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Report cites dysfunction, personal disagreements in failure to disclose information about fatal pursuit by Little Rock police

Memo: Issues hindered Little Rock disclosure by Grant Lancaster | March 25, 2023 at 4:17 a.m.
A Little Rock Police Department vehicle is shown in this file photo.

The city of Little Rock reversed course Friday evening and released the findings of a police internal review into why the Police Department failed to release information to the public about a pursuit of a 12-year-old driver that ended with the death of a 14-year-old passenger.

The two-page memorandum written by Police Chief Heath Helton and shared with Mayor Frank Scott Jr. on Feb. 13 said then-Lt. Cassandra Davis, who led the Internal Affairs review, found no evidence that information about the pursuit was deliberately withheld, but deemed that some members of the command staff failed to realize the seriousness of the incident and that personal disagreements between leaders led to widespread communications breakdowns.

At least some of the command staff knew about the crash in Saline County on March 23, 2021, that followed pursuit of a stolen vehicle, driven by the 12-year-old, by two Little Rock officers, the findings show.

They also knew about the potential policy violations by officers Henry Topps and Joshua Thomas, the two officers involved in the pursuit, Helton's memo states.

Details of the pursuit weren't publicly released, however, until a blogger reported on it in July 2022, leading to questions from other news outlets.

Scott in a statement released at the time called the failure to release information "unacceptable." He initially directed then-interim Chief Wayne Bewley to review the episode, but Scott named Helton to the top spot in December 2022 after Bewley retired.

In his report, Helton pointed to a communications breakdown as the main cause of the failure to disclose the incident with City Hall and the public.

"It was clear that some members of the command staff did not recall or remember any discussions related to this incident in any staff meeting, until it became known through published stories via the media," Helton wrote in his report.

The department was "experiencing times of ineffective lines of internal communication" at the time of the pursuit, Helton wrote. He did not blame any one person, but said that personality clashes created a toxic working environment and led to distrust and hostility between the leaders.

Significant changes in the command staff since then have improved the situation, Helton wrote.

Then-Chief Keith Humphrey took the pursuit seriously and investigated the potential misconduct by his officers, he told Davis, but he did not notify Scott about the pursuit because the death was the result of an accident and he never notified City Hall about accidents.

All or most of the command staff knew about the incident, Humphrey added. He said no one deliberately withheld information.

Scott did not learn about the fatal pursuit until last summer, when he was asked about it by reporters, spokesman Aaron Sadler said Friday.

On Thursday, Sadler said the report into the Police Department's failure to inform the public about the crash was not eligible for release under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act and would not be shared.

But a memo and email from City Attorney Tom Carpenter, released alongside Helton's report, indicates that Carpenter determined the report concerned overall department performance and policies and was not a personnel record exempt from disclosure under the law.

Carpenter wrote that Sadler asked him Thursday if internal investigations that did not result in a suspension or termination were exempt from disclosure under the law, and the city attorney said that they were.

But, Carpenter said, he had not yet viewed the report when he answered the question and did not realize it was not an investigation into a certain officer or group of officers. He deemed it must be released without redaction.

The report is the first time Topps has been publicly named by the city. Thomas was suspended without pay for five days because he violated department policies during the pursuit, but Topps resigned shortly after the incident.

Almost all references to Topps were redacted from a copy of the investigative file provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in July 2022 because he was not suspended or terminated.

Davis, who is now a major with the department and commands the Professional Standards Division, was unable to contact Humphrey or then-Assistant Chief Crystal Haskins for the investigation when she first submitted her findings on Aug. 24, 2022.

Humphrey retired in May 2022 and Haskins retired about a month later after a brief stint as interim chief.

The investigative file was returned to Davis on Sept. 14, 2022, for the purpose of getting statements from Humphrey and Haskins. Haskins never responded to attempts to contact her, but Humphrey did on Sept. 15.

One of Humphrey's assistant chiefs at the time of the pursuit was Hayward Finks, who in April 2020 sued Humphrey and the city, alleging employment discrimination and saying that Humphrey retaliated against Finks because of his testimony on the department's investigation into the killing of Bradley Blackshire by a Little Rock officer.

That case was still open Friday night, court records showed, but a judge in September 2021 dismissed a lawsuit by Humphrey that named Finks, other police officers and the Fraternal Order of Police union, claiming they retaliated against him because they did not like his plan to overhaul the department.

Finks left the department in December 2021 to become the school safety director for the North Little Rock School District.

Finks wasn't the only one who took issue with Humphrey, though. In September 2020, the Democrat-Gazette obtained a letter from members of the department's command staff to the city's Board of Directors stating that Humphrey caused a toxic work environment and made the department dysfunctional.

All three of Humphrey's assistant chiefs at the time -- Finks, Bewley and Alice Fulk -- and seven of 10 captains -- including Helton -- signed the letter. Haskins was one of the three captains that did not sign.

Helton was a major at the time of the pursuit, but had been promoted to assistant chief a few months before the public heard about it. Bewley was an assistant chief throughout 2021 and 2022.

Scott also tasked Helton with making a plan to ensure such a communications breakdown did not happen again. Helton judged that the department's policies are sound, but that leaders need to carefully follow them, evaluate the best way to handle incidents and stay on good terms with news media members.

The command staff members attend weekly meetings that include police spokesman Mark Edwards, Emergency Communications Director Juana Green and police communications manager Laura Martin, Helton said.

Helton also ordered members of the department's Media Relations Unit to meet weekly to discuss communication and partnerships with local news outlets, he wrote.

Scott appreciates the department's thorough review of its procedures, Sadler said when asked if the mayor had anything to say about the findings.

Because police often do not identify juvenile suspects or victims, the names of the 12-year-old driver and the other teenagers in the vehicle remained unknown. Police have said that the owner of the vehicle reported it stolen to police and said that it was their child who stole it.

Saline County deputies investigated the crash itself, which happened in their jurisdiction. Authorities have not publicly identified the deceased 14-year-old, but KARK 4 and FOX16 have previously identified him as Zayne Ortiz.

CORRECTION: Little Rock's city attorney is Tom Carpenter. An earlier version of this story misspelled his first name.

Print Headline: Report on Little Rock police chase in fatal crash released


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