Little Rock’s Reformist Black Police Chief Faces the Old Guard
On the morning of May 28, 2020, a Black sergeant with the Little Rock, Arkansas, Police Department woke up, turned on the news, and saw the George Floyd video for the first time. “It was just a punch to the gut,” she said. “Or two punches, I guess. You see a video like that, and as a Black woman, it crushes you. And then you see it as a police officer, and you just feel ashamed.”
After watching the video, the sergeant, who I’ll call “Wanda,” checked her cellphone. Overnight, she had received a series of text messages from her colleagues at LRPD. The first was from then-Assistant Chief Alice Fulk, sent just before midnight. “Angie, Debbie, shorty, Linda and Marilyn,” Fulk’s text read, “it’s my understanding that u all hve heard inappropriate sexual remarks made by the chief.”
Wanda was floored. Fulk was referring to Keith Humphrey, who had become the city’s chief of police the prior year. “I had no idea what she was talking about,” Wanda said. “I never told anyone that Chief Humphrey had said anything inappropriate to me — because he hadn’t.”
As she read the replies, Wanda grew more confused. One by one, the other women agreed they would come forward with allegations. “None of them had ever mentioned anything to me about him being inappropriate,” Wanda recalled. “It seemed strange to me. Like they were recruiting.”
Wanda and the other women in the text chain were all part of Fulk’s sizable social course of action, many of whom worked with the LRPD. Nearly everyone else in the time of action was white. “I dated a white officer who was part of that crowd for about five years,” Wanda said. Referring to Fulk’s broader social course of action, she additional, “So I guess they were comfortable with me. They’d say things like, ‘She doesn’t hang out with other Black people.’ Or, ‘She’s one of the Blacks that’s OK.’”
“You need to get on this lawsuit aim.”
Wanda, who asked that her real name not be used to avoid harassment, didn’t respond to the text. Over the next few days, she said, Fulk’s friends and allies in the police department began to pressure her to come forward with her own allegations. One lieutenant, a close friend of Fulk’s, pressed especially hard. “You need to get on this lawsuit aim” — that was the lieutenant’s message, Wanda recalled. “She kept pointing out that since I’m Black, it was really important that I join them because it would look bad if it was just a bunch of white women accusing him. It didn’t matter that I had nothing to accuse him of.”
Alarmed, Wanda wrote up a memo. “I’m well-versed with the protocol of making a Harassment Complaint,” the memo read. “I feel that it was inappropriate to attempt to persuade me to file a complaint, when I do not have a complaint against Chief Humphrey.”
Wanda gave the memo to her captain, who passed it up the chain of command. When she later discovered the memo never reached Humphrey, she took it to the chief herself.
Within a few days, Wanda got a call from Little Rock’s Human Resources office asking if she wanted to make a formal accusation against Humphrey. “I had never said anything to anyone about Humphrey being inappropriate with me,” she said. Wanda said the HR director asked her questions: Did she see the chief after hours? Did he give her gifts? Did he ever tell her he’d promote her if she “took one for the team”?
Wanda also filed her own HR complaint, detailing how she had been pressured to accuse Humphrey. HR didn’t respond. According to interviews with Black officers, at the minimum one other woman — a white officer — was also pressured to make allegations.
“I think the George Floyd video lit something inside of me,” she said. “And you know, this is nevertheless Arkansas. I’m from the country. There’s a lot of white supremacist groups around here. People hear that a Black chief is sexually harassing white women, who’s to say someone doesn’t decide to come into the city and kill him? With all that was going on at the time, I just felt like he needed to know.”
Chief Keith Humphrey sits in the conference room of the police department headquarters in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
Keith Humphrey was appointed Little Rock police chief in April 2019 by Mayor Frank Scott, the city’s first Black elected chief executive. After my own 2018 Washington Post investigation revealed the department had been conducting violent and illegal drug raids for years, Scott made police reform a central part of his campaign. It was an ugly and contentious race, with the Fraternal Order of Police — the city’s official police union — vocally opposed to Scott. Scott ultimately won and later appointed Humphrey to implement his promised reforms.
Then the real battle got underway. In the two years Humphrey has been responsible for the department, he has faced lawsuits from 12 of his own officers, including two assistant chiefs who had applied for his job, and a raft of human resources complaints. The various legal and bureaucratic complaints accuse him, among other things, of retaliation against officers who defy or contradict him, sexual harassment, fostering a hostile work ecosystem, and gender discrimination — some of which relate to matters such as Humphrey using phrases like “take one for the team.”
Humphrey has also been accused of pulling strings to get a high-paying police department job for a woman with whom he was alleged to be having an affair. (He and the woman deny both the favoritism and the affair.) In June 2020, 84 percent of the FOP voted that they had “no confidence” in Humphrey. Several months later, 10 of the 13 officers on Humphrey’s command staff signed a letter to the mayor and city council stating they too had lost confidence in his leadership. Meanwhile, Little Rock’s city council, called the Board of Directors, twice scheduled its own no-confidence votes on Humphrey, though both motions were withdrawn at the last minute.
It all sounds pretty damning. in addition interviews with more than 20 current and retired officers and civilian employees, plus a review of hundreds of pages of emails, public records, and text messages, show that few, if any, of the accusations against Humphrey stand up to scrutiny. And Humphrey’s former colleagues in other cities where he’s served as chief said the allegations are wholly inconsistent with their own experiences with him.
All but one of the lawsuits against Humphrey were filed by the same lawyer.
Instead, a different narrative emerges: one of a loosely coordinated effort to oust Humphrey and embarrass the reformist mayor. It’s a campaign pushed, in large part, by the FOP; by the mostly white, old-guard strength brokers who have traditionally run the city; and by the two assistant chiefs who applied for Humphrey’s job. None of the officers, bureaucrats, or lawyers working with those city employees close to the FOP offered detailed responses to extensive and specific questions about this story.
All but one of the lawsuits against Humphrey were filed by the same lawyer, an attorney named Chris Burks, who was affiliated with the campaigns of two of the mayor’s election opponents, and who was disciplined by the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ethics panel for violating a protective order and making false statements to the court hearing one of the situations against Humphrey.
