we would have to retrain our personnel to adapt to that. ... But I believe in the Second Amendment and state’s rights, so if the state goes open carry, we will adjust and retrain and learn to deal with it.”
Hollenbeck does not have a problem with citizens legally allowed to carry a handgun stopping a crime or criminal.
“As a law enforcement officer, I appreciate the help as long as it is handled in a responsible way,” he said.
He admits to evolution in his thinking about the use of guns, especially after some of the school shootings in recent years.
“Five years ago, I would have been totally against that (arming some school faculty members). But I could support a plan or something ... where they (faculty members, armed or otherwise) have extensive and intensive training. ... And they would have to re-certify every year just like law enforcement,” he said.
Now in his second two-year term, Hollenbeck said one of the first challenges of the job was in changing a culture by adding more training and working to upgrade facilities, equipment and processes.
“You come to realize pretty quick that just because you’re the Sheriff you just can’t snap your fingers and expect everything to change,” Hollenbeck said with a laugh.
But he praised the staff – many of which he says are underpaid – for adapting and accepting new ideas. One of those ideas has been “integrity training,” with part of that being a focus on improving the relationship between department officers and people detained.
“Some of the people we detain are non-violent, and are good people. It’s real easy to fall into a pattern where you treat everybody that comes in like a really bad criminal. Not everybody is a monster,” Hollenbeck said.
Overall, Hollenbeck believes the county can be proud of the department.
“We just really have a good group of deputies and all they want to do is serve the public,” he said.