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Vote set on effort targeting Little Rock chief

Board to take up no-confidence bid by Joseph Flaherty | December 13, 2020 at 8:18 a.m.
Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey answer questions during a press conference Wednesday June 3, 2020 in downtown Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Members of the Little Rock Board of Directors on Tuesday are poised to weigh in on the leadership of Police Chief Keith Humphrey when they consider a no-confidence resolution sponsored by City Director Lance Hines.

If approved, the resolution has the potential to put Mayor Frank Scott Jr. in the position of defending his appointed police chief in the face of elected city leaders who no longer have faith in Humphrey. Approval of the measure also is likely to embolden the chief's critics inside and outside the department.

However, the resolution is ultimately symbolic. The power to fire the police chief rests with Scott.

Scott tapped Humphrey in March 2019, shortly after Scott was inaugurated. Humphrey previously was the police chief in Norman, Okla.

This year, Humphrey has been sued by several police officials who claim the chief retaliated against them or their departmental allies because of testimony in the aftermath of the February 2019 fatal shooting of Bradley Blackshire by then-officer Charles Starks.

Over the summer, Humphrey was the subject of a no-confidence vote by the city's largest police union, the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 17, in which more than 83% of voting members approved the resolution.

And in September, police command staff members blasted Humphrey in a letter to the mayor and city directors that called Humphrey "a catastrophic problem" and claimed the chief was responsible for creating a dysfunctional environment that risked the safety and welfare of Little Rock residents.

Now Humphrey's supporters are pushing back in the lead-up to the Board of Directors' referendum on the chief.

LETTER OF SUPPORT

On Dec. 4, an attorney representing Humphrey released an open letter of support for Humphrey that included the names of 101 people.

The letter attributed the backlash against Humphrey to entrenched interests seeking to defeat Humphrey's agenda of police reform, an agenda which, the letter suggested, Little Rock voters "decisively" endorsed with the election of Scott in 2018.

Humphrey's attorney, Michael Laux, who issued the letter of support, represents the chief in a countersuit targeting many of Humphrey's opponents.

The complaint, originally filed on Sept. 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas and later amended, alleges that a broad group of people -- including Fraternal Order of Police members, subordinates in the department and others -- engaged in a conspiracy to oust Humphrey from his job in violation of his rights.

Humphrey's countersuit as well as the letter of support issued by Laux make reference to a former Little Rock police chief, Lawrence Johnson.

Johnson, who like Humphrey is Black, stepped down in 2005 after close to five years in the position after criticism from the Fraternal Order of Police, The Associated Press reported at the time.

The letter of support drew a direct comparison between Johnson's time as chief and Humphrey's.

"History tells us we must speak out now, because the insidious smear campaign against Chief Humphrey too closely resembles the organized assault on the professional reputation of Chief Johnson," the letter of support said. "Unverified, slanderous falsehoods about Chief Humphrey litter the internet, social media and other outlets. There is no legitimate purpose for these false attacks."

The letter added that "when one views the objective facts, the overwhelming conclusion is that Chief Humphrey -- like Chief Johnson before him -- simply is the victim of a coordinated attack on his reform agenda."

'TREATED UNFAIRLY'

One of the people who signed the letter, retired Pulaski County Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey, said the police chief "has been treated unfairly by the Fraternal Order of Police, by Director Hines and by others who have made very inflammatory statements about him, negative statements about him -- in some instances, unsavory statements about him."

"He's an honorable man who has a distinguished record in law enforcement prior to coming to Little Rock, and there's nothing that would cause him to change his character simply because he leaves Norman, Okla., and comes to Little Rock, Ark.," Marion Humphrey said.

Marion Humphrey -- no relation to the police chief -- said the root of the backlash against Humphrey was the chief's decision to terminate Starks after the Blackshire shooting, and said the Fraternal Order of Police has relentlessly sought issues to raise against him.

He described the lawsuits against the chief as "frivolous."

"I don't think they're going anywhere. They don't mean anything," Marion Humphrey said. "These people have not been damaged in any way that I can see, so I don't even know why they're in a courtroom with these particular issues."

Other prominent residents whose names appear on the letter include Rep. Joy Springer, D-Little Rock; Pulaski County Justice of the Peace Judy Green; former Little Rock Mayor Lottie Shackelford; and educator LeRon McAdoo, who ran for a seat on the city board this fall.

Dianne Curry, president of the Little Rock branch of the NAACP, signed the letter supporting the chief, and explained that the conflict playing out in the department "seems to be really racially motivated."

In order to be fair, Curry said, someone who has been hired to do a job should be allowed to do their job "with the support of the people that hired him."

"I don't feel, based on what I've observe[d], that that type of support has been given, or that opportunity has been given," she said.

In an emailed statement provided by Laux, Chief Humphrey said he was humbled by the support shown in the letter.

"Their kind words have been a source of comfort and strength for me," Humphrey said in the statement. "They understand this fight is over meaningful police reform. We will get through this challenge together, and we will be stronger for it."

While the Fraternal Order of Police oversaw the no-confidence vote on the chief among its members and criticized Humphrey for his remark that he saw "a segregated LRPD" during the George Floyd protests this summer in Little Rock, the Black Police Officers Association of Little Rock has backed Humphrey consistently.

In addition to Hines, a few others on the 10-member city board have expressed concern about Humphrey's leadership and the direction of the Police Department.

In September, the department's three assistant chiefs and seven of 10 captains signed a letter to the mayor and city directors pleading for help with a dysfunctional work environment they attributed to Humphrey's leadership.

MEMBERS' CONCERNS

After the police officials issued the statement, City Director Joan Adcock and Vice Mayor B.J. Wyrick expressed concern about the situation in the department.

In a phone interview Thursday, outgoing City Director Gene Fortson said he was not ready to say how he intends to vote on Hines' resolution, "'cause I might vacillate," Fortson said.

Fortson said it is slightly unusual for board members "to get involved in personnel decisions at that level, but maybe there's enough public interest that the time has come to have a discussion on it."

Traditionally, the structure of the city government means the Board of Directors does not hire or fire city employees, nor hold them accountable, with the exception of the city manager and city attorney, Fortson said.

Fortson said he has received emails and phone calls regarding the reported conflicts in the Police Department that, "in the view of some people, may contribute to a rising crime rate."

When asked about the mayor's thoughts heading into the meeting this week, mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Jackson referred back to Scott's recent comments to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette when Hines floated the resolution on the police chief in November.

"Nothing from Mayor Scott's end has changed," Jackson said Friday.

In an interview at the time, Scott called Hines' resolution "an expression of his opinion" and declined to say whether he will take action on Humphrey if the resolution finds support among board members.

"I don't know. It hasn't passed," Scott said.

In November, Scott suggested he is bound by the advice of the city attorney with regard to publicly discussing personnel matters that pertain to city employees.

"As the chief executive officer, I have to operate within personnel matters and legal matters that City Director Lance Hines doesn't," Scott said.

Although it remains unclear how many members of the Board of Directors will vote to approve the no-confidence resolution Tuesday, three months ago they saw a preview of how the mayor may respond to any renewed pressure to oust the police chief.

After police officials sent their letter urging city leaders to take action to resolve the alleged dysfunction stemming from Humphrey's leadership, Hines asked Scott directly to remove the police chief during a Sept. 15 board meeting.

The mayor's reply was brief.

"I respectfully decline," Scott said.

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