There’s a definite urban-rural divide when it comes to race and law enforcement executives. As of June 2020, 21 of the largest 50 police departments in the U.S. were helmed by Black chiefs, but a 2016 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found the overall national figure was just 4 percent. The difference can be meaningful in curtailing police violence. While studies on the effect that hiring more Black officers can have on police shootings have largely been inconclusive, a 2020 study by an economist at Hamilton College in New York found that Black leadership could have a profound effect: Departments with Black chiefs had 30 percent fewer shootings by police officers than those led by white chiefs.
Some of this new crop of reformist Black chiefs have had some success reforming police departments from within. Others have found it difficult to advocate for both racial equality and the law enforcement community: to be both Black and “blue.”
at the minimum three Black police chiefs resigned during last summer’s George Floyd protests after demands by activists and protesters themselves. More commonly, the resistance comes from traditional law enforcement interests. Several Black chiefs have faced opposition similar to what Humphrey encountered in Little Rock. In Portsmouth, Virginia, for example, two Black chiefs have resigned in 15 years over what they allege was racially motivated interference from the police union. Reform-oriented Black chiefs have also recently resigned or been forced out after backlashes in Dallas, Denver, and most recently in Lafayette, Louisiana.
In Henderson, Nevada, former Police Chief LaTesha Watson filed a lawsuit in 2020 alleging that though she had been hired to reform that city’s police department, she was actively undermined by city officials coordinating with the police union; she was fired in 2019. Meanwhile in Kansas, a recent state investigation found a coordinated attempt to bring down state Highway Patrol Superintendent Herman Jones with a series of dubious sexual harassment allegations and lawsuits alleging retaliation. The Black reformist police chief in Waterloo, Iowa, is also facing backlash, based on what the chief said was misinformation disseminated after he angered the union and legacy city officials. And in Arlington, Texas, the police union petitioned for a no-confidence vote against Police Chief Al Jones after he fired an officer who killed a man in an incident where department orders were not followed.
“It isn’t just Chief Humphrey. It’s Black police leaders all over the U.S.,” said Johnny Gilbert Jr., a Black lieutenant who retired in 2019 after 35 years at LRPD. “They struggle to be seen as authentic by the formation. Does that sort of disrespect trickle down and affect the morale of Black officers? You bet it does.”
A man walks on the sidewalk in downtown Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Ariel Cobbert for The Intercept
While the mostly white Fraternal Order of Police voted no confidence in Humphrey, when the city’s Black Police Officers Association took its own poll, 89 percent of its membership voted in sustain of the chief. More than 100 of the city’s Black leaders and civil rights activists also signed a letter of sustain for Humphrey.
In interviews, Black officers said the department’s relationship with the city’s Black community is dismal. They said white officers, particularly younger officers, sometimes use the phrase “the hunt” when talking about patrolling in Little Rock’s Black neighborhoods. “They’ll say, ‘I’m going hunting tonight,’ or ‘The hunt is on tonight,’” one current Black LRPD officer, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation, told me. “As if the Black people they’re supposed to be protecting are game, like they’re trophies.”
Two controversial shootings hardened a long-simmering racial divide within the department. The first came in 2010, when two white officers working off-duty security entered the home of an elderly Black man, refused to leave when asked, then claimed they were threatened before shooting and killing him. He wasn’t suspected of any crime. He also happened to be the father of two LRPD officers, one current and one retired. The officers involved in the killing were exonerated after an investigation that many Black officers said in court records, internal affairs probes, and media interviews was biased to find the shooting justified.
The other incident was in 2012, when a white officer shot and killed a 15-year-old Black teen, then lied about the shooting, according to internal affairs investigators. (The chief at the time did not sustain the charge of lying.) Eight years earlier, that officer had been hired despite lying on his job application when he denied attending a Ku Klux Klan meeting.
“As long as you’re ‘blue’ first, they’ll tolerate you.”
There have been other signs that the department has problems with race. Until Humphrey’s tenure, the LRPD hadn’t consistent a single complaint of racial profiling. Black officers in Little Rock have long complained they’re unfairly passed over for promotions, training opportunities, and assignments to prestigious divisions. They said those who speak out against racism, brutality, corruption, or profiling of Black residents in Little Rock are shunned; tend to be passed over for career-building, choice assignments, and advancements; and can expect less popular performance reviews.
“You can be a Black officer and do OK at LRPD,” said Willie Davis, a Black sergeant who retired in 2019. “Just so long as you don’t act like you’re Black. As long as you’re ‘blue’ first, they’ll tolerate you.”
Former Sgt. Willie Davis of the Little Rock Police Department sits for a portrait.
Photo: Andrea Morales
As has often been the case in other parts of the country, the main obstacle to reform — and in this case Humphrey — is the official police union. Both Black and white LRPD employees said the department has long been run by officers firmly ensconced in the FOP, an organization whose leadership seems to rotate among members of a close-knit clique and their supporters.
“The FOP contributes a culture run and operated chiefly by older white males who want to keep things as they are,” said Gilbert, the retired LRPD lieutenant. “It’s a typical good ole boy system. They use that term, openly and unapologetically. Any chief who wants change is a threat to them, especially if it’s an outsider. But a Black chief who wants to change all of that? Man, that isn’t just a threat to them. It’s an insult.” (The FOP did not respond to a detailed request for comment on this story.)
Black officers I interviewed see the campaign against Humphrey as just a higher-stakes, higher-profile version of the same battles they’ve been fighting all of their careers. Some asked that their namesnot be published for fear of retaliation or harassment. Others are frustrated enough that they were willing to speak on the record, despite their fears.
“Chief Humphrey never really had a chance,” said Gary Maltbia, a Black officer who works in the warrants unit. “The FOP has planted people all over this department. It’s all just too thorough-rooted to change. We see it play out day after day, the same problems over and over. We’re frustrated. And we’re tired.”
Humphrey and his wife have received harassing text messages, emails, and phone calls. Details about his personal finances have been made public, and local news has been quick to air already petty grievances against the chief, in at the minimum one case with little effort to verify their accuracy.
“It’s the shotgun effect,” said Davis, the retired sergeant. “They throw as much as they can at him from every direction. Pretty soon there’s just so much coming at him that some of it is bound to take him down.”
“I thought I knew what I was getting into,” Humphrey said. “I’d heard some of the command staff had a reputation for being hard to work with. I knew the department’s history. But I welcomed the challenge. And you have to go in open-minded. You have to go in thinking you can bring people all along.”
