The video of Chris Erwin being struck repeatedly in the face by Little Rock Police Lt. David Hudson outside Hillcrest’s Ferneau restaurant on Oct. 29 isn’t much to look at. The footage — shot with a cellphone camera by a Denver attorney who was in town visiting friends — is grainy, tinted yellow by the streetlights, punctuated by the wail of a car alarm. While the video clearly isn’t going to win any awards, an attorney who represents Erwin believes it will be enough to exonerate his client against multiple criminal charges that have been filed against him.
What’s more, it’s the second time this year that Lt. Hudson has been involved in an incident at Ferneau that led to violence.
When the film begins, Hudson — who was working off-duty security at the restaurant — is talking to Erwin on the sidewalk. After exchanging words with Erwin and attempting to push him against a wall, Hudson grabs Erwin by the collar and punches him in the face at least six times as Erwin tries to deflect the blows. As a crowd gathers, Hudson lifts and flips Erwin, sending him sprawling onto the pavement. Erwin was later charged with resisting arrest, criminal trespass, and disorderly conduct. His friend Blake Mitchell, who an incident report says grabbed Hudson’s arm, was charged with obstructing governmental operations, criminal trespassing, public intoxication and disorderly conduct. Photos taken later show Erwin’s face was left a swollen and bloody mess.
According to a police report about the incident, a witness told police that Erwin, Mitchell and two women entered a private party at Ferneau and refused to leave after being asked.
Little Rock attorney Keith Hall, who is representing Erwin, said that after Erwin and his friends sat down and had some drinks, Erwin was approached by Hudson, who informed them it was a private party and they needed to leave. After asking Hudson to specify who wanted them to go, and being told again by Hudson to leave, Hall said, Erwin paid his group’s tab and they left the premises. Once they were outside, Hall said, Erwin approached Hudson again to ask who had complained that they were in the private party room. At that point, Erwin told his attorney, Hudson began shouting at him, grabbed Erwin by the neck and told him get up against the wall. This is around the time the video begins.
“If citizens had done what Lt. Hudson has done to my client, somebody would be coming after them with a warrant,” Hall said.
It’s not the first physical altercation Hudson has had this year at Ferneau. According to an LRPD incident report filed Feb. 6, Hudson told police that he was working security there when three patrons, including 21-year-old Chase Cooper, became disruptive and refused to leave. Hudson told officers that Cooper pushed him before trying to strike him with a closed fist. The report states that Hudson suffered a scraped knee and a scrape above his left eye in the ensuing altercation, while Cooper received “minor injuries to his left eye and nose.” The two other suspects left the scene, the report says, but Cooper was arrested and charged with third-degree battery, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. A clerk at Pulaski County District Court said there are currently no criminal cases on file which list Chase Cooper as a defendant. Attempts to reach Cooper and his attorney in the case were unsuccessful.
Sgt. Cassandra Davis, spokesperson for the LRPD, said that while she couldn’t comment directly on the altercation between Erwin and Hudson because of the ongoing investigation, the department has clear policies on use of force. “We do have a force continuum, and if the officer feels that there is a need to move up on that continuum, then that’s what he does,” Davis said. “You have to be in the officer’s situation to determine what level on the continuum you want to move up to, and each incident is different. We’re always one level above the threat.” Davis said there are cases where something a suspect says can warrant a justified physical response from an officer. “If somebody is threatening that, ‘I have a weapon, and I’m going to shoot you with it,’ then of course you’re going to escalate,” Davis said. “If they say ‘get out of my face and leave me alone,’ it depends on whether an officer is trying to effect an arrest or not.”
That Hudson was making an arrest because Erwin, according to the incident report, refused to leave Ferneau, isn’t a typical outcome in local bars, where most private security focus solely on getting troublemakers outside.
Midtown Billiards owner Maggie Hinson employs private security staff at her bar, and tells them to never follow an altercation outside. “I instruct my people that our business is inside, and we can’t go outside for our business,” she told the Times recently in a story about local bouncers. “If we have to put someone out for the night, we can walk them outside the door, but our liability insurance doesn’t cover anything that happens outside.”
Davis said that Little Rock officers working off-duty security have the same powers as those who are on-duty and are allowed to wear their uniforms and badges while working private security.
A copy of the LRPD’s use of force policy states that “reasonable physical force” may be used by an officer if alternatives have been considered. Officers are allowed to use “Hard Empty-Hand Control” techniques, which may cause bruises, contusions or lacerations, “when lower forms of control have failed or when the officer believes lower forms of control will fail.” The policy goes on to say that while it’s difficult to set “absolutes” as to when to use physical force, factors involved in determining when force is appropriate may include the violence of the crime committed, the size of the suspect and a suspect’s access to weapons. The policy specifically states that it applies to both on- and off-duty officers.
Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police president Kevin Simpson issued a statement about the video on Nov. 10, calling the footage “only a brief fraction of the entire event that happened,” and warning against jumping to conclusions until an investigation is completed.
“It seems that it has become a common practice by some of the mainstream media to portray police officers as unprofessional, violent, unethical and power-crazed individuals,” Simpson wrote. “On the contrary, our job is extremely difficult under the best circumstances and even more so when the entire events are not told.” Simpson goes on to say: “We live in very difficult times and [officers] have to make decisions to keep the peace and sometimes they are difficult to watch.”
Hall believes the video will be key to his client’s defense. “It’s priceless,” he said. “Otherwise, you have somebody who … is left defenseless against the testimony of a policeman.” Hall said he has reported the incident to the FBI, on the grounds that the beating constitutes a breach of his client’s federal civil rights under color of law. He’s seeking witnesses to the event, and has so far found two others who were there that night.
“As far as criminal defense cases go, on a scale of one to 10, this is a 12,” Hall said. “There’s a role reversal going on here. Usually in a criminal case, the defense is casting around in the facts looking for one place to hang their hat, because they’re encountering overwhelmingly unfavorable facts. In this case, we’ve got the favorable facts, and they’re casting about.”