A former Benton police lieutenant acquitted of child rape charges in July will keep his state law enforcement certification, the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training decided Thursday.
Monte Hodge appeared to fight back tears after the seven-member commission voted in a public hearing to let him retain his credentials as a state-sanctioned lawman.
Hodge, 44, had worked at the Benton Police Department for more than 18 years until a teenage boy accused him of sexual abuse and the department fired him in January 2014. Hodge did not appeal his firing. In April 2014, more than a year before the case went to trial, Benton police requested that the state revoke Hodge's law enforcement certification.
Benton police officers testified at Thursday's hearing that although Hodge was found innocent in the criminal case, he violated department policies that govern personal and professional conduct, most notably an honesty clause.
Capt. Kevin Russell, who led an internal investigation in the case, said Hodge failed two questions on a computer stress voice-analysis test, as well as a polygraph test conducted by the Arkansas State Police.
The test results are inadmissible in court and are widely considered unscientific. But Russell stood by the results, noting that they are admissible in state administrative hearings because the burden of proof is lower.
"Through my training and experience, I've found [the tests] to be very accurate, as far as determining information," he said.
According to testimony, Hodge's purported dishonesty was a concern for Saline County prosecutor Ken Casady. He had told Benton police that cases involving Hodge could be jeopardized over questions about police integrity.
Assistant Attorney General Sara Farris focused on the same point Thursday, saying that even if Hodge retained his certification, he would be unemployable as a police officer.
"The dishonesty issue is huge. He is rendered useless as a police officer," she said.
Benton Police Chief Kirk Lane said Thursday that Hodge had an "exemplary" record at the department before he was fired. Lane said that in his 33-year career in law enforcement in central Arkansas, he knew other lawmen who'd failed stress and polygraph tests and had not been fired.
But Lane said the sexual abuse case, by its very existence, had put Hodge in violation of another department policy that prohibits officers from negatively representing the agency. Lane said the case, in spite of its outcome, damaged public trust in the department.
"It did leave some questions in the minds of a lot of people who look at the Benton Police Department," he said.
Russell shared that sentiment. "It was an unfortunate thing that we all had to go through, and it was kind of a morale issue for officers," he said.
Hodge's attorney, Robert "Bobby" Digby, said Thursday that Hodge had cooperated with police through the entire investigation and had even agreed to the stress and polygraph tests against the advice of his legal counsel.
Digby said that during Hodge's trial, prosecutors had no physical evidence and that Digby had revealed numerous holes in Hodge's accuser's story. A jury acquitted Hodges within 45 minutes.
Digby said Thursday that revoking Hodge's certification could have set a precedent that the commission might regret.
"If so, a bald-faced allegation can make any law enforcement officer lose their job, lose their livelihood, lose their career," he said. "We have 18 years of amazing service and an allegation totally unsupported. If that's the case, then I feel bad for anybody who has to carry a badge. Because the next angry person they pull over or deal with, all they have to do is make something up."
Hodge sat quietly for most of the proceedings, occasionally nodding or squeezing a paperclip between his fingers. Toward the hearing's conclusion, he told the commission about the "feeling of helplessness" he'd experienced since being accused of a crime he didn't commit.
"It hurts. It hurt me to have fellow officers over here that are talking about me. That I've had to sit through trials and be accused. But I haven't sat down or quit because that's not part of my character. I have fought this all the way. You think I'm done here? If I have to, I will continue fighting this as far as I have to. Because that's the person I am," he said.
The commission's deliberations were open to the public, in accordance with the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
Some commissioners suggested that media attention had pressured Benton police into firing Hodge, though they conceded that they likely would've done the same thing. The case was covered throughout the state and by at least one national media outlet.
"I think we should hold the media accountable for what they print, for the crucifixion of someone who had not been tried in a court of law," said commissioner and Logan County Sheriff Boyd Hicks.
Hicks said Benton police couldn't prove that Hodge was dishonest. He added that Hodge wouldn't have taken the stress and polygraph tests if he hadn't been defending himself against false accusations.
Ashdown Police Department Capt. Bobby Walraven was among the majority of commissioners who voted for Hodge to retain his certification.
"The only issue is going to be credibility in court," Walraven said. "I think the findings of this commission will go a long in rebuilding that."
Metro on 05/06/2016