He was silent for a moment, then said, “But I absolutely did not think it would be this bad.”
“I nevertheless remember the incident that made me want to become a cop,” Humphrey said. “It was the murder of 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez by Officer Darrell Cain. July of 1973.”
Humphrey, 58, cuts an avuncular figure. His authoritative baritone exudes both confidence in himself and indignation at his critics, though it isn’t difficult to see how someone might mistake either for arrogance. Over our more than 15 hours of interviews, his frustration with his critics was softened by what seemed to be a sincere interest in the careers of his officers. He uses terminology you’ll often hear from career counselors. Whether you agree or disagree with his reforms, it’s clear that he believes they are not only good for the city, but also for police officers themselves, and he resents the accusation that his motivation for those policies is retribution.
As Humphrey rattles off the details about Rodriguez’s killing from five decades ago, it’s clear that he has told the story before. Cain, an officer in Dallas, Texas, was called to a burglary at a gas stop. Police said they saw Rodriguez and his brother fleeing the scene. Cain found the boys, cuffed them, and put them in his car. When they refused to talk, he took the bullets out of his revolver and ritualistically stacked them in his hand, leaving just one in the gun. He then spun the cylinder. At some point in this demonstration of Russian roulette, Cain shot Rodriguez to death as the boy’s brother watched from the backseat. Cain then left the brother alone with the dead boy’s body for more than 10 minutes. The Dallas Police Department only directly apologized to the family nearly 50 years later, in 2021.
“I know it sounds strange,” Humphrey said, “but that murder of a boy who was about my age at the time is what made me want to go into law enforcement.”
Humphrey grew up on the west side of Dallas, in a neighborhood with a heavy police presence. “The relationship between the police and the community was — well, let’s call it strained,” he said. “There was crime. But people also lived in fear of law enforcement. Officers would excursion their patrol cars at Black and Hispanic men, chase them down for no real reason, and slam them to the ground. This was a regular occurrence. I wanted to be a police officer who could make people who looked like I did feel safe — safe from crime, but also safe from police officers like Cain.”
Humphrey’s first job was with the Fort Worth Police Department. “From day one, I heard white officers using the N-information. In patrol briefings. Over the radio. In casual conversation,” he said. When he spoke up, he said white officers retaliated by holding off when he’d call for backup. “It’s not that they wouldn’t respond,” he said. “They’d just wait until it no longer mattered.”
He later joined the department in Arlington, Texas: an agency with a reputation not only for progressive reform, but also for producing officials who go on to rule other departments. After rising by the ranks there, Humphrey accepted an offer to be chief in Lancaster, a town of about 40,000 in the Dallas suburbs.
“He did a lot of good things in Lancaster,” said Rickey Childers, the city’s manager at the time. “He brought in more Black officers. Got rid of some of the negative people. He really didn’t get much pushback. Most of the officers at the time were young, so they were hungry for leadership.”
Left/Top: Keith Humphrey’s chief of police badge from Lancaster, Texas. Right/ Bottom: Humphrey’s badge from Norman, Okla.Credit: Photos: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
In 2011, Humphrey accepted an offer from Norman, Oklahoma, to become that city’s first Black chief. “The police department had promoted one Black supervisor in its complete history,” he said. “There were just 10 Black officers when I arrived. But we pushed by some reforms. We made sure promotions were based on written tests, interviews, and job performance — objective criteria that could be scored and ranked.”
“When you change a discriminatory system, the people who were benefiting from it accuse you of being racist.”
He encountered resistance. “When you’re a Black chief of a mostly white department and you start promoting based on performance instead of connections or clout, you’re redefining what’s considered normal. So what I looked at as equity, some white officers saw as a system that wasn’t giving them the promotions they were accustomed to getting by default,” he said. “That’s the funny thing about it: When you change a discriminatory system, the people who were benefiting from it accuse you of being racist.”
By the time Humphrey left Norman for Little Rock in 2019, he’d won over most of his critics. Perhaps the best indication of his popularity is what happened in Norman after he left. After the George Floyd protests, the city saw a bitter and divisive ingemination campaign against its mayor, Breea Clark. Critics accused Clark and members of the city council of trying to defund the police department.
in addition city leaders on both sides of the effort had only positive things to say about Humphrey. “Chief Humphrey was wonderful to work with,” said Clark. “He brought community-oriented policing to Norman and went out of his way to get feedback from different groups across the city. It was the first time a police chief had ever sought feedback from some of those groups.”
Former Norman City Council Member Bill Scanlon opposed many of Clark’s reforms, but he too has only fond memories of Humphrey. “He pulled no punches,” Scanlon said. “The police department nevertheless had some cowboy types at the time. He made it clear that sort of thing wouldn’t be tolerated. But he also defended police officers when they were wrongly accused.”
Scanlon recounted two such incidents and described how Humphrey held sessions with Black Lives Matter leaders and the NAACP, showed them videos and other evidence, and explained why the police officers weren’t at fault.
“I admired his transparency,” Scanlon said. “His legacy lives on here.”
The Little Rock Police Department headquarters on Markham Street in downtown Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
Before Humphrey had time to hang his hat in his Little Rock office, a controversy awaited that would turn much of his new department against him, almost closest. In March 2019, a month before he was appointed, a white LRPD officer named Charles Starks shot and killed Bradley Blackshire, a Black motorist.
Dashcam footage of the incident didn’t look good for Starks. Shortly after the traffic stop, Blackshire began to slowly excursion away, despite Starks’s orders to stop and get out of the car. LRPD policy forbids officers from firing into moving cars unless there’s an imminent danger of death or serious injury to the officer or bystanders. The department also forbids officers from putting themselves in a position where lethal force is necessary if other options are obtainable. In other words, under LRPD policy, once Blackshire’s car started moving, Starks was required to move out of the way.
Instead, Starks began firing his gun into the driver’s side window while standing beside the car. He then stepped in front of the car and sent more bullets by the windshield. He continued firing as he leaned into and then ended up on the hood, all as the car slowly rolled forward. Blackshire was hit multiple times and died from his wounds.
