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story.lead_photo.caption A crime scene technician collects evidence on the car involved in an Oct. 7, 2017, crash and shooting in a University Avenue parking lot in Little Rock. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

A Little Rock police officer who fatally shot a Lyft driver in 2017 outside a bar has accused the man's sisters of defaming her in a civil-rights lawsuit by suggesting she had "romantic feelings" for him.

In a counterclaim filed Friday, officer Brittany Gunn took issue with the sisters' claim that Gunn knew James Hartsfield, 28, before she encountered him about 4 a.m. Oct. 7, 2017, on a parking lot at 1501 N. University Ave., where she was working off-duty as a security guard for the Local Union bar.

Hartsfield, a part-time driver for the transportation service, drove a Mercedes-Benz onto the parking lot to pick up a patron, Brian Moore, who had just emerged from a bar on the building's first floor. Police said later that Hartsfield appeared to be drinking while driving, so Gunn ordered him to stop the car and get out, but he refused.

Gunn radioed for backup, and police said that when officer Nicholas Smith arrived, he saw Gunn in the passenger side of the Mercedes, struggling with the driver. Police said Smith went to the car door and tried, with Gunn, to remove the driver, who "continued to resist," and then Hartsfield put the car in drive and sped forward, knocking Smith to the ground.

Police said Gunn remained in the car as it sped toward a brick wall ringing the parking lot, and fired at Hartsfield just before the Mercedes crashed through the wall, ending up on North University Avenue.

Hartsfield, who was shot multiple times, was pronounced dead at the scene. Gunn, who was ejected from the car, was found unresponsive and was taken to a hospital, where she was treated and released.

The Pulaski County prosecuting attorney's office later cleared Gunn of wrongdoing in the shooting.

But a lawsuit filed in May by Lauren Hartsfield, on behalf of her and another sister of James Hartsfield, contends that as Moore stood at the front passenger door of the Mercedes waiting to get in, Gunn was able to see Hartsfield and "recognized him from [the University of Arkansas at Little Rock]," where they had been in a class together, and from a fitness center, where they both worked out, and began a conversation with him.

"However, the conversation did not go as Gunn hoped it would and the situation quickly became heated," the lawsuit alleges.

In a news release announcing the lawsuit, attorney Mike Laux said, "Information has come to light that not only did Ms. Gunn know Mr. Hartsfield at the time of the shooting, but she also had a 'crush' on him stemming from their days together as students."

Laux also alleged that "Ms. Gunn attempted to keep this information hidden during the LRPD 'in-house' criminal homicide investigation and, with the help of her biased co-workers, she nearly pulled it off."

The counterclaim filed Friday by the city attorney's office seeks compensatory and punitive damages for claims made at a news conference announcing the lawsuit, and in the lawsuit, that Gunn "personally knew" Hartsfield, "had developed romantic feelings for him," and "shot and killed James Hartsfield out of rejection because he did not return her romantic feelings."

The counterclaim notes that among the Hartsfields' allegations, aired through their attorneys, was that Gunn had attended UALR.

But, it says, Gunn didn't attend UALR.

It says she attended Arkansas State University in Jonesboro from 2007 through 2011, and attaches her ASU transcripts.

The filing also includes memorandums exchanged between police officials a month after the shooting and again in June. In both, Sgt. J.B. Stephens said that Carl Johnson of Arkadelphia, who identified himself as an uncle of James Hartsfield, had told him that Gunn and Hartsfield knew each other before the incident.

"He said that they did not have any sort of relationship, but they must have known each other because they attended UALR at the same time," Stephens wrote in the first memo.

Stephens wrote that Johnson also claimed that Gunn had prior police-related contact with Hartsfield, attributing his knowledge to "social media."

In the second memo, Stephens said that on May 21, Police Chief Keith Humphrey authorized the reopening of the administrative investigation into the shooting. He said that in a June 3 interview stemming from the reopened investigation, Gunn "denied knowing or ever having met James Hartsfield, socially or professionally, prior to Oct. 7, 2017."

Stephens said Gunn also denied "knowing or recognizing" Hartsfield on the night of the shooting.

Noting that the allegations had been "disproved," Stephens recommended, for a second time, that Gunn be classified as "exonerated" in her use of deadly force.

"The Hartsfields falsely and recklessly allege the unsubstantiated claims that Sgt. Gunn undertook a violent confrontation with Mr. Hartsfield in her official capacity as a Little Rock police officer due to his alleged rejection of her alleged romantic feelings for him," the lawsuit states.

It says the Hartsfields attended the news conference, which was covered by the Arkansas Times, and caused the statements to be made publicly.

"As a result of these false, reckless and unsubstantiated allegations, Sgt. Gunn has had to endure an extension of the Professional Standards investigation into the encounter between her and Mr. Hartsfield. She has suffered additional psychological and mental anguish, which has caused her to seek therapy in addition to the therapy she sought due to the encounter itself."

Metro on 10/15/2019

Print Headline: Little Rock police officer who fatally shot driver outside bar says she was defamed in lawsuit


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