After eight hours of testimony and several interruptions on Thursday, the first day of former Little Rock Police Department officer Charles Starks’ appeal hearing to the Little Rock Civil Service Commission ended when Starks’ attorney, Robert Newcomb, fell down the stairs at City Hall. The hearing is set to reconvene Friday at 8 a.m., provided that Newcomb is well enough to attend.
Five witnesses testified about the actions of Starks, as well as the succeeding internal investigation, from when the former officer shot and killed Bradley Blackshire, 30, at a “felony stop” on Feb 22. Starks was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley in May, and he was recommended for exoneration by each of his four supervisors in his chain of command. Despite these recommendations, Police Chief Keith Humphrey fired Starks shortly after in May.
Starks’ hearing to appeal his termination began at 8 a.m. on Thursday, and two people were escorted out of the packed City Hall board room within five minutes for recording the meeting, as the commission banned recording devices from the meeting in a ruling on Tuesday. After an attorney working on behalf of KATV, Channel 7, and KTHV, Channel 11 drafted a legal challenge to the ban, asking for a temporary restraining order, City Attorney Tom Carpenter interrupted the meeting around 2:30 p.m. to recommend that the commission suspend the ban and allow attendees to record. Once the commission reconvened after a short recess, Newcomb withdrew his initial objection to recording devices, and cameras, phones and recording devices were turned on.
In his initial statements to the commission, Newcomb said that “never” in his nearly 40 years of experience as a lawyer, many of which have been spent representing officers who’ve appealed terminations, has he seen an “entire chain of command up until the chief” recommend to exonerate the officer and the officer still be terminated.
“The city wants to ruin this man’s career,” Newcomb said. “I’m not saying Blackshire’s death wasn’t tragic, but all he’d have to do was get out of the car.”
Newcomb added that Blackshire had four pending felony charges at the time of the incident and emphasized to the commission that “fleeing is evidence of guilt.”
Several of Blackshire’s family members and supporters were present in the board room, including his mother, Kimberly Blackshire-Lee, his stepfather, DeAngelo Lee, and his sister Brittany Walls. His mother left the room frequently, as the video of the shooting was shown repeatedly in a split screen of camera footage from Starks’ car, another responding officer’s car and two security cameras from the parking lot of the barbershop where the incident took place.
Starks took the witness stand first and testified that after asking pulling Blackshire over — he was suspected of driving a stolen vehicle — and asking to see his hands, Blackshire refused to comply. Starks said he then asked Blackshire to get out of his car, which he also refused to do, and after seeing Starks “reach his right hand” toward his leg, he feared Blackshire had a gun, making the officer fear for his life.
Blackshire’s car then began moving, and it bumped Starks in the knee. Starks then fired 3-4 shots at point-blank range at Blackshire. The car kept moving and Starks, stepping in front of the vehicle, was lifted onto the hood of the car and continued firing before falling off when another officer pulled into the parking lot, hitting Blackshire’s vehicle.
“I thought I was going to be run over, shot or both,” Starks said.
Starks testified that he moved to the front of Blackshire’s vehicle after first being struck by the car on his knee because he wanted to seek “cover” from any gunfire — as he said he suspected Blackshire may have had a gun — by retreating to his police vehicle, the engine block of which officers are trained to use as a sufficient cover and buffer for bullets. But by seeking cover in this manner, Starks placed himself directly in front of Blackshire’s moving vehicle: It was this action that the Internal Affairs Department within the LRPD said was a violation of department policy, and it was this action that Chief Humphrey said was part of his reasoning for terminating the officer’s employment.
Starks received criticism from Mike Moore and Khayyam Eddings, the attorneys representing the LRPD, for not waiting for backup before initiating contact with Blackshire, as several other witnesses from the police department testified is “preferable” in a felony stop. While Starks testified that he approached Blackshire without backup because he feared Blackshire would flee in the vehicle if the officer waited to do so, Starks also said he parked his patrol car in a way that would not entirely block Blackshire’s vehicle, allowing him a path to escape; Starks said this was because it was department protocol not to completely block in a suspect.
Moore, Eddings and Newcomb all used a small dry erase board and three toy car magnets to illustrate the way the shooting occurred, the movements of Blackshire and Starks’ vehicles, and, for Moore and Eddings, possible directions Starks could have moved to avoid being hit by Blackshire’s vehicle.
Among the other witnesses who testified during the trial, Assistant Chiefs Alice Fulk and Hayward Finks both told the commission that “pressure” from Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s office caused the investigation to be “rushed.”
Fulk said that Scott asked her on the day of the shooting whether Starks could be fired “that day.” Fulk said she told Scott this wasn’t possible because of department processes and investigations for officer-involved shootings.
Humphrey disputed this in his testimony. When asked whether he spoke with Scott about the investigation, he replied, “Absolutely not.”
When Finks took the stand, he said the department’s internal investigation of the incident took 13 days — adding that it usually takes around 45 days — and testified that this was specifically because the mayor’s office wanted it done as quickly as possible so the case file could be handed off to the prosecuting attorney’s office.
“Mayor Scott put the pressure on us to have that file [of the department’s investigation] completed in 13 days,” Finks said.
Finks testified that after painstakingly reviewing the security camera footage from the barbershop parking lot, he saw Blackshire’s car moved “about 8 to 10 feet south from its parking space” before it struck Starks, but he said these measurements were not taken or included in the file of the investigation.
“To me, those measurements should have been in the file, but they actually did not do that, because they were hurried to do the file, and that’s something that they overlooked, something that, had the file been done properly, it would have been sent back to the investigators to include that in the file,” Finks said.
“So, Mayor Scott’s insistence that this be done fast caused omissions to occur that were significant and that would have been important to have there, wouldn’t it?” Newcomb asked.
“In my opinion,” Finks replied.
Finks also maintained his opinion, which he shared in his original conclusion about the incident, that Starks’ action to move in front of Blackshire’s moving car was was not a violation of the department’s policy advising officers not to place themselves in front of a moving vehicle.
“The policy says that you cannot intentionally stand in front of a vehicle with the purpose of keeping the vehicle from moving,” Finks said. “Officer Starks ended up in front of the vehicle, but the reason he was there is because he thought that the individual in the car — as did [Desaray Clark, a passenger in Blackshire’s front seat during the incident] who was in the car with Mr. Blackshire — both felt that Mr. Blackshire was attempting to get a weapon in order to shoot the officer. And so because of that, he did end up in front of the car, but the reason he was there was not to intentionally keep the car from moving. It’s because he was seeking safety because the individual in the car, he felt was trying to shoot at him.”
Finks was still testifying when the commission took a recess, during which Newcomb fell, so Finks may be called to continue testifying when the commission reconvenes at 8 a.m. tomorrow. The commission did not issue a ruling today, and several more witnesses are likely to testify before any such finding is reached as to whether Starks should be reinstated to the police force.
UPDATE: The continuation of the hearing has been delayed indefinitely.