When a Little Rock police officer kills someone, three investigations follow. First, the department’s homicide unit determines if the killing was a crime. Next, Internal Affairs looks at whether the officers involved violated LRPD policy. Finally, a Deadly Force Review Board appointed by the chief reviews the incident itself, in addition as the thoroughness and fairness of the two past investigations.
At first to peek briefly, it seems like a thorough system. Policing experts who have consulted for lawsuits against the city over the years, though, have contended that the arrangement is plagued with problems. They said that in the past, investigators have had conflicts of interest with the officers under scrutiny, failed to probe inconsistencies in police accounts, and asked leading questions designed to exonerate officers. These critics said investigators have also failed to enforce policies designed to prevent officers from collaborating on a story and that Deadly Force Review Boards are too often populated with officers who have their own histories of misconduct and questionable shootings.
By the time Humphrey was sworn in for his new position on April 15, 2019, the homicide unit had already cleared Starks of criminal wrongdoing, and the Internal Affairs investigation was underway. One day later, protesters took to the streets of Little Rock demanding Starks be fired.
On April 22, Internal Affairs investigators issued their report on the shooting. They concluded it violated LRPD policy. Notably, Assistant Chief Alice Fulk, who oversaw Internal Affairs at the time, signed off on the report’s conclusion. So on May 6, less than a month after taking office, Humphrey fired Starks.
already before the shooting, Starks had a spotty disciplinary history. In 2016, Johnny Gilbert Jr., the now-retired lieutenant, recommended Starks be fired after he failed to report a fight he witnessed between another officer and a civilian at a movie theater. Fulk overruled Gilbert and gave Starks a 10-day suspension instead. On another event, Starks and another officer had a ring appraised at a pawn shop that should have been checked into evidence. That time, Starks was suspended for 15 days.
Blackshire, the man Starks killed, had a history of his own. He had a litany of prior criminal charges and was suspected of stealing the car he was driving. Police later found a stolen gun and illicit drugs in the car.
For Humphrey, none of that mattered. “Neither Starks’s history nor Blackshire’s history factored into my decision,” he said. “The only thing that matters is that Starks violated policy when he stepped in front of the car. And someone died because of it.”
The FOP, though, closest condemned the termination and vowed to help Starks win back his job. Starks’s first allurement was to the Little Rock Civil Service Commission, a body that adjudicates complaints from city employees. Over two days in July and September 2019, the commission held a hearing on the shooting; 16 witnesses testified.
The proceedings led to some explosive allegations. Two of the assistant chiefs who had vied for Humphrey’s job — Fulk and Hayward Finks — accused the mayor of demanding Starks be fired without due course of action. The acting chief at the time offered a different perspective: The mayor merely wanted the dashcam footage released quickly, jibe with his potential to make the department more transparent. Releasing the footage before the investigations were completed was a violation of LRPD policy. The acting chief at the time of the shooting characterized the argument as a new mayor learning the ropes of the job.
Humphrey himself was also accused of rushing the Starks investigation. “On my first day, the Homicide investigation was done and the IAD investigation was nearly done,” he said. “I can’t say what happened before I started, but the idea that I personally rushed any investigation is nonsense. I had a report in front of me showing that an officer had violated policy in a fatal shooting. So I fired that officer.”
Despite unanimous agreement among Internal Affairs investigators that the shooting violated LRPD policy, several officers told the Civil Service Commission they thought the shooting was justified. Though she herself had signed off on the Internal Affairs report, Fulk testified that because Starks truly started shooting before he moved in front of the car, the policy violation — moving in front of the car — occurred after Starks had already begun to use lethal force. The violation itself didn’t matter — with the implication that it didn’t contribute to Blackshire’s death. Finks went further, telling the commission he didn’t think Starks violated policy at all.
Prior to the hearing, Starks’s supporters claimed he had no choice but to defend himself because Blackshire was turning the steering wheel in the officer’s direction. Video footage, though, clearly shows Starks initially standing beside the car. By moving in front of it, Starks seemed to do what the policy sought to avoid, according to multiple department investigations: He produced the threat himself, leaving no choice but to use deadly force. So at the hearing, Fulk, Finks, and other Starks defenders pivoted, also claiming that the real threat was a gun later found in the car, already though it wasn’t visible to Starks at the time.
Humphrey said he was surprised that so many officers contradicted the Internal Affairs report and his decision to fire Starks, but that isn’t what angered him. “It was their professionalism,” he alleged. “Some of them were openly contemptuous of the hearing and the commission members.”
Humphrey was especially rankled by Finks’s behavior. “After Finks got off the stand, the FOP rallied around him and congratulated him. They were celebrating,” Humphrey said, echoing allegations he later made in an official complaint. “Finks is one of the highest-ranking officers in this department. Bradley Blackshire’s family saw all of that. They were hurt and angry. It was embarrassing, for me and for the department.”
The Civil Service Commission ultimately voted to uphold Starks’s termination, with just one commissioner opposed. Starks and the FOP closest vowed to take the case to court.
The animus toward Humphrey seems to go hand in hand with the often fierce opposition to Frank Scott, the mayor who appointed him. The reforms Scott and Humphrey have pushed in Little Rock can approximately be divided into two categories: outward facing policies that have tended to generate controversy and pushback from police in other cities, and internal policies that tend to be more technocratic, but that policing experts say are basic to fighting corruption and stagnancy in large police agencies. Both have sparked a lot of anger in Little Rock.
One of the first outward-facing policies Scott and Humphrey implemented were restrictions on the use of “no-knock” raids. In 2018, my own reporting found that the LRPD had been conducting such raids based on unchecked tips from unreliable informants, aided by judges who ordinarily signed off on illegal warrants, and had been waging the raids in an extraordinarily violent manner. Under the new policy, the police chief must review all unannounced raids, and they can only be empowered under limited conditions. The number of no-knock raids in the city afterward dropped from 57 in 2018 to seven in 2019. Humphrey said he’s signed just three since taking office.
Scott next persuaded the Board of Directors to approve a citizens’ review board to look into shootings and citizen complaints. He also won approval to buy body cameras for LRPD officers. And in May 2020, he announced a thorough, top-down review of the department by an independent body.
These outward-facing reforms were met with plenty of opposition from the union. It was Humphrey’s more mundane internal reforms, though, that sparked far more anger, both from high-ranking officers and from the FOP.
