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Widow of Jonesboro officer who died during training says changes needed at police academy

Police academy lied about ‘hazing’ in heat, she claims by Teresa Moss | January 26, 2023 at 4:44 a.m.
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)

The wife of Vincent Parks, an officer who died while training at the state's police academy in July, issued a statement Wednesday calling for policy changes at the academy and for an apology from the academy for "lying" and "covering up" the details that led to her husband's death.

The statement from Christina Parks came in response to the announcement a day earlier that an Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training internal investigation into Parks' death found no wrongdoing rising to a fireable offense, according to a statement given by Director J.R. Hankins Tuesday.

"The hazing of police officers and lying to cover up the horrendous, humiliating abuse of a police officer and protector of justice is not going to be swept away by ALETA's self-serving findings that the conduct by its instructors was acceptable," Christina Parks said in the statement.

Vincent Parks died July 17 after participating in about 25 minutes of physical training in extreme heat at the academy, according to an Arkansas State Police criminal investigation. Original statements made by Arkansas Department of Public Safety officials said Parks did not participate in any activity before his death.

It took nearly a month for state officials to acknowledge some physical activity occurred. The amended statement came weeks after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette obtained a text message from former Department of Public Safety Secretary Jami Cook telling the Governor's office that Parks had engaged in activity prior to falling ill.

"In a time when we so desperately need police officers and so few people want to step up and join, a good, Godly man stepped forward and was subjected to childish hazing and callous disregard for life," Christina Parks said in a statement issued Wednesday. "Not only did this conduct endanger and take a life, it rips the very fabric of our society. Is this the conduct we want the guardians of society to learn? Cruelty and indifference followed by lies and cover-up?"

Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley decided in December that no criminal charges would be filed in the case. He cited the medical examiner's report that ruled the cause of death an accident from three health conditions, including sickle cell disease, triggered by physical exertion and heat stress, hypertensive heart disease and obesity.

In a letter written to Col. Bill Bryant on Dec. 15 and released the next day, Jegley outlined his reasons for not pursuing charges.

"However, the file did contain concerning issues with the culture of the training program at ALETA," Jegley wrote. "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 investigative summary mentions that some classmates of Parks' claimed the training was "hazing" or a "smoke session" event because of the nature of activity being conducted in extreme heat on July 17.

All 28 recruits agreed that it was too hot a day to be conducting physical training while wearing the black boots, khaki pants and polo-style shirt they were instructed to wear, the summary says.

"Central Arkansas ALETA instructors should issue an apology to all law enforcement officials who have been exposed to their humiliating hazing," Christina Parks said in her statement. "On the day my husband was killed, other officers were subjected to harsh treatment. The US military has made hazing illegal as it recognizes that this cruel treatment is opposed to what we as a society value.

"ALETA should issue an apology to my family and the Jonesboro Police Department for lying about the manner of Vincent's death and covering up the fact that he was hazed and forced to undergo prolonged strenuous physical exercise in 104 degree heat index in civilian clothes and work boots."

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.

Cindy Murphy, Department of Public Safety spokesperson, responded to Parks' statements via email Wednesday.

"Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Parks family," Murphy said. "Secretary [Mike] Hagar took office on January 10th, and Chris Chapmond was (appointed) Director of CLEST on January 20th. When he reports for duty Monday morning, his top priority will be to complete a thorough review of training procedures at ALETA."

Cook resigned as Department of Public Safety secretary and Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training director soon after Parks' death because of medical reasons. Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed A.J. Gary as secretary and Hankins as director in August.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders replaced both positions with Hagar and Chapmond upon coming into office this month.

Hankins previously said he planned to make policy changes that mirrored the military's regarding training in heat. At the same time, he disputed Jegley's comment about hazing at the academy.

"The ALETA Basic Training Program is specifically designed to prepare officers for a successful career in law enforcement," he wrote. "The rigorous program includes simulated, real-world, scenarios that officers can expect to encounter during their career. ALETA has trained thousands of officers since its creation and does not, and has never, engaged in or condoned hazing in any form."

Christina Parks' statement described her husband's experience differently.

"Vincent was instructed to report at 1 PM for orientation. He was never informed that he would be hazed and forced to undergo belittling physical exercise in deadly heat." the statement read. "ALETA needs a top-to-bottom review of its policies and procedures by someone from outside of ALETA. Humiliating new officers is such a part of ALETA's culture that the instructors even have their own word to describe it, 'smoking."'

Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark, sponsored a bill last week that would have made hazing at the academy a felony. He withdrew the legislation after receiving reassurances from ALETA officials that a policy would be put in place.

A bill examining training in extreme heat is still expected to be filed this session.

"These instructors need training on how to conduct proper orientation, physical conditioning and to recognize when a person is undergoing a heat-related distress," Christina Parks said. "The instructors also need training on how to tell the truth."

The internal investigation likely reviewed the actions of CLEST Supervisor Joe Dubois, who was in charge of the training activities on the day Parks died. Dubois also was named as the source for the original press release from former Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler that said Parks did not participate in physical training.

Jonesboro Police command also told an Arkansas State Police investigator that they felt uncomfortable with Dubois after they felt he was attempting to pressure the remaining Jonesboro officers to stay in the program following Parks' death, per the investigative file.

Hankins said the internal investigation file wasn't available for public release, when asked Tuesday. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has filed an official Freedom of Information Act request for it.

"The fact that ALETA will not release the result of its investigation reveals that its culture of covering up has not changed since it attempted to cover up the reality of how Vincent died on July 17, 2022," Christina Parks said. "No one from ALETA contacted me during its investigation."

Jim Jackson, Parks' attorney, said he is in the process of drafting a claim to submit with the Arkansas State Claims Commission.

"The state of Arkansas is immune from a tort suit, therefore, the Arkansas Claims Commission is the proper body to bring a wrongful death claim for misconduct of state employees," Jackson said. "We will be seeking implementation of policies and procedures to prevent this from happening to anyone else, as well as financial compensation of a loss of a father and husband."

Christina Parks said in her statement that she is committed to make sure change happens.

"I tell our 13-year-old daughter every night that I am committed to making sure another needless death never happens to another law enforcement family," she said. "Vincent was a great father and husband and would have been an incredible law enforcement officer."

CORRECTION: J.R. Hankins, director of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy, denied a contention by former Pulaski County prosecutor Larry Jegley that hazing took place in the academy with a statement that said, “The ALETA Basic Training Program is specifically designed to prepare officers for a successful career in law enforcement… The rigorous program includes simulated, real-world, scenarios that officers can expect to encounter during their career. ALETA has trained thousands of officers since its creation and does not, and has never, engaged in or condoned hazing in any form.” In an earlier version of this story, the statement was incorrectly attributed to A.J. Gary, then secretary of the state Department of Public Safety.


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