The Arkansas Court of Appeals today reversed Circuit Judge Tim Fox’s decision overruling the firing of former Police Officer Charles Starks in the fatal shooting of Bradley Blackshire during a traffic stop in 2019.
The court said Fox had erroneously divided the case into two sections — Starks’ action when he first stopped the car and then when he moved in front of Blackshire’s moving car and began firing. Fox said Starks had violated general orders by not parking in a way to block Blackshire’s car. But Fox held that Starks had not violated orders during the emergency part of the encounter, when Blackshire didn’t obey orders to stop and Starks placed himself in front of the car.
Police Chief Keith Humphrey fired Starks, over objections from other officers in the chain of command, and the Civil Service Commission upheld that firing, which Fox reversed. He instead gave Starks a 30-day suspension and reduction in salary, which Starks appealed. He has since left the force.
In a unanimous opinion written by Judge Stephanie Barrett, the court said:
In analyzing whether Starks violated the General Order, the circuit court divided the incident into two separate parts—the nonemergency situation (from the time Starks pulled into the parking lot until he exited his patrol car) and the emergency situation (from the time he exited his patrol car to the conclusion of the incident). The circuit court found that Starks had violated the General Order during the nonemergency portion of the incident, but he had not violated the General Order during the emergency portion of the incident. Furthermore, the circuit court analyzed the actions of the officer using a reasonableness standard. Although a court must determine what is reasonable conduct by a police officer when he or she uses force, deadly or otherwise, in the line of duty and that reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with hindsight, see, e.g., Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989), this case does not involve a question regarding the reasonableness of the use of deadly force. Furthermore, this case does not involve a question of criminal charges or tortious conduct. This case is simply a question of whether General Order 303.II.E.2. was violated, and that question must be analyzed under the voluntariness of the act, not a reasonableness standard as used by the circuit court. Therefore, there is no need to divide the situation into emergency or nonemergency situations nor to determine whether the actions were reasonable for an officer with similar training and experience. Simply posed, did Starks voluntarily violate General Order 303.II.E.2 by placing himself in a position in front of an oncoming vehicle where deadly force was the probable outcome? The Commission answered this question in the affirmative.
We must therefore reverse and remand this case so that the circuit court may conduct a de novoreview of the Commission’s decision that Starks violated General Order 303.II.E.2 using the appropriate standard of voluntariness.
Given the fact that the first point on appeal has been reversed and remanded for further proceedings, the second point on appeal regarding the appropriate sanctions need not be addressed at this time. Likewise, the cross-appeal filed by Starks regarding appropriate sanctions need not be addressed at this time.
Relatives of Blackshire have a pending lawsuit against Starks and the city over the shooting. There are indications the city is in settlement discussions on the case, though the parties are not commenting.
Following his reinstatement, Starks complained that the city had limited his duties, kept his gun and badge and otherwise treated him unfairly.
Robert Newcomb, Starks’ attorney, said Starks would still contend he had not purposely placed himself in front of the car, but that Blackshire had turned the car toward him, as several officers who reviewed the case had concluded.
Newcomb, who represents a number of police officers contesting actions by Chief Humphrey, said this case is one of several that has led him to conclude Humphrey is the worst police administration he’s ever worked with. “And I’l remind you that includes Tommy Robinson,” the impetuous former sheriff and congressman.
And related to Police Department news, I got word of the departure of another LRPD veteran, Tommy Hudson. He has retired but worked part-time for the department. He told friends today, “I’m not going to work for this Chief anymore, since I’m retired, I have the option in choosing who I work for part time.” He’ll be working part-time for the North Little Rock police as a cold case homicide investigator.