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Judge orders release of some underlying materials in probe of Little Rock's police chief

Specifics of materials judge orders released to officers’ lawyer unclear by Joseph Flaherty | September 11, 2021 at 3:55 a.m.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox is shown in this file photo.

LITTLE ROCK -- Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox on Friday ordered the city of Little Rock to release some underlying materials related to an investigation of Police Chief Keith Humphrey to attorney Robert Newcomb and his police clients.

However, the specifics of what Newcomb had requested versus precisely what Fox was ordering to be released seemed to get muddled during the hearing.

Additionally, the materials to be disclosed to Newcomb would remain subject to a protective order for the time being, Fox indicated.

For weeks, Newcomb has tried to obtain a final report prepared by an Arkansas Tech University professor tied to an investigation into Humphrey after internal complaints from police personnel.

The city hired professor Loretta Cochran in a temporary part-time capacity to work through a backlog of human resources reviews, a mayoral spokeswoman said in late July.

In August, in response to a lawsuit from Newcomb, a different judge denied the release of Cochran's final report because the administrative review of the employee being investigated -- Humphrey -- had not been completed.

Not long after the decision, Newcomb's office submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the city that seemed aimed at obtaining similar or underlying materials, if not the report itself.

Newcomb's clients in the FOIA lawsuit filed Sept. 3 are Lt. John Michael Trent, Lt. Russell "Rusty" Rothwell, Sgt. Christopher "Kirk" McCauley and former officer David Mattox.

Mattox -- who was present during Friday's hearing -- was fired recently after Humphrey sustained findings of untruthfulness and unauthorized investigation. The violations were tied to a police investigation into a man suspected of exposing himself to women, with Mattox's wife reportedly one of the victims.

Newcomb appeared before Fox over Zoom on Friday along with Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter. Cochran, accompanied by an attorney, was also present.

Carpenter acknowledged that interviews between Cochran and one or more of Newcomb's clients were conducted during the investigation of Humphrey.

When Fox asked why the plaintiffs were not entitled to transcripts of their own interviews, Carpenter said the materials were part of a so-far-incomplete employee evaluation. Those records were being maintained only because of the evaluation of another person, he said, referring to Humphrey.

After some discussion with Newcomb and Carpenter, Fox indicated that transcripts of Cochran's interviews with the four individual plaintiffs represented in the FOIA suit should be turned over.

But the issue of what exactly was being requested seemed muddled.

When explaining the rationale for his decision, at one point Fox seemed to conflate a list submitted by Newcomb in the FOIA request where Humphrey was the interviewee and various people, including some of Newcomb's clients, were discussed as something else: a list of the people interviewed by Cochran.

Newcomb had sought transcripts of interviews between Cochran and Humphrey that discussed the actions of other people beyond the four Newcomb is representing, such as Assistant Chief Crystal Young-Haskins and Assistant Chief Hayward Finks.

Fox seemed to decline to order the release of that kind of material, though it was unclear based on his explanation of the decision.

He indicated at one point, for instance, while referring to Newcomb's FOIA request that a transcript of an interview between Cochran and Young-Haskins pertaining to the four plaintiffs should be released.

Additionally, Fox declined to order the release of notes made by Cochran while interviewing Humphrey.

Newcomb had requested emails between Cochran and a city human resources official Stacey Witherell. However, during the hearing, Newcomb said he would forego the item.

Carpenter acknowledged that one of Newcomb's other requests -- emails between Cochran and other city officials concerning discipline or possible discipline of Mattox -- could be disclosed to Newcomb.

A letter sent by a police lieutenant to the FBI that involves any of the four plaintiffs must be released, too, Fox determined. And documents sent by City Manager Bruce Moore to other officials concerning discipline of Newcomb's four clients could be released, Fox found.

Carpenter requested a protective order related to the materials.

He suggested that the city would provide unredacted copies of the transcripts to Newcomb, given the difficulty of the task. Later in the hearing, Carpenter said there might be some redactions necessary, such as an employee's address or Social Security number.

Newcomb asked for the court to leave open the possibility that he could use the materials during Mattox's Civil Service Commission proceedings or sometime down the road.

Fox instructed Newcomb to call Carpenter if he recognizes that he will want to use the materials in the coming Civil Service Commission hearing and see if they can come to some prompt agreement.

If they cannot, Fox said Newcomb will need to file something that Carpenter can respond to, and the judge will issue a ruling.

The protective order will extend to Newcomb and his clients, Fox said, and emphasized that the clients need to understand that they cannot discuss the materials with anyone aside from their attorney at the moment.

A separate lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court in which Newcomb is representing the same plaintiffs names Humphrey, three other police officials and the city. The complaint accuses them of abuse of process, discrimination and violation of the plaintiffs' rights.

Print Headline: Litle Rock told to yield chief-probe files

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