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Arkansas authorities see ‘high risk’ of violence against religious nonprofits from Mideast war


Arkansas authorities see ‘high risk’ of violence against religious nonprofits from Mideast war

Nov 17, 2023 | 8:22 pm ET
By Tess Vrbin
Arkansas authorities see ‘high risk’ of violence against religious nonprofits from Mideast war
Arkansas Division of Emergency Management Director A.J. Gary (left) and Secretary of Public Safety Col. Mike Hagar appear before the Arkansas Legislative Council to discuss a potential grant for religious nonprofits' security measures on Friday, November 17, 2023. (Screenshot courtesy of Arkansas Legislature)

Arkansas lawmakers will direct $500,000 in state funds to bolster security for religious nonprofits considered at risk of violence in light of ongoing conflict in the Middle East once state law enforcement officials specify how the money will be used. 

Col. Mike Hagar, DPS secretary and head of the Arkansas State Police, asked on Nov. 2 for the money to distribute as a grant “to support physical security enhancements and other security activities for nonprofit organizations that are at high risk of a terrorist attack based on the organization’s ideology or mission.”

He cited increasing safety concerns following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that has incited war between Israel and Palestinian militants.

The Arkansas Legislative Council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee tabled the request Tuesday after several lawmakers said they wanted more details about how the Department of Public Safety would determine the risk of danger and what protection measures it deems necessary.

Members of the full Legislative Council asked similar questions Friday, including whether DPS would ensure it did not give money to groups that might support or incite violence.

The state Division of Emergency Management distributes roughly $2.5 million in federal grant funds to nonprofits for security every year, and DPS will use this grant as a model for distributing the requested state funds, Hagar said. The federal funds can go to any nonprofit while the state funds will specifically go to religious nonprofits, he said.

“We’ve had requests from different institutions of faith since Oct. 7 specifically asking for assistance,” Hagar said.

Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark, moved for the Legislative Council chairmen to direct the funds to DPS upon receipt of a detailed grant distribution plan. Berry previously asked PEER on Tuesday to defer the request to the full council.

‘Temperature increase’

Officials at DPS, the State Police and the Arkansas State Fusion Center will evaluate applications for the grant, Hagar said.

DPS relies on several state agencies and federal partners to determine risk of terrorist threats, he said, and authorities have seen an uptick in threats toward the Jewish community since Oct. 7.

“The difficult thing with threats is [that] it’s hard to quantify,” Hagar said. “…A lot of what you’re looking at is honestly just taking the local temperature.”

Sen. Johathan Dismang (R-Beebe)
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, asked if law enforcement agencies have seen “active terroristic threats in Arkansas right now.”

Hagar said agencies have cause for “great concern” due to monitoring social media sites but have no “specific target” or “specific suspects.”

Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, asked Hagar what authorities consider an “elevated” risk of terrorist activity.

“When we have something like this happen, like on Oct. 7, you see those site visits increase,” Hagar said. “You see that chatter increase… you see that temperature increase in the rhetoric that’s being expressed. That’s not unusual, but as that larger group grows, that’s when you get concerned about the outliers.”

Dotson asked for more specific information, and Hagar repeated that threat levels are difficult to quantify.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, asked Hagar if threats are likely to increase with several religious holidays coming up. Hagar said he expects this to happen.

Arkansas authorities see ‘high risk’ of violence against religious nonprofits from Mideast war
Rep. Fran Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge

Rep. Fran Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, said she hoped DPS would not run into any “constitutionality issues” while distributing grant funds, especially since “‘faith-based’ can mean lots of things to lots of different people.”

“One thing that I don’t want to do is get the state, and your department in particular, into an issue where we’re having to fight your reasoning on why you gave [funds] to this group. but not to this group or that group,” Cavenaugh said.

DPS has not yet decided how long grant applications will be accepted or when it will stop accepting them, Hagar said.

He agreed at lawmakers’ request to provide quarterly reports to the Legislative Council on the use of the grant funds if the department receives them. He also agreed to provide a list of nonprofits that have received federal grant money for security purposes.

Earlier on Friday, the Legislative Council approved more than $12.5 million in federal funds for four rural Arkansas hospitals that requested aid for costs incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

PEER approved the aid on Tuesday for Eureka Springs Hospital, Magnolia Regional Medical Center, Piggott Community Hospital and Delta Memorial Hospital in Dumas.

Arkansas lawmakers have now allocated nearly $40 million in American Rescue Plan Act relief for 10 rural hospitals after setting aside $60 million for this purpose last year.