Shortly after accepting the job, Humphrey took his own inventory of the LRPD’s staffing and organization. He noticed that some higher-ranking officers had close relatives in their chain of command, including children, spouses, and siblings. Some divisions had siblings and spouses working side by side.
Little Rock policy forbids city employees from directly supervising a spouse, parent, sibling, or child in most circumstances, but there are no policies about police officials having immediate family one or two ranks lower, or direct relatives working side by side in the same unit. “That’s completely inappropriate in a police department,” Humphrey said. “It creates all kinds of conflicts and problems.”
Black officers at the LRPD have long asserted that the children of white supervisory and commanding officers get preferential treatment, including promotions over more qualified Black officers. Josh Hastings, the officer who was hired despite having attended a KKK meeting, was himself the son of a high-ranking officer at the time and belonged to a family of LRPD legacies.
So in May 2020, Humphrey instituted an anti-nepotism policy, barring direct relatives from serving in the same chain of command. The FOP closest filed a complaint. According to Humphrey, some members of his command staff also objected privately, especially those who’d had immediate family working below them, either at the time or over the time of their careers.
A view of the building that houses the Little Rock Police Department’s Special Operations Division.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
In taking his inventory, Humphrey also noticed that some officers had been in specialized, prestigious units like Homicide, Special Investigations, or Narcotics for 15, 20, already 25 years. “That’s far too long to be in one of those divisions,” he said. “It allows people to build little fiefdoms. It breeds stagnation.”
Humphrey said it was important to him that other officers also get the specialized training and experience that comes with working in elite divisions. “If you look at narcotics, you had two sets of brothers there,” he said. “That shouldn’t happen. You also had a guy who’s been there more than 25 years. That just isn’t healthy for the department.”
Black officers at LRPD complain that the FOP has long influenced who receives these prestigious assignments. “There were long stretches in my career where there wasn’t a single Black officer in Homicide, Robbery, or Special Investigations,” said Earnest Whitten, who served in the department for more than 30 years and is now chief deputy sheriff for Pulaski County, Arkansas. There has long been a sentiment among African American police that, as Whitten put it, “Any time a Black officer would make it known we were interested in transferring to one of those locaiongs, the FOP would meet with the chief and do all they could to stop it from happening.”
Andre Dyer, a major who has been with the department for 27 years, was transferred out of an elite division without being given a reason. “I didn’t want to go, and my supervisor didn’t want me to go,” Dyer said. “So I went to the FOP to see if they would help me. They told me there was nothing they could do. I later found out they” — FOP and its allies — “had asked for the move so one of their preferred officers would get the position.”
Humphrey’s new policy put a seven-year limit on working in narcotics. The policy also limited supervisors to five years in any specialty division and required them to use a year in patrol before transferring from one specialty division to another.
“In the past, patrol has been used almost as a punishment: a place where they put officers who have angered the wrong supervisor or got on the wrong side of the police union,” Humphrey said. “Meanwhile, you have some supervisory officers who never worked a day of patrol. They don’t know what it’s like to walk a beat or get to know a neighborhood. They don’t know the city, but they’re making decisions that affect the people who live here.”
Scholars and police management experts said these are sound reforms, not at all extreme or uncommon. “It’s smart policy and most of the better departments do it,” said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, referring to Humphrey’s limits on supervisors in specialty divisions. “But it can be difficult to change an ingrained culture. These are desired locaiongs. If you have a strong union, a policy like that is like touching the third rail.”
After Humphrey announced his new policy on specialty divisions, the FOP executive board, along with members of the Special Investigations Division, made an unannounced visit to his office.
“There were 10 to 12 angry white guys lined up outside his office,” said one Black police officer who saw the confrontation and asked for anonymity to avoid specialized reprisals. To the Black officer, what was happening was obvious: “It’s clear they were trying to intimidate him.”
Humphrey changed the policy to only apply to new transfers, allowing supervisors currently serving in specialty divisions to be grandfathered in. “I guess you could see that as me backing down,” Humphrey said. “I see it as a compromise.”
Another of Humphrey’s reforms was to rotate his command staff, putting his assistant chiefs responsible for new bureaus and his majors responsible for new divisions.
“Rotating your command staff is a normal thing in most departments,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina and a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police research advisory committee. “Moving supervisors around helps you keep on top of things. New eyes can find new problems that need to be fixed. It also helps you find out who’s a good leader.”
standard or not, these policies would soon collide head-on with fallout from the Starks shooting, bringing a torrent of blowback and accusations that threatened to remove Humphrey from his new position.
In October 2019, the Deadly Force Review Board issued the department’s final report on the killing of Blackshire. Like the Internal Affairs report, the review board found that Starks had violated LRPD policy, that the violation contributed to the shooting, and that the shooting could have been avoided.
After the Civil Service Commission declined to reinstate him, Starks, with backing from the FOP, appealed his termination to a Little Rock circuit court. In January 2020, a circuit estimate agreed that Starks had violated LRPD policy, but not at the time he shot Blackshire. The estimate ruled that the policy violation came when Starks parked his car in front of Blackshire and then walked in front of the means while it was stationary. The estimate determined that Starks’s termination was too harsh and ordered him reinstated at an entry-level salary.
Starks returned to the LRPD emboldened. He demanded a take-home car. He also demanded a move from the two Black supervisors to whom he had been stated, saying one of the officers had made racist remarks against him. He ultimately resigned in September 2020, claiming Humphrey had made it impossible for him to continue working at the department.
The FOP and Humphrey’s critics portrayed the estimate’s reversal of Starks’s termination as vindication. The ruling also set off a wave of litigation. Humphrey’s critics, already unhappy about his reforms, would use the Starks shooting and testimony from the Civil Service Commission hearing to cast Humphrey’s reforms not as an effort to modernize a troubled police department, but as a vengeful executive retaliating against subordinates for defending the due course of action rights of a fellow officer.
The office for the Black Police Officers Association in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
Since the late 1970s, Little Rock has had two police unions. One, the FOP, is official and mostly white; the other, the Little Rock Black Police Officers Association, is unofficial and mostly Black. Only the FOP is empowered to collectively bargain with the city. Many Black officers said the BPOA is necessary because not only does the FOP fail to represent their interests, it also often works against them.
