It's disturbing to suspect that the new mayor of Little Rock may have inserted himself into a Civil Service review of an employee's conduct. But it looks like that might have happened in the case of Charles Starks, a Little Rock police officer who was fired in May after he fatally shot Bradley Blackshire back in February.
In videos released by the LRPD, Starks could clearly be seen firing through the windshield as he balanced on the hood of a car that was insistently pressing forward, despite the presence of the officer. In all, he fired eight shots.
While reasonable people draw different conclusions after watching the videos, a few facts seem indisputable. Blackshire was the driver; the car wasn't his; Starks fired several times; the result was a tragedy. Look at it one way, the officer might not have had to use deadly force--he could have simply stepped aside. We don't execute car thieves in this country.
On the other hand, it's not hard to believe Starks felt his life was in jeopardy and that he made a split-second decision to defend himself. Whether or not he acted appropriately depends on a number of factors, most of which mightn't be immediately grasped by online viewers peeking in after the fact via LRPD cameras.
It's one of those situations that ought to be reviewed by people who understand both the duties of a law enforcement officer and the best practices of policing. We don't want people with bad judgment patrolling our streets with badges and guns, but we want our cops to be safe and to be able to defend themselves.
An internal affairs investigation of the fatal incident was appropriate. One was conducted. After reviewing the results of the investigation, LRPD Chief Keith Humphrey fired Starks, even though the Pulaski County Prosecutor's Office declined to file criminal charges against the officer.
This makes sense; we should hold our police officers to a high standard. Not being indicted is not enough. And Starks had a right to appeal his firing, which he did.
At an appeal hearing on July 25, LRPD Assistant Chief Hayward Finks testified aspects of the internal affairs investigation were "rushed and not completed" because of pressure from the office of newly elected Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. Finks and another high-ranking LRPD officer have testified it was clear that the new mayor preferred Starks be fired. And he was, by Police Chief Keith Humphrey.
This newspaper reported that during the investigation, "each of the four supervisors in Starks' chain of command recommended that he be exonerated, saying his actions were justified." At the time of the firing, Starks' attorney Robert Newcomb mentioned that he felt there was an outside influence on the chief's decision, according to copies of the recommendation letters.
"The mayor [Frank Scott Jr.], he basically promised this from the beginning," Newcomb said in May. "Collectively, Starks' chain of command had more than 100 years in the Little Rock Police Department, and they all said he should be exonerated."
Mayor Scott's spokeswoman Stephanie Jackson is quoted in the story as saying, "The mayor did not tell Chief Humphrey to terminate Officer Starks. Nor did he influence that decision."
Let's hope not.
On April 23, the day after authorities announced that Charles Starks would face no criminal charges, Mayor Scott started using a security detail from the LRPD--the first-ever Little Rock mayor to do so.
Chief Humphrey agreed the mayor needs protection and assigned LRPD officers to provide it, "out of an abundance of caution and in keeping with the best practices of many similarly situated cities around the country."
But the last time I looked, the City of Little Rock operates under a council/city manager form of government. Under that system the mayor isn't the tsar; if he ordered the firing of a police officer without due process he would be overstepping his authority. Certainly he can have an opinion about the case, just like anyone else who read or heard about the case or watched the video. He can even express that opinion if he wants to. But it's not the mayor's job to decide if a police officer has violated departmental policies or should be terminated.
Even if that termination might benefit the mayor politically.
That was for the police chief to decide after reviewing the report by the internal affairs division. And that decision is also subject to review by the Civil Service Commission.
The Commission is responsible for personnel policy, merit system rules and regulations and employee/candidate appeals within authority established by Arkansas statute and city ordinance.
When he campaigned for his current job, Mayor Scott touted his "accessibility" to the public. Yet 125 days after being elected, Mayor Scott wants protection. Protection from whom or what? From a possible backlash of concerned citizens after Officer Starks was fired?
The citizens of Little Rock need protection, not the mayor. We need protection to prevent this sort of fiasco from happening again. What we need is responsible accountability in city government, in our police and fire departments, and in every other city department. Period.
The mayor should answer to all, and not favor one group over another. Yet Mayor Scott's current track record doesn't reflect that.
Randal Berry retired from the Little Rock Zoo in 2016.
Editorial on 08/04/2019