THE CHIEF’S DEFENDER: Retired judge stands up for embattled police head.

The city of Little Rock was promised a new era of unity with the election of Frank Scott Jr. as mayor in 2018, an outcome supported by a diverse cross-section of the city.

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Almost three years later, the city is more deeply divided than ever. The sales tax campaign, in which he took the leadership role, was defeated handily, by sometimes smashing margins in precincts once supportive of tax measures. He carried some precincts in neighborhoods where he was dominant in 2018, but voter enthusiasm was scant and more divided.

Nowhere is the city division starker than in the ongoing controversy in the Little Rock Police Department over the leadership of the mayor’s chief, Keith Humphrey. Officers have sued him and he’s sued back. An outside consultant has described his handling of a disciplinary matter as racially discriminatory. Humphrey and others named are Black officers; the officer disciplined was white.

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I have been told reliably that there are as many as seven supporters among the nine board members for an administrative suspension of Humphrey to sort these matters out. (Assistant Chief Wayne Bewley appears to be the favorite to serve in the interim.) But that may be a decision only the mayor can make. To date, he’s stood by the chief.

The chief has no intention of going quietly. There are indications this week that he’ll continue to defend himself by saying critics, particularly among the Fraternal Order of Police, are unhappy about positive changes he’s made in the department and racially motivated.

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Retired Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey (no relation to the chief) has made this argument before and he makes it again here in a letter to Mayor Scott, the City Board and others. it illustrates the depth of division in this controversy, the racial component and the unlikeliness that it will be easily resolved.

The treatment of Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey by certain directors of the Little Rock City Board has been a throwback to the old days of racial prejudice I had hoped would never again surface. Board members might have been expected to behave differently from that of the leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police, whose right-wing political agenda is well known. For example, the leadership of the FOP went to the White House in 1992 to bestow their political endorsement on then-President George H. W. Bush, when then-Governor Bill Clinton was challenging President Bush. Fortunately, their political endorsement meant nothing.

 

I have been on the receiving end of a vote of “no confidence” from the FOP, when the leadership called for my removal from the circuit court bench during the years I served.

 

The FOP has kept up a volley of attacks on Chief Humphrey( no relation to me as far as I know) ever since  he arrived. Members of the FOP, including two who wanted to have been named chief and did not receive the job, have been openly hostile to Chief Humphrey ever since he fired Officer Charles Starks for violating policy that led to the death of Bradley Blackshire. The chief’s decision was correct in that instance and should have been embraced by people who believe that it is wrong to kill an individual—including one who might be breaking the law—if deadly force can be avoided, especially when the officer did not have to step in front of the moving vehicle of a suspect, as Starks did.

 

Now come attacks because Chief Humphrey fired Officer Mattox, who involved himself in an investigation where his wife stated that a suspect had exposed himself to her. Officer Mattox knew better than to become involved in that investigation. His involvement violated department policy, and he was rightly fired.

 

Stacey Wetherell, director of Human Resources, hired Dr. Loretta Cochran to evaluate the police department. If, as I have been informed, Dr. Cochran lives in Pottsville, Arkansas, I am led to wonder why she was chosen by Ms. Wetherell. What is Dr. Cochran’s experience in dealing with African Americans? Is she sensitive to issues of diversity and cultural competence? Were there not professors at UALR or Philander Smith, who could have done the evaluation? Is Dr. Cochran comfortable with black men serving in positions of authority and who have the authority to fire a white man?

 

Did she ever state that Officer Matto was justified in involving himself in the investigation? If she believes that it was proper, did she so state in her report? Did she, as some allege, post the Mattox GOFundMe on her Facebook page?

 

I am ashamed of the conduct of those officials who have tolerated the abuse of Chief Humphrey during his tenure in Little Rock. Perhaps, Little Rock is farther behind in race relations than one would like to believe.

Marion A. Humphrey, Sr.

Cochran, a faculty member at Arkansas Tech, also now finds herself under the investigative microscope, with FOI requests having been made for email from her Tech account and, yesterday, a request by Marion Humphrey for city records of her employment and biographical information, including any work she might have done on “diversity and equity.”

To date, the mayor has declined to say much about the chief, citing pending court cases. The situation has grown too toxic for the continued use of that fig leaf. He must give a full-throated and detailed defense of the chief or agree that he’s become too much of a liability to continue.