Radley Balko of the Washington Post has rolled out another long-term project on the Little Rock Police Department today, this one built around Josh Hastings’ fatal shooting of a burglary suspect, Bobby Moore, and “a horror show of misconduct, cover-up and cascading institutional failure at the department.”
Much of the Hastings-Moore story has been written here and elsewhere before. Hastings, the son of a top-ranking LRPD officer, probably shouldn’t have been hired in the first place and had given cause for dismissal before the Moore case, in which he was charged with manslaughter and dismissed from the force. Writes Balko:
He had been hired over the objection from a high-ranking black police officer, and that objection was well-founded: Before his hiring, Hastings had once attended a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, then lied about it on his application. He went on to accumulate an astonishing disciplinary record, usually resulting in lax punishment for misconduct.
Hastings once boasted about body-slamming a homeless black woman to the ground. Video footage showed he had lied about a burglary investigation. He slept on the job, drove recklessly and had problems activating his dashboard-mounted camera. He admitted to using racist language. He sometime needed help writing reports, and colleagues described him as lazy, incompetent and unfit to be a police officer.
Two efforts to prosecute him for Moore’s death (superiors concluded he’d lied about circumstances that night) ended in mistrials, but a civil court jury found him liable in the deaths. Still pending is a critical federal appeal that exempted the city from liability because of deficient training and other policies. This is a point that could hold importance for cities all over the country.
Balko’s larger point is that Hastings is not an outlier in the department.
But Hastings’s story isn’t one of a rogue, aberrant cop so much as a glimpse into the police culture of Arkansas’s largest city. Disturbing as Hastings’s disciplinary record may be, other officers in the department have even thicker personnel files. In fact, many of the very officers who trained and supervised Hastings have had lengthy histories of misconduct — including domestic violence, lying, and the use of excessive force.
A review of LRPD personnel records, emails and court cases dating back to Hastings’s hiring in March 2007 suggests a department plagued by nepotism, cronyism and racism — both blatant and subtle. Internal investigations of officer misconduct can be sloppy and incomplete, and are often haphazardly conducted by officers with clear conflicts of interest. There appears to be little supervision at any level, whether by sergeants over beat cops, the high command over supervising officers, or city and elected officials over the department’s leadership. When officers have been fired — and it takes a lot to get fired — they are often able to appeal and win back their jobs, either in court or through the city’s Civil Service Commission, usually with the help of the police union.
“The sheer number of misconduct allegations against some of these officers is staggering,” said Chiraag Bains, former senior counsel for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Bains, who is now a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Criminal Justice Policy Program and is now director of legal strategies for the reform group Demos, co-wrote the Justice Department’s report on policing in Ferguson, Mo. I asked him to look over and comment on my reporting from Little Rock. “Assuming these allegations are true, there’s a lot here that’s deeply disturbing. The lack of discipline and accountability is almost comical. And it appears to be a diverse array of misconduct, not just excessive force or shootings,” he said.
Is it any wonder the FOP and the now-departing chief got along so well? And then there’s the culture of Little Rock and its uniformed employees.
At about 200,000 people (740,000 in the metro area), Little Rock is the largest city in Arkansas. But it can often feel more like a large town. There’s not much anonymity. The same family surnames pop up in politics and positions of power. At the LRPD, legacy hires are common, and dating and marriage are allowed within the department. All of this can create problems when police officers are asked to investigate one another.
There are demographic problems at LRPD, too. For one, as of late last year, the department was 100 officers short of capacity. In a department of currently about 500, that’s a significant shortage of manpower. “It means longer shifts, less backup and more stress,” said [black police Lt. Johnnie] Gilbert. “When officers are tired, worried, on edge, they’re less patient. You’re more likely to resort to force. You’re more likely to panic.”
The LRPD faces this shortage despite the fact it pays nearly as well as or better than any police agency in the state. “It’s an image problem,” Gilbert said. “Particularly in the city, no kid dreams of becoming a cop someday. We’re the bad guys. And that’s on us.”
