Little Rock police chief Kenton Buckner

Little Rock police chief Kenton Buckner. City of Little Rock/Provide 

One of the five candidates interviewing this week to be Charleston's next police chief has a history of clashing with minority police officers, and he has at least one unexplained incident involving his city-issued gun. 

Kenton Buckner, police chief in Little Rock, is looking to move to Charleston after less than four years working as the top cop in Arkansas' capital city. 

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the chief's plans to meet with Charleston City Council on Tuesday about the new position came as a surprise to Little Rock officials, including City Manager Bruce Moore.

Moore said he expected Buckner to stick around longer.

But the chief's limited time in Little Rock hasn't been without controversy. 

The Little Rock Black Police Officers Association submitted a written complaint in July to the city's Board of Directors about Buckner, alleging that black officers and supervisors have been "marginalized" under Buckner's leadership, according to multiple news reports.

The group's letter called for an investigation of the chief's personnel practices.

Buckner addressed the organization's concerns in an internal memo to the police department the same month. He said many of the same complaints were made before he was hired, and that he had in fact worked to improve the department's racial diversity.

Buckner's conduct also raised questions when he was reprimanded in 2015 for improper handling of his firearm. 

The gun, given to Buckner when he was sworn in as chief of the Little Rock Police Department in 2014, ended up in the possession of 20-year-old Nathaniel Sullivan, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The newspaper reported that officers found the gun in Sullivan's lap when responding to a call about suspicious activity outside of a jewelry store in August 2015.

Buckner maintained he didn't know how Sullivan got his gun. 

Dale Charles, Little Rock NAACP president, said he'd characterize Buckner's relationship with the black community as "a little rocky."

"The black community had some issues with ... how he conducted business as a police chief," he said.

Buckner is the only black police chief from another city seeking the job as Charleston's new police chief. Finalist Jerome Taylor, who is also black, is the acting police chief. He has been with the Charleston Police Department for more than 45 years.

The other three candidates are white deputy police chiefs in other cities.

The city's hiring consultant, Police Executive Research Forum, selected the finalists from a pool of 86 applicants after a nationwide search for candidates. 

Charlotte Lansinger, the firm's executive search consultant, said in a statement Monday that the firm was aware of the gun incident and Buckner's friction with police officers during its search.

"We do not believe these issues should prevent Chief Buckner from being considered for the city of Charleston police chief position," Lansinger said. "He has a very strong resume and his areas of expertise and experience are impressive. We believe Chief Buckner should have the opportunity to address any concerns regarding his record, and he will be prepared to do so during his visit to Charleston."

The same firm helped hire the city's former Police Chief Greg Mullen 12 years ago. He retired in July.

City Spokesman Jack O'Toole said members of the city's legal and human resources staff were given the information about Buckner's past when the finalists were selected.

"After meeting with PERF (the consultant), city staff carefully reviewed the records of all five finalists, and accepted the recommendations for this week's interviews," he said. "The city is confident that the same PERF process that produced Chief Mullen in 2006 will produce another outstanding police chief for our city today."

The salary range advertised in the job listing was $150,000 to $170,000. 

Buckner currently earns a little more than $145,000, and his department serves about 65,000 more people.

The city's hiring process comes as police departments nationwide and in the Lowcountry are drawing more scrutiny among communities.

While Mullen implemented strategies to strengthen the department's ties with black residents, the city was repeatedly called on by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry over the past year to investigate the department for allegedly racially biased practices.

The dispute was resolved recently when the city agreed to find a new firm to conduct an independent review of the department.

The Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, pastor of Circular Congregation Church and co-president of CAJM, said last week that the group wants a police chief that will embrace that review process and, ultimately, its recommendations to improve the department. 

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP, said last week that the new police chief should have a deep understanding of the need for racial diversity. 

The consensus among many minority groups in Little Rock was that Buckner wasn't very committed to improving race relations, according to Charles.

"They all felt pretty much the same, that he was not sensitive to the black community being policed differently than the white community," he said.

Buckner didn't respond to emails requesting comment Monday. Little Rock police spokesman Steve Moore told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Friday that Buckner wouldn't be making any public statements before the job interview.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.