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Judge tells Little Rock again: Reinstate fired officer

by John Lynch | January 11, 2020 at 9:23 a.m.
In this file photo Charles Starks listens to testimony during the Civil Service Commission hearing on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, at Little Rock City Hall.

Charles Starks, the Little Rock police officer fired after fatally shooting a car-theft suspect, must return to work -- or at least be put back on the payroll -- and receive all his back pay by Thursday, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ordered Friday.

Fox has already overturned Starks' firing, and the new ruling rebuffed a request by city lawyers to keep Starks off the job pending an appeal.

In his five-page ruling, Fox said the city has little chance of overturning his decision at the Arkansas Court of Appeals. The city has lost such appeals before, and the standard to overcome a circuit court ruling overturning a firing is rooted in 50 years of precedent, he noted.

"The City of Little Rock ... is accordingly on record notice that the appellate standard of review of circuit court decisions in civil service appeals is the highest, most stringent appellate standard of review," the judge wrote.

"Based on the record and the strict appellate standard of review, it's the court's opinion that in a range from 'wholly without merit' to 'a legitimate basis for an appeal exists,' an appeal of this matter is very close to the 'wholly without merit' end of the range," Fox said.

But just because the police force has to put Starks back to work, the department does not have to return him to patrol or even make him show up at the office, according to the judge's ruling.

"[The police] have an entire panoply of administrative options available, including but not limited to placing Officer Starks on paid leave pending resolution of the appeal, assigning Officer Starks to desk or administrative duty, placement of Officer Starks into patrol rotation, and/or assigning Officer Starks any other duties and functions that are within the parameters established by the Little Rock Police Department for its officers," Fox wrote.

Starks, 32, was fired by Chief of Police Keith Humphrey about 2½ months after killing 30-year-old Bradley Blackshire, who was behind the wheel of a stolen car, in a west Little Rock parking lot in February.

Blackshire's vehicle clipped Starks on the leg, injuring him. Starks had been dispatched to the area to find the car after other officers saw it driving in the area.

Starks' use of force against Blackshire was never at issue.

The grounds for his firing were that Starks, who had been with the department for six years, violated police rules about confronting suspects in moving cars. All of Starks' supervisors opposed the decision, but his termination was upheld by the city Civil Service Commission in September.

Starks appealed that decision to circuit court.

Fox agreed that Starks had violated police procedure but determined that his firing was too harsh a penalty. The judge reduced the punishment to a 30-day unpaid suspension with a pay reduction. He ordered the police department to take Starks back and to compensate him for his lost wages.

The judge further said he'd consider requiring the city to pay Starks' legal expenses. How much the city now owes Starks has not been revealed.

Prosecutors cleared Starks of criminal wrongdoing.

Blackshire's family is suing Starks and the city, saying the officer had no need to shoot Blackshire. They've disputed the police claim that Blackshire, a father of five, was trying to flee when he was shot, saying that he had just borrowed the car and did not know it was stolen.

Metro on 01/11/2020

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