As with many cities, Little Rock experienced significant white flight over the latter half of the 20th century — white people made up 74 percent of the city population in 1970, compared with about 47 percent now. But the department itself is still 65 percent white. Perhaps more importantly, most officers — and a large majority of the white officers — live outside the city limits. “It’s a problem, no question about it,” said Charles Blake, a state legislator who represents a working-class, 70-percent black district in southeast Little Rock. “If police officers don’t have a personal investment in the communities they patrol, there’s no sense of being on the same team. They need to reach out more — we need better relationships between the LRPD and black neighborhoods in Little Rock.”
They’re singing our song.
Not so tuneful is Balko’s recount of officers using — even admitting in some cases — using racial epithets. Also unsettling is the detailed account of Josh Hastings’ record, poor in many ways and marked by a propensity for use of force, particularly against minorities.
In one incident in July 2010, Hastings body-slammed a homeless, mentally ill black woman, then sat on her stomach as he waited for her to be taken for treatment. (He claimed the woman slapped him after he woke her up.) He admitted in a deposition years later that “body slam” was the appropriate term for what he had done. Yet, at the time, Hastings’s supervisor made the young officer seem almost gallant. He wrote that Hastings merely “wrapped his arms around” the woman, and “placed her on the ground.” Hastings also later admitted that his supervisor’s account of the incident wasn’t accurate.
Hastings was rarely disciplined. His mentor was Ralph Breashears, recently cleared in a shooting that endangered others at a suspect at a drive-through restaurant, with a checkered history of his own. And still more supervisors are listed by Balko with lengthy disciplinary records. Too many to detail here, but take this one example:
Another supervisor was Officer Kelly Lepore, who was Hastings’s driving instructor. Just over a year before Hastings started, Lepore pulled her gun on a DWI suspect, then pushed her gun into the car near the driver’s face, despite later admitting she had no reason to suspect he was violent. The driver fled, perhaps understandably. He was later apprehended by another LRPD officer who, hearing Lepore’s report, shot the driver after seeing him reach for something “shiny.” The driver was unarmed. Though Lepore was cleared of any wrongdoing at the time, LRPD officials later admitted in depositions that Lepore’s actions during the initial stop were unprofessional, and contributed to the subsequent shooting.
In 2012, Lepore ordered subordinates to stand on the legs of an obese man who had already been pepper sprayed and handcuffed. As she would later admit in a deposition, Lepore told her officers, “You ain’t going to hurt this big boy.” The man stopped breathing and died at the scene. Under questioning from Laux during a 2016 deposition, Lepore conceded that she was unfamiliar with official LRPD policy in several areas, including use of force and traffic stops. This seems especially troublesome given that, in addition to teaching police driving, Lepore also was a field training officer for recruits.
There’s an extensive retelling of the Bobby Moore case. But there’s much more, including flaws in a system to intervene early with problem officers, “malfunctioning” dash cameras, lack of training on Taser use, other officers with a propensity for using force, a forgiving civil service commission and questions about the rigor of police internal investigations.
This is a monumental piece of work, not well-suited to a speedy summary. It should be required reading for the city manager, the Little Rock Board and all candidates for the next police chief. Change is needed at LRPD. Thanks to Syracuse, timing is right.
UPDATE: One of the mayoral
“The report published today in the Washington Post further validates my earlier call for an independent external review of LRPD policies, procedures, training, and culture with the goal of systemic reform that adheres to nationally-recognized best practices. We need to do that to ensure fair and equitable treatment for our citizens, to regain the faith and confidence of our community, and to create a more effective and efficient police force. This is why I also have called for the creation of an independent citizens commission to review LRPD actions since I began my campaign for mayor.
Furthermore, as we have the opportunity to hire a new police chief, the mayor — not the city manager — must lead that process so that someone elected by, and accountable to, all of the citizens of Little Rock can make the changes that are clearly necessary to improve the quality of our public safety efforts. I will make this a top priority as your next mayor, and we will finally address the long-standing issues that have impeded progress in our city with honesty and transparency.”