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Little Rock mayor, city manager silent on timeframe for resolving investigation into police chief

No timeline, no comment voiced by Joseph Flaherty | September 19, 2021 at 3:55 a.m.
Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey speaks May 8 about an officer-involved shooting that day that critically injured one person. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and City Manager Bruce Moore have been silent on when they might decide on disciplinary action, if any, for Police Chief Keith Humphrey, who is the subject of a human-resources investigation after complaints from police officials.

Moore indicated Friday that he has not finished reviewing the human resources documents submitted to him.

For his part, Scott has consistently declined to comment on the turbulence within the city's Police Department, citing a policy of non-response regarding personnel matters or ongoing litigation.

"As you are aware, the City does not comment on employee personnel records or investigative reports/file [sic] contained or subject to be contained in a personnel record," spokeswoman Stephanie Jackson wrote Friday in response to questions, including when the mayor and city manager plan to make a decision on discipline.

She denied that Scott was having an investigative report sit on his desk to avoid it being publicly released.

During a recent Arkansas Freedom of Information Act hearing before Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox, Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter acknowledged that Humphrey was the subject of an investigation but said the evaluation was not yet complete.

[DOCUMENT: Read the email criticizing firing of Mattox » arkansasonline.com/915email/]

An administrative decision to suspend or terminate Humphrey at the conclusion of the investigation would trigger the release of investigative records that might otherwise remain sealed in response to a FOIA request.

Attorney Robert Newcomb, who frequently represents police officers in court, has tried to obtain the report written by Loretta Cochran, an associate professor in Arkansas Tech University's management and marketing department who has been tasked with investigating police complaints about Humphrey.

Cochran has been hired in a part-time, temporary capacity to assist with a backlog of human resources reviews, Jackson has said.

According to records obtained from her personnel file by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cochran was hired July 13, 2020, as a labor relations analyst II in the Human Resources Department at a pay rate of $20 per hour.

A hiring form listed the role as temporary.

On an employment application, Cochran wrote that her objective was "[t]o deliver professional, impartial, and thorough EEO [equal employment opportunity] investigations for the City of Little Rock on an as-needed basis."

[DOCUMENT: Read the Little Rock chief's memo on the officer investigation » arkansasonline.com/831chief/]

On Sept. 10, Fox ordered the city to release to Newcomb some underlying records pertaining to the investigation, including an email in which Cochran criticized the Police Department's termination of officer David Mattox.

Mattox -- one of Newcomb's clients -- was fired after Humphrey sustained findings of untruthfulness and unauthorized investigation tied to the search for a suspect who was exposing himself to individuals in Little Rock, according to a memo from Humphrey contained in court filings.

The officer's wife was reportedly one of the victims.

In an Aug. 9 email to the city's human resources director Stacey Witherell, Cochran wrote, "Just to reiterate my previous guidance, it is my opinion that the termination of Officer Mattox is a clear indication of racial discrimination, hostile working conditions, and retaliation by Lt. [Brittany] Gunn, Asst. Chief Crystal [Young-]Haskins, and Chief Keith Humphrey."

In the email, which Newcomb provided to the Democrat-Gazette, Cochran went on to say the "ill-advised decision will most likely contribute to a continuing destabilization of the LRPD."

Additionally, she suggested it "exposes the City to an ever increasing damages award, should Officer Mattox (and/or several other LRPD personnel who have been targeted for harassment & retaliation by the Chief and his allies) elect to take this to court."

"I only pray that no lives are lost due to this ongoing but preventative crisis," Cochran wrote.

In response, Witherell wrote, "I have shared your concerns with the city manager."

Mattox is white. Humphrey, Gunn and Young-Haskins are Black.

Through Jackson, Scott declined to comment after the court-ordered release Monday of Cochran's message.

[DOCUMENT: Read the complaint filed by attorney Newcomb » arkansasonline.com/94newcomb/]

Weighing in on a separate FOIA lawsuit filed by Newcomb, last month a judge wrote that Cochran's 27-page final report summarizing her investigation had been forwarded along with supporting documentation to Moore in July from the city's top human resources official.

"Mr. Moore is in the process of reviewing the report and supporting documentation to prepare advice and recommendations for Mayor Frank Scott, Jr., who is the final decision-maker at the City of Little Rock with respect to the investigation," wrote retired judge Kathleen Bell, who was filling in for Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray.

Bell concluded that Cochran's report was exempt from disclosure because no final administrative determination had been made regarding potential disciplinary action, though she wrote that some underlying documents could be released to Newcomb.

In an emailed response to the Democrat-Gazette on Friday, Moore wrote, "I am still reviewing the documents that were submitted from Human Resources at this point. Thus, commenting further would be inappropriate."

Moore later confirmed that any opinion or recommendation from him regarding the human resources findings would go to the mayor for a final determination.

After his inauguration in January 2019, Scott made it clear that he would exercise a more active role as mayor through the direct supervision of six department heads, including the police chief. Other department leaders would continue to report to the city manager, Scott said at the time.

Scott selected Humphrey -- then the chief of police in Norman, Okla. -- to serve as chief shortly thereafter.

Since then, Humphrey has weathered a series of lawsuits from police personnel who say they experienced retaliation related to the investigation of the shooting of Bradley Blackshire, who was shot and killed by then-officer Charles Starks on Feb. 22, 2019.

Humphrey terminated Starks, but Starks was reinstated pursuant to a court order and ultimately chose to resign last year. He, too, is represented by Newcomb.

According to documents contained in his personnel file, Humphrey was hired for the at-will position of chief at an annual base salary of $155,000 beginning April 15, 2019.

On Wednesday, two days after the release of Cochan's conclusions regarding the Mattox termination, a federal judge dismissed a countersuit that Humphrey had filed in September 2020.

The original complaint named 21 people, including two of Humphrey's assistant chiefs and officials from the dominant local police union, as well as the union itself and body-camera provider WatchGuard Video. Humphrey said his opponents engaged in a conspiracy meant to force him out.

In light of the judge's order, Mike Laux, Humphrey's attorney, told the Democrat-Gazette the complaint can be refiled because it was dismissed without prejudice.

In an interview Wednesday, Vice Mayor Lance Hines criticized the city's top officials for their pace on resolving the human resources investigation.

Hines said his biggest concern after this month's defeat of Scott's proposed sales tax increase at the polls was not raising the rate or renewing an expiring three-eighths percent tax, but rather "fixing our Police Department."

"We've got 50 homicides so far this year as of yesterday, and we can have the nicest parks and the nicest zoo, but if people do not feel safe to come to this city, it's not going to matter," Hines said. "And we have got a dysfunctional police chief and a violent-crime problem that is out of control."

Hines, the Ward 5 representative on the city board, has long criticized Humphrey's leadership of the Police Department. Late last year, he pushed city board members to take up a no-confidence vote on the chief before withdrawing the symbolic resolution.

In the interview, Hines raised concerns about the lack of action by Scott and Moore with regard to Cochran's findings.

He said "they've had a report sitting on their desk since June, and they've done nothing with it. And once an H.R. investigation is completed, and if the H.R. investigation finds that there's wrongdoing, we are culpable if we take no action."

Hines added, "and I think that the mayor and city manager are putting us in great legal jeopardy by not taking action on what they have in that report."

Print Headline: Officials mum on discipline of chief

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