After over 15 hours of combined testimony across two days, the Little Rock Civil Service Commission upheld the termination of former Little Rock Police Department officer Charles Starks Wednesday. Starks was fired from the force by Police Chief Keith Humphrey on May 6 after an internal investigation found that the officer violated department policy on Feb. 22 when he shot and killed Bradley Blackshire, 31, during a “felony stop.” Blackshire was suspected of driving a stolen vehicle.
The decision came after the Civil Service Commission deliberated in executive session for over an hour. It was met with sighs of relief, shouts of “Yes!” and thanks given to God by family and friends of Blackshire. Several people embraced, and one man said through tears, “We’re never gonna get him back, though.” On the other side of the City Hall board room, family and friends of Starks were quiet, and several officers and supporters approached Starks to shake his hand. Starks can still appeal the commission’s decision to Pulaski County Circuit Court.
The commission’s ruling marks the potential end of a lengthy process that began on the day of the shooting, a process that would ask Mayor Frank Scott Jr. — who had been in office for less than two months at the time of the incident — to respond to the call of his constituents for transparency.
During the first day of Starks’ appeal hearing on July 25, LRPD Assistant Chiefs Hayward Finks and Alice Fulk both testified that the mayor’s office put “pressure” on the department to finish its internal investigation of the incident quickly. Starks’ attorney, Robert Newcomb, later fell down the stairs at City Hall during a break from the hearing and broke his wrist, so the continuation of the hearing was delayed until Wednesday.
The two chiefs’ testimony was expanded upon during the reconvened hearing by Assistant Chief Wayne Bewley, who was acting interim chief for the LRPD at the time of the shooting. Bewley said that on the day of the incident, he brought information about the shooting to Scott, and he and Fulk both met with Scott at City Hall to debrief the mayor. Scott asked the chiefs what was “next” in the process, which Bewley said was a “legitimate question.” Bewley said the mayor wanted to know whether the incident was “bad enough” that the officer would face criminal charges and whether the officer violated policy and would have to be terminated; Bewley said he told Scott that either outcome could “possibly” happen, but that it was “premature” and a two-part investigative process would have to follow. Bewley testified that on the day of the incident, Scott had not seen any video footage from the scene and did not know the name of the shooting victim.
After later viewing dash camera footage from Starks’ police car, Bewley said Scott was “adamant” about releasing the video quickly.
“The mayor was very adamant about wanting to release the dashcam video for transparency, which has long time been an issue with the department protecting investigations and releasing the video to the public,” Bewley said. “[Scott’s] point was, he ran his campaign on transparency, and he was adamant that he wanted to release this video as soon as possible.”
Bewley added that “as the mayor coming in,” Scott “didn’t have a real understanding of what we do and how this process works,” so as acting interim chief, Bewley “talked through” the process with the mayor.
“It was almost him getting some education from me,” Bewley said.
According to Bewley, Scott wanted the dash camera footage to be released as soon as possible in order to “calm the public,” but initially did not know that per department policy, the video could not be released until the internal affairs division within the LRPD had completed its investigation of the incident and given the case file to Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley. Bewley said the “pressure” he felt from the mayor was to “expedite” the internal affairs investigation so the video could be subsequently released — it was not an effort to have Starks fired without “due process.”
In his closing argument, attorney for the city Khayyam Eddings told commissioners that Bewley’s testimony gave necessary “context” to the comments of Finks and Fulk that Scott “rushed” the investigation.
“One of the things that struck me about this case, even before the first witness was called, was this theme woven throughout the tapestry of the petitioner’s case: What they wanted you to believe, even before we started here… is that the mayor wanted [Starks] fired without due process, and that he was going to go out and find him a police chief that would do just that,” Eddings said. “And that was clear to me before we even walked in here the first day. But the fact of the matter is, there hasn’t been one witness called by this petitioner to produce one shred of evidence to support that allegation.
“We had two assistant chiefs testify up here before Chief Bewley who, for whatever reason, wouldn’t provide you all with context,” Eddings continued. “And Chief Bewley did that today. He said it was a learning experience for the mayor. … Chief Bewley also testified that the mayor’s interest was not getting the criminal file complete; he wanted that video out to the public because he ran on transparency … not because he wanted Officer Starks fired without due process. It’s not been one witness here to give you any evidence of that, and I think that’s unfair to the mayor.”
Asked by Commissioner Paula Stitz where the “13 day” time period for completing the internal investigation came from — a number given multiple times by Finks during the first day of Starks’ hearing — Bewley said he had “no idea,” but that his instructions to the department had been to “expedite” the investigation so the dash camera footage could be released.