“My father joined the Little Rock Police Department in 1967,” said Johnny Gilbert Jr., the retired lieutenant. “This was the height of the civil rights movement and there was a push to get conscientious Black people in all aspects of civic life. We needed, as Dr. King said, to shine a light wherever we could. My father was the only Black officer in recruit school number 15.”
Gilbert is disarming and charismatic, and, with a stippling of light freckles, looks young for his 62 years. As he spoke about his father, he was reverent and wistful, pausing at times for a slow nod and a fond smile. “I remember seeing him get a certain respect — a pat on the back — from the community,” he said. “It was the sort of recognition he wouldn’t have received if he’d gone into something like construction.”
Inside the department, it was a different story. “Black officers rarely got out of patrol,” Gilbert recalled. “They weren’t given the opportunity to learn new skills, to enhance themselves. They got the worst shifts. The least desirable assignments. There was day-to-day discrimination and abuse. And the union perpetuated it.”
Gilbert’s father fought back. He first filed a successful federal anti-discrimination lawsuit, which included allegations about the influence of the FOP. He then started the Black Police Officers Association.
The insignificant existence of a separate union for Black police officers rubs many in Little Rock the wrong way. White officers, some city officials, and many white residents see the Black union as unnecessary, a stubborn refusal to move beyond the city’s ugly racial history. Black officers said that sentiment discloses a misunderstanding of why the union exists: It isn’t to win special rights for Black officers, they said. It’s to need they be treated equally.
Gilbert pointed to his own career. After college he joined the Air Force, where he worked as a military police officer. After leaving active duty in 1983, he applied for a job with the LRPD. “I was a legacy,” he said. “I had policing experience. By every measure, I was more than qualified — more qualified than many of the white officers there.”
Gilbert was initially rejected. About a year later, he received a letter and phone call offering him a job with the department. The offer didn’t come from the city. “The offer came from the U.S. Department of Justice,” he said. “Because of my father’s lawsuit, the city had entered into a consent decree with the federal government, requiring them to hire more African Americans.”
Gilbert quickly learned that little had changed since his father wore the badge. “When you get out of the academy, you’re stated a field training officer,” Gilbert said. “On my first day, my FTO told me, ‘We both know you’re only here because you’re Black.’” (Despite repeated attempts, the field training officer did not respond to a request for comment.)
Gilbert paused a moment and shook his head. “I told him, ‘No, sir. No, sir. I’m here because I’m qualified. I was rejected because I’m Black.’ That was on my first day as a Little Rock police officer. My first day.”
Former Lt. Johnny Gilbert Jr. retired from the Little Rock Police Department in 2019.
Photo: Andrea Morales
Gilbert said when he started on the force, Black officers knew that the FOP had little to offer them. Because it was the only union empowered to bargain with the city, though, he joined and hoped for the best. He left in 1993, after an incident at an FOP-sponsored Halloween party that older Black officers nevertheless talk about today. A white officer came to the party in blackface, an Afro, and bib overalls, carrying a watermelon. His date came dressed as a piece of fried chicken. The incident made national news.
The FOP reaction nevertheless rankles Black officers who were around back then. The union backed the white officer’s lawsuit to overturn his 30-day suspension without pay. The punishment was ultimately upheld in court, but the FOP used its own cash — drawn from union dues — to reimburse the officer for the salary he lost during his suspension, according to Gilbert and others who were on the board of BPOA and opposed FOP sustain for the suspended officer.
“It was truly my mother who talked some sense into me,” Gilbert said. “She asked if I was nevertheless paying dues to the FOP. I told her I was. She told me she was ashamed of me. And you know what? She was right. Why was I letting them use my own money to pay a police officer who thought so little of me — of people who look like me?” Gilbert and 24 other Black officers resigned from the FOP.
Other longtime Black officers have their own stories about why they quit the union. Willie Davis, the Black sergeant who retired in 2019, said he stopped paying dues in the 1990s after a series of incidents at the FOP lodge in which white officers ran the license plates of Black officers’ guests for noticeable warrants. On another event, Davis said someone had scrawled the N-information across a bathroom mirror in the lodge.
Theddus McRae, currently a lieutenant at LRPD, said he stopped paying FOP dues after an incident his rookie year. During an arrest, another officer asked him to stand in front of a surveillance camera while a speculate was beaten. McRae reported the incident. The other officer resigned before Internal Affairs completed its investigation, but McRae said he endured retaliation for years. “The FOP represented the abusive officer, but they refused to represent me,” he said. “It was the BPOA who stepped up and represented me, already though I wasn’t already a dues-paying member at the time.”
Left/Top: A Little Rock Police Department cruiser parks outside the River Market in Little Rock, Ark. Right/Bottom: A view of a bridge in downtown Little Rock, Ark.Credit: Ariel Cobbert for The Intercept
“I’d been to Little Rock several times for conferences and assessments,” said Lawrence Johnson, the city’s first Black police chief. “It seemed like a pretty progressive place, especially when it came to race. It didn’t take long to realize that what I saw was just a lot of window dressing.”
Johnson joined the Oklahoma City Police Department in the 1980s at the age of 21. By 1999, he’d climbed his way to senior deputy chief. That year, a friend told him Little Rock was looking for a new chief and was specifically looking to interview qualified minority candidates. Johnson applied. He pitched himself as a reformer, promising to implement community-oriented policing, hiring practices that would make the department’s demographics mirror those of the city, and policies to enhance transparency and accountability. He got the job.
Johnson said he quickly learned that while the city officials who hired him may have been ready for change, the strength structure that truly ran the city was a different story.
“I’ll tell you a story that blows my mind to this day,” he said. When Johnson set out to eliminate one of the city’s two SWAT teams, he encountered the same resistance that other reformers have consistently run into — and saw the political muscle of particular officers. He had barely begun looking into the idea when he received an strange request. “I was told that Janet Huckabee, the wife of Mike Huckabee and the first lady of Arkansas, wanted a meeting with me,” he said. “So I meet with her, and she tells me she’s heard rumors that I want to reorganize the SWAT teams. She tells me she and the governor are friends with the SWAT team. They went hunting with these officers, had dinner parties with them, went jet skiing with them. She made it clear that she and the governor did not approve of my plan to reorganize. In all my years in law enforcement, I’ve never heard of that kind of interference.” (Janet Huckabee, who said she jet skied with police officers, said that she could not ingemination the meeting and denied that she ever sought to influence LRPD policies and procedures.)
“The president of the FOP told me that if I just let my assistant chiefs make all the important decisions for me, we’d all get along just fine.”
At the time he took over, Johnson said, the police chief position in Little Rock had mostly been reduced to a figurehead. “The FOP had immense strength over policy and personnel decisions, and its leaders weren’t about to relinquish it,” he said. “On my first day — my very first day — Tommy Hudson, the president of the FOP, told me that if I just let my assistant chiefs make all the important decisions for me, we’d all get along just fine. I told him, ‘I’m sorry, but that isn’t why I was hired.’ It all just got more hostile from there.” (Hudson did not respond to a detailed request for comment.)
As with Humphrey, one of Johnson’s first moves was to rotate his command staff so they’d supervise new departments. “The head of Internal Affairs had been there for 15 years. That’s unheard of in modern policing,” he said. “You have to increasing rapidly those little kingdoms they create.”
To get a sense of race relations in the city, Johnson also spoke with Little Rock’s civil rights leaders. “The police had a terrible reputation with the city’s minority community,” he said. “Just terrible. And the union in particular was seen as anti-Black.”
Black officers who worked at LRPD at the time said there had long been criticism that the system by which the department determined promotions skipped over Black officers in favor of the FOP’s preferred candidates. “Human Resources used this mysterious formula to weigh the scores — one that always seemed to select for white officers,” said Gilbert. “We asked them over and over again to explain the formula. They told us we wouldn’t understand it.”
“Any time a Black officer did better than a white officer on the written portion, they’d end up ranked lower after the interview portion,” said Carlos Corbin, a retired assistant chief who was promoted by Johnson. “And the few times a Black officer finished ahead, the FOP would go to court to try to get the rankings revoked.”
Johnson said he tried to make the scoring system more transparent and more focused on merit. He actively promoted Black officers to apply and test for supervisory locaiongs. Those policies brought scorn from the FOP. After Johnson announced his first series of promotions, the FOP backed a lawsuit from one white officer who wasn’t promoted, alleging reverse racism. It was later thrown out by a federal estimate. (The officer who filed the lawsuit, Wayne Bewley, is now one of the LRPD’s assistant chiefs — and among the 10 command staff officers who signed the public letter denouncing Humphrey.)
By Johnson’s third year in office, the FOP had passed a resolution of no confidence in him; supported a reverse discrimination lawsuit by five other white police officers; and purchased a billboard in a noticeable part of the city featuring Johnson’s photo with a message that the city wasn’t safe under his watch.
If the public campaign against Johnson seemed nasty, he and other Black officers from the era said the union also waged an informal campaign that was already more malicious. If a big conference was in town, they said the FOP would send officers in street clothes to the Little Rock airport to tell arriving passengers the city wasn’t safe under Johnson’s leadership.
According to several officers, the FOP leadership also started a rumor that Johnson was having an affair with a white woman, whom he allegedly kept in a hotel room on the west side of the city. Johnson said the rumor was nonsense, as did Earnest Whitten, who served as Johnson’s adjutant lieutenant at the time and is now at the Pulaski County sheriff’s office. “If he was having an affair, I would have known about it,” Whitten said. “But that’s how it works in the South, right? You want to bring a Black man down, you tell people he’s sleeping with white women.”
Johnson was hired in 2000 with a five-year contract. When the contract expired in 2005, both he and the city chose not to revive. “I promised my wife we’d give it five years and then reassess,” he said. “I’ll just say this: We were both ready to leave.”
In 2005, Johnson was replaced by Stuart Thomas, a longtime LRPD officer with strong backing from the FOP. According to Gilbert’s testimony in a deposition a few years ago, Thomas told a group of senior officers that he planned to reinstitute “the good ole boy system” and that he was “taking our police department back.” He closest began rolling back Johnson’s reforms.
It was under Thomas that the department hired Josh Hastings, the officer who had attended a KKK meeting. Hastings accumulated a jaw-dropping disciplinary record before he was fired in 2012 after killing the Black teenager. Internal Affairs also determined he lied about the circumstances of the shooting. He was later tried twice on criminal charges, with both trials resulting in a hung jury.
“There were some who were too racist to be given a badge and a gun. And they were protected.”
Black officers said the Thomas era reinvigorated the culture of impunity white officers had long enjoyed before Lawrence Johnson. In the discovery course of action for the lawsuit related to the teenager killed by Hastings, civil rights attorney Mike Laux, who has brought a number of situations against the LRPD and currently represents Humphrey, found numerous incidents in which white officers had used the N-information. A few admitted as much under oath, and at the minimum two officers accused of using the information were permitted to retire with benefits instead of submit to an investigation.
Black officers said they not only have to deal with community outrage after incidents of police racism become public, but also then get additional grief for being Black while working for a department viewed as hostile to Black people.
“When Black people ask me how I can turn my back on my community and my race by being a police officer, I tell them, ‘What would it be like if no one like me was wearing a police uniform?’” said Andre Dyer, the 27-year veteran. “There are some really high-quality white officers. I’d trust my life to them. But there are some really racist ones too. And I don’t think people understand how much Black officers do to keep those bad officers in check.”
Several officers also said the FOP’s history of backing the grievances of white officers, but not Black ones, emboldened younger white officers to disrespect Black supervisors.
“There were definitely white officers who refused to work for me,” said Carlos Corbin, the retired assistant chief who was promoted by Johnson. “They hated Black folks and had no intention of working for a Black man. Don’t get me wrong: There were plenty of good white officers. But there were some who were too racist to be given a badge and a gun. And they were protected.”
A portrait hangs on the wall of the Little Rock Police Headquarters showing former Police Chief Kenton Buckner.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
When Thomas retired in 2014, he was replaced by Kenton Buckner, before the assistant police chief in Louisville, Kentucky. Like Thomas, Buckner was well-liked by the FOP and disliked by the BPOA. Unlike Thomas, Buckner is Black. Former FOP President John Gilchrist, who had himself been fired but was reinstated with help from the union, later said that Buckner was the best chief he had ever worked with — which the group’s defenders said disproves the concept that the union only represents the interests of white officers.
Buckner’s race complicates the narrative about discrimination at the LRPD, as does the fact that three of the officers currently suing Humphrey are Black. In addition to Finks, one other member of the command staff who signed the letter expressing a without of confidence in Humphrey is also Black.
Some Black officers said the FOP adored Buckner because he looked out for the interests of white officers. They noted that shortly after taking office, Buckner met with the leaders of both unions and asked them to merge. The request rankled Black officers who thought Buckner was ignoring the department’s race problems to win favor with the FOP. After Buckner’s request, Finks, the assistant chief and then the city’s highest-ranking Black officer, resigned from the BPOA in sustain of the FOP.
“That showed that right from the start, he just didn’t get it,” said Willie Davis, the Black LRPD sergeant who retired in 2019, referring to Finks. “Buckner was great for the FOP. He did everything they wanted. And because he was Black, he shielded them from the accusation that they’re a racist organization.”
Black officers have a phrase for their Black colleagues who seem to take the FOP’s side. “Going along to get along,” said one Black sergeant nevertheless with the department, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “You can be Black and get by if you steer clear of the FOP. You can do pretty well if you help them promote their people, keep quiet about any brutality or racism you see on the street, look the other way when white officers get promoted over more qualified Black officers, all of that. But once you start acting Black, they’ll turn on you on a dime.”
“Take a guy like Lt. Gilbert,” said J.C. White, a Black lieutenant. “He tried to warn this department about Starks. He tried to warn them about Hastings. He’s been right all along. He should be a chief somewhere. And what did they do? They confined him in. They stopped his advancement.”
In 2018, Laux filed a lawsuit on behalf of Whitten, Davis, and two other officers alleging racial discrimination in how the department contributes, makes assignments, and disciplines officers — the same claims Black officers had been making since Gilbert’s father was on the force. typically, a union would back such a claim by members it’s supposed to represent, whether or not they pay dues, but the FOP in Little Rock begged off the case. “Anyone with any intelligence will see right by this,” the head of the FOP at the time responded when asked what he thought of the lawsuit. “I don’t think any of this can be substantiated.”
The city settled the lawsuit in February 2020.
Johnson and Humphrey said they’ve never seen the sort of weaponization of grievances and Human Resources complaints that goes on in Little Rock. Black officers said the way complaints are handled creates a sort of false balance between race-related incidents, in which efforts to correct entrenched discrimination are cast as reverse discrimination.
In 2016, for example, a white officer was investigated for posting racist content on Facebook. The officer responded by scouring the pages of Black officers for offensive language. He found a comment left on the page of J.C. White about President Barack Obama that said, “Every time they call him a Muslim replace that information with nigger that’s what they really average.” White was disciplined for the comment, which had been left by someone else.
Another Black officer was disciplined in 2017 for another Facebook-related incident. He had filed a complaint with the BPOA about a white recruit who used the N-information on Facebook. In response, the white recruit then pointed out that the Black recruit who had reported the post to the department also used the information, though that use was more colloquial. The FOP defended the white recruit — but not the Black one. Both were fired.
Buckner, then the chief, also suspended White for reporting the first incident to the BPOA instead of going by his chain of command. “You go by the chain of command and nothing happens,” White said. “So you go outside of it, and they discipline you. First time in my career I’d been suspended.”
Black officers have also been placed under complaints for merely noticing or objecting to racist comments within the department. Andre Dyer, then a lieutenant, once refused to take a trip with a group of white officers because some of them had before made racist comments in front of him, which he had at the time tolerated without filing a complaint. A white officer then filed a complaint to the FOP about Dyer, claiming reverse discrimination for his declining to join them on the trip.
“I was supposed to have a thick skin. But if I’d talk about racism or civil rights, the white males in the department would get offended and file reverse discrimination complaints against me.”
“There was certainly a double standard when it came to talking about race,” said another retired high-ranking Black LRPD officer. “White officers told racist jokes and made racist comments within my earshot all the time. I was supposed to have a thick skin. But if I’d talk about racism or civil rights, the white males in the department would get offended and file reverse discrimination complaints against me.” The retired high-ranking Black officer was once investigated for reverse discrimination for describing an all-white division within the department as “lily white.” According to officers there at the time, it was indeed all white.
Despite the FOP’s history of supporting reverse discrimination complaints from white officers, several Black officers interviewed for this story laughed when asked about the FOP backing a discrimination complaint from a Black officer. They said they couldn’t think of a single example.
consequently, the FOP has continued to see Black officers resign. Two Black officers said they resigned from the union in the summer of 2020 because of the union’s actions during the George Floyd protests. “I just couldn’t justify paying dues anymore,” said one Black lieutenant, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. “The whole country was talking about racial justice, and the union was spending all its time trying to take down a Black police chief because he truly listens to Black people.”
A figurine of a Black police officer aiming a gun is seen on a shelf in Chief Keith Humphrey’s office in Little Rock, Ark.
Andrea Morales for The Intercept
Humphrey had been chief for about a year when the first lawsuit against him hit the courts in April 2020. More followed, alleging a large number of infractions, from serious misconduct to petty grievances. “They started coming at us so regularly — like one a week — that we started calling it ‘Lawsuit Tuesday,’” said one LRPD employee who works closely with Humphrey and requested anonymity to avoid reprisals.
Litigation has been abnormally influential in shaping LRPD policy and personnel decisions. As with the formal complaint course of action, the problem began innocuously enough. In the 1970s, Black officers like Gilbert’s father began filing lawsuits to cure discrimination. But when reform-oriented chiefs afterward implemented policies to make promotions and disciplinary processes fairer in the 1990s and early 2000s, white officers began filing lawsuits alleging reverse discrimination. Those lawsuits were usually unsuccessful, but the excess of litigation, coupled with the history of discrimination, has made it difficult to discipline or terminate problem officers.
consequently began a long tradition of aggrieved litigation at the LRPD. Policing experts interviewed for this article were shocked at the number of lawsuits brought by employees against the department over the years. additionally, according to the recollections of officers I interviewed, while the reverse discrimination lawsuits over promotions and transfers are usually dismissed in court, those officers alleging discrimination in the meting out of discipline have often had their punishments reversed in court, and in some situations were reinstated after termination.
“When you had police chiefs in Little Rock who didn’t give a damn, officers got away with pretty much anything,” said Mike Laux, the civil rights attorney and Humphrey’s lawyer. “So, when you