What would be wrong if Mayor Frank Scott implicitly signaled to his police chief to sacrifice one white police officer to the cause of allaying or neutralizing anger and resentment in the black community?
I offer the question for discussion. But I actually asked it of Robert Newcomb, attorney for the fired white officer, Charles Starks. We'll get his answer momentarily.
The officer shot and killed a drug-using black man who drove toward him in an incident that Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley reviewed before deciding to file no charges.
Victim Bradley Blackshire's family and friends believe the video shows a killing that didn't have to be.
Police Chief Keith Humphrey, who was personally hired only weeks ago by Scott and works for the mayor, fired the otherwise-cleared Starks. He said he did so because Starks, in the tragic incident, violated a department policy to get out of the way of an oncoming suspect's vehicle rather than voluntarily stand firm to engage in a potentially deadly incident.
All of Starks' overseers in the chain of command leading to the chief had sided with Starks. That signals either his legitimate professional exoneration or that the police stick together, or both.
Scott's differences with the Little Rock police force, which are serious, probably began in earnest when he called during his campaign last year for a federal civil rights investigation of the reporting by The Washington Post of the department's practice of no-knock warrants on drug suspects.
Blackshire was suspected of stealing the car he was operating. He first brushed Starks with the vehicle. Then Starks wound up in front of the car--to try to get to cover, he said--as the car came toward him.
Starks hopped on the hood and shot Blackshire eight times. He says both that he remembers being fearful for his life and that he "blacked out" some of the details.
Newcomb accuses Scott of having pressured the chief's decision. I asked on what basis. Newcomb said, "gut feeling."
That's not really good enough, though I had the same feeling.
Thus, the question in the beginning ...
I wasn't saying it was a fair or noble or moral question. I was saying it was the question.
What if the newly elected black mayor, seeking peace and unity for the city and worried about racial unrest in the part of the city from which he hails, had wanted one uncharged white police officer to be let loose from his job--sacrificed, essentially--to try to ease community tension?
Here was attorney Newcomb's answer: "If you do that, then you might as well tell every other police officer in the city to just stop doing their job."
I had thought he might say that.
Maybe the next officer would bail on a delicate situation, Newcomb said, for fear the mayor would sacrifice him if something went wrong, leaving him without employment, and a family to feed. Maybe another officer would "hesitate" for the same reason, he said, and die.
For the record, Scott subsequently told me he "did not influence nor instruct" the chief's decision. He used those precise words three times no matter how I asked the question.
Newcomb also alleged, based on unconfirmed reports, that Scott had encouraged Jegley to file charges. Scott told me he did no such thing. He said he placed a call to Jegley to try to get a sense of his timing on his decision--so that he could be ready for community response--but that Jegley never called him back.
It is possible Scott did not precisely influence the decision but that the chief who works for him felt implicitly influenced by him.
Did Scott favor the firing? He told me it would not be appropriate for him to answer since Newcomb had said he was intending to appeal the firing to the Civil Service Commission.
That seems to mean yes.
And therein lies the direct answer to my question: An officer let go for something other than actual cause may get reinstated by an appeal process.
I suspect Scott preferred that Starks be fired and that the chief who works for him knew that.
I am more certain that Scott believes it is his job to attend to the broader need for an easing of tension.
And now, if the Civil Service Commission rules that Starks should be reinstated, which strikes me as possible, Scott might better attend to the broader need at that time based on what Newcomb suspects of him now.
That is the delicate, regrettable and even tragic dance required of race and police relations currently in Little Rock.
I want the Civil Service Commission to make a sound and reasonable decision on the appeal. Then I want the mayor to deal with it, whatever it is, with healing leadership, since that's what he promised us in the campaign.
That's the best delicate dance I can do.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at email@example.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 05/09/2019
Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: The delicate dance