Hot day’s ‘activity’ preceded collapse, state reverses on death of Jonesboro officer

Patrolman Vincent Parks of the Jonesboro Police Department is shown in this undated courtesy photo. Parks died Sunday, July 17, 2022 during training exercises at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock. (Jonesboro Police Department courtesy photo)
Patrolman Vincent Parks of the Jonesboro Police Department is shown in this undated courtesy photo. Parks died Sunday, July 17, 2022 during training exercises at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock. (Jonesboro Police Department courtesy photo)

A month after Jonesboro police officer Vincent Parks died at an Arkansas state police academy, officials are saying he was involved in physical activity before his death — a story that differs from what was initially released.

“There was some activity,” J.R. Hakins, newly appointed director of the Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training, said Friday. “I just don’t know to what extent.” Parks, 38, died July 17 after reporting for his first day of training at a state-run academy held at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock. Parks was newly sworn in as a Jonesboro police officer.

Hakins’ statement is the first time anyone with the commission has made a public statement confirming Parks was active prior to his death.

Parks’ death has launched a criminal investigation, which is expected to be passed to a prosecutor in upcoming weeks. It also caused a call from legislators to hear testimony from the state’s training commission’s top officials during a legislative hearing. Recently, it has put into motion changes being made to how officers train in the state.

Hours after Parks’ death, the commission on standards and training sent out a news release that stated Parks did not participate in any physical activity before showing signs of medical distress — a statement that was quickly disputed by Jonesboro Police Chief Rick Elliott and Rep. Frances Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge.

In the weeks after Parks’ death, the commission continued to say Parks had not engaged in physical activity when questioned by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Others, such as Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark, have questioned why any officers were training on that day.

Central Arkansas was under a heat advisory from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. that Sunday, according to Dylan Cooper, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in North Little Rock. Heat advisories are put in place when heat indexes could reach 105 or greater for a region.

Cooper said previously that the closest sensor to Camp Robinson is located at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field. He said that sensor recorded temperatures at 97 degrees with a heat index of about 106 at 1 p.m. July 17. He said the temperature was 99 degrees at 2 p.m. with a heat index of 106.

The commission reported Parks showed up at the academy shortly after 1 p.m. and training was set to begin at 1:30 p.m.

Questions about Parks’ death continued after a text message sent by former Department of Public Safety Director Jami Cook surfaced following an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Freedom of Information Act request.

Cook says in the text that Parks “fell out” after jogging to and from his car and engaging in four minutes of calisthenics. The text message was sent to Alison Williams, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s chief of staff, and three other law enforcement officials.

At that time, Cook had already announced her resignation because of health concerns. Officials have said the resignation was in the works prior to Parks’ death.

Bill Sadler, Arkansas State Police spokesman, sent a statement saying that state police had found facts “contrary” to original statements during its review of Parks’ death. He would not outline what those facts were at that time.

The statement did detail steps he took to release the official statement on Parks’ death while acting as a spokesman for the training commission — which falls under the Arkansas Department of Public Safety umbrella with the State Police. The steps included getting information from Cook and the academy’s supervisor, Joe Dubios.

Sadler’s statement says both Cook and Dubios reiterated to him that Parks never participated in physical training on the day of the incident. That information was turned into a release which was sent to both of them for review before being sent to media.

“As a public information officer for the Arkansas State Police over the past 25 years, accuracy and truth has always been paramount in my assignments,” Sadler wrote at that time. “… In fairness to all involved and simultaneously ensuring the integrity of the investigation, I must limit my comments only to the facts as I know them regarding the information that I released on the evening of July 17.”

TRAINING CHANGES

The cause of Parks’ death has yet to be released to the public as the investigation continues. Yet, it has still sparked conversation about safety for officers when training in extreme heat.

The commission doesn’t have a policy on training in extreme heat, per its manual. Hakins, who took over the commission earlier his month, said this is something he plans to change.

He said the commission recently purchased WetBulb globes — which are already used by the state’s athletic departments and the military to gauge heat conditions before training.

The globes measure temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud coverage at a specific site, according to the National Weather Service.

Each branch of the U.S. military uses a flag system to determine the intensity of physical exercise allowed at each WetBulb temperature.

The U.S. Marine Corps doesn’t allow physical training and strenuous exercise at a black flag or WetBulb temperature of 90 and above, according to its website.

The flag system also takes into account personnel’s acclimation to extreme heat. At 88 to 89.9, all activity for any personnel with less than 12 weeks’ training in hot weather should halt. Physical activity should be halted for anyone with less than three weeks of heat exposure at 85 to 87.9, the website says.

Joey Walters, Arkansas Activities Association deputy executive director, said that the association started requiring the use of WetBulbs for athletic practices in 2018. The guidelines are based of the American College of Sports Medicine.

According to the association’s website, there are to be no outdoor workouts over a reading of 92. At 90 to 92 the length of participation can’t extend an hour and there must be 30 minutes of rest breaks distributed throughout the hour. The maximum practice time goes up and rest period goes down as the temperature drops.

Walters said coaches are also taught during their June training how to avoid heat illness, what to watch for and how to react if it occurs. The training is mandatory every three years but Walters said most coaches attend it annually.

“The training is an important piece,” Walters said.

Coaches also start receiving information about heat-related illness at the start of every July. This includes articles and documentaries sent to their email, he said.

Berry started asking questions about the commission’s heat policy during a legislative meeting last month.

“There is absolutely no excuse for a heat-related casualty in a training environment, especially when the Department of Health has excessive heat warnings all over the state for several weeks,” Berry said at that time.

Berry previously was director of the Arkansas Military Department, adjutant general and the first commanding general of the Arkansas National Guard, according to his legislative website.

The legislator has stressed that the officers shouldn’t have been training in middle of the day but, instead, in the early morning.

“A fatality during training is senseless,” Berry said.

Berry said he is glad to see Hakins looking into a policy. He added that a legislative measure may still be needed to create policy for all state-run programs.

Police academies in other states also didn’t appear to have extreme heat policies. Spokesmen for both Missouri and Louisiana’s training commissions said they didn’t know of a policy at the state level.

Keith Ross, master instructor at the NYPD Police Academy and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he isn’t aware of academies having policy.

“As this discussion of climate change becomes more common, they probably will adopt something similar to the military model,” Ross said.

He said it makes sense to have a policy that takes into consideration acclimation, such as the military policy.

“You start slowly,” Ross said.

Hakins said Friday he is looking into the military policy and has already started meeting with officials to understand how the globe temperature is used. He said the discussions about the policy are in the beginning stages

Central Arkansas was under a heat advisory from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. that Sunday, according to Dylan Cooper, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in North Little Rock. Heat advisories are put in place when heat indexes could reach 105 or greater for a region.

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