An investigative file on the death of Jonesboro officer Vincent Parks, 38, revealed “concerning issues with the culture” of the state’s training facility, including hazing, according to letter written Thursday by Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley.
While not finding any criminal charges, Jegley’s letter cites the state medical examiner’s autopsy report that ruled the cause of death an accident caused by Sickle Cell triggered by physical exertion and heat stress, hypertensive heart disease and obesity. It states no one was identified as having precipitated the accidental death.
“However, the file did contain concerning issues with the culture of the training program at ALETA [Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy],” Jegley wrote to Arkansas State Police Col. Bill Bryant. “Including Hazing and the lack of helpful cooperation in the investigation. We will not reiterate those concerns here, but would invite a careful inquiry into the practice, procedures, and other problems at ALETA made obvious in the ASP report.”
The medical finding and Jegley’s letter contrast the official statements released July 17, the day of Parks’ death, under the direction of then-Public Safety Director Jami Cook— which claimed Parks had not participated in any physical activity prior to showing signs of medical distress.
The review of Parks' death was changed to a criminal investigation in August after investigators learned of facts “contrary” to the original statements.
The decision also came after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette attempted to question Cook about text messages she sent to Alison Williams, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s chief of staff, and three other law enforcement officials soon after Parks fell ill.
The texts, obtained through a newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request, stated Parks “fell out” after jogging to and from his car and engaging in four minutes of calisthenics. Hours later, Cook authorized the release the statement that said Parks did not participate in any physical activity. The release was sent through the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, which oversees officer training in the state. Cook also was director of the commission at the time.
State Reps. Frances Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, and Mark Berry, R-Ozark, along with Jonesboro Police Chief Rick Elliott all publicly questioned the information released in the official statement. Yet, weeks after Parks’ death state officials maintained the original statement was accurate.
Cook announced her resignation July 22, citing health issues she’d battled since December 2019. While her resignation letter is dated a day after Parks died, officials have said her resignation was in the works prior to Parks' death.
Bill Sadler, spokesman for Arkansas State Police, issued the first news release on Parks' death. In August, he sent an email to the Democrat-Gazette outlining the events that led to the news release.
He said Cook first contacted him about Parks' death at 3:24 July 17. She gave an overview of Parks' death, in which she said Parks was extracted from class formation and taken to a shaded area where oxygen was administered prior to participating in physical training.
Training Academy Supervisor Joe Dubois also recapped the events and reiterated that Parks had not participated in physical training, Sadler said in the email.
Both Cook and Dubois reviewed the release before it was sent, Sadler said.
Less than a month after Parks' death, J.R. Hankins was named the Director of the Commission on Law Enforcement Standards by Hutchinson.
In late August, Hankins said there was “some activity” prior to Parks' death when questioned by the newspaper — the first time a state official talked publicly about the case.
At the time, he said he was unsure of the “extent”.
Parks died after reporting to the academy, held at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock, on his first day of training. He’d already been sworn in as an officer of the Jonesboro Police Department, after passing screening and some training there.
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 originally, reported Parks showed up at the academy shortly after 1 p.m.
The original release said he exhibited symptoms of medical distress prior to an “initial exercise regimen.” The commission’s release also said instructors separated Parks from the class prior to the regimen that started at 1:30 p.m.
Berry questioned the commission about a heat policy during a legislative days after Parks' death.
“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.
Cody Hiland, former chief legal counsel for the Arkansas Department of Public Safety, questioned Berry, at the time, on how he knew it was a heat-related death since Parks’ body was still undergoing testing and an autopsy at the state Crime Laboratory.
“The health of the people who go through these training exercises are of the utmost concern to the Department of Public Safety and [the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy],” Hiland said. “I can’t speak to exactly what happened because I don’t know. I don’t have that information, but at the end of the day accidents happen. If accidents can be prevented, then we need to do everything we can to prevent them, but I’m uncomfortable answering questions about facts that I have no knowledge of.”
Hiland resigned from the position in September with the announcement he had been hired by Governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ campaign team.
Cook had been asked to attend the hearing but was unable to because a graduation she was attending in Northwest Arkansas on the same day.
A legislative hearing regarding Parks’ death has been rescheduled multiple times as the investigation remained ongoing.
Hankins said in August that the commission as reviewing training in extreme heat. At the time no policy had been created. The commission had recently purchased WetBulb globes used by state athletic departments and the military to gauge heat conditions prior to training.
Each branch of the U.S. military uses a flag system to indicate 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.