The tentative settlement announced last week over the shooting death of Bradley Blackshire by a Little Rock police officer provides for a $300,000 payment in the case brought by Blackshire’s estate, but it also includes training for police and outreach to families of people killed by police.
Under the terms, the city of Little Rock would pay $49,500 and the Arkansas Municipal League, from which the city buys insurance coverage, would pay $250,500. I learned this and more in response to a Freedom of Information Act request to the League, which is publicly funded.
Political division is bubbling behind the scenes, with several city directors not happy about settling at all and also without board approval of the expenditure.
The City Board is meeting this afternoon on city employee health insurance, another issue on which there’s some board intrigue. I have asked the mayor’s office if he supports this settlement and if he will ask the City Board to approve terms, including payment of the city’s share
John Wilkerson, general counsel of the Municipal League, outlined the terms for me:
The monetary terms are $300,000 for settlement of all claims, including Officer Simpson. The League will pay $250,500 and the City will pay $49,500.
The non-monetary terms are below:
The Training Division, in coordination with the City’s Little Rock Television staff, will produce a video recording of a member the Bradley Blackshire family in which the person will explain how Mr. Blackshire’s death has impacted members of his family. The Blackshire family may suggest using a third party to assist in the production of the video. The City retains the sole discretion to determine whether it wishes to use the third party in the production of the video. The City will continue to show the video to each recruit class for no less than ten (10) years and may continue to show the video to classes thereafter. If, after ten (10) years the City determines that the purpose of the video, as described in this paragraph, is better served by use of other materials or media, it may cease showing the video to each recruit class and shall notify the Releasing Party of such decision prior to doing so.
The City will provide information about affordable mental health counseling to families of individuals who are killed as the result of the use of deadly force by a LRPD officer. The decision on whether to seek counseling is a decision for the family member. The cost of the counseling is the responsibility of the person who participates in the counseling. Within six (6) months of the date of this Agreement, the City shall provide the Releasing Party with the information that it intends to give families of individuals who are killed as a result of use of deadly force by a LRPD officer. The City and LRPD retain the discretion to change or modify the information for any future incidents of deadly force that result in the death of a person.
The LRPD will provide additional training on the subjects of the use of force and de-escalation tactics to hopefully avoid the use of force where possible. This will include training on the following: (1) when it is appropriate to draw a firearm and, to the extent possible, planning ahead to ensure that an officer’s approach to a potential violent encounter is the best possible plan; and (2) how to approach occupied vehicles in high-risk encounters. Within six (6) months of the date of this Agreement, the City shall provide the Releasing Party with a written description of the additional training implemented pursuant to this Agreement. The Releasing Party acknowledges and agrees that, due to the evolving nature of the law and best police practices, the type, manner and extent of any such additional training, is a matter left to the sole discretion of the LRPD training staff and that the modifications to the training program provided to the Releasing Party are subject to change without notice.
Wilkerson also told me, in response to my question, that the League has paid $167,000 to date in outside attorney fees for this case. More bills likely are in the offing.
It’s not clear why the city chose to use outside counsel for defense rather than the city attorney’s office. Wilkerson said he didn’t know, but he also said it wasn’t unusual in cases where the League has agreed to provide defense and coverage for potential claims of constitutional rights violations. The Kendall Law Firm and the firm of Harrington, Miller, Kieklak, Eichmann and Brown are defending the city, along with Municipal League lawyers.
Robert Newcomb, Starks’ attorney, said Friday afternoon that he also had reached an agreement separately.
Blackshire was fatally shot in February 2019 by Officer Charles Starks during a traffic stop. Blackshire had refused an order to stop and was driving the car away. Starks positioned himself in front of the car and fired multiple shots, killing Blackshire. Starks was fired by Police Chief Keith Humphrey, a firing upheld by the Civil Service Commission but overturned by a circuit court and the case remains on appeal.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr. has pressed for a settlement of the case, according to multiple sources, and Kendra Pruitt, senior advisor to the mayor, has been overseeing the progress of the case, which names the city, Starks and Officer Michael Simpson, who participated in the traffic stop. The city announced last week a tentative settlement had been reached, but wouldn’t comment further.
The plaintiffs, in announcing the tentative settlement last week, said they didn’t want to reveal terms until a state probate court approved the terms of payments to the family of Blackshire. They described the settlement as the first step on an ongoing path to reform the Little Rock Police Department.
There are complications. Members of the City Board, as many as eight by one source’s account, oppose settling the case. Starks violated policy, he was fired and the city has no liability, they argue. Also, Blackshire was driving a stolen car and in possession of a gun at the time, though the gun was discovered only after the shooting. The prosecutor said Starks was justified in shooting.
The mayor’s office issued a statement last week saying the city’s executive administration, through City Manager Bruce Moore, had authority to write a check up to $50,000 without City Board approval. There is a legal disagreement over that. The other side of the argument says the city manager has that power only to pay for something that resulted from a competitive process — bids, a request for proposals or similar. If the mayor’s interpretation is correct, it seems likely to prompt a review of other times the executive administration has spent up to $50,000 without seeking authorization from the City Board.
Underlying this controversy is the ongoing turmoil surrounding the Police Department. It has some six dozen vacant positions and seven more officers reportedly left the force last week, some on account of ongoing unhappiness over the chief’s management. Humphrey is embroiled in lawsuits over management decisions and one officer is in the midst of challenging his firing for getting involved in the investigation of an indecent exposure case involving his wife. That white officer produced a portion of a management review of the department (mostly still under seal) that concluded he had been a victim of racial discrimination. The Civil Service Commission ruled that finding was irrelevant to the case as was a high-ranking officer’s seeming dismissal of the seriousness of a case of indecent exposure.
Wilkerson said its agreement to insure cities doesn’t guarantee coverage in all cases, but it is frequently called in when constitutional claims are raised, as the Blackshire estate has done. The insurance may pay no more than 90 percent of a judgment or settlement in a case, he said.
One more political aspect of this story: Several candidates have announced to challenge the mayor’s expected re-election bid last year. One of them, retired car dealer Steve Landers, has so far made his candidacy all about crime and the police department. Example today:
The homicide rate continues to rise and there is no leadership from city hall. This is a leadership crisis.
We must unite to make Little Rock safe. #LRmayor #betterforeveryone https://t.co/1vqTY8ID5T
— Steve Landers (@SteveLittleRock) October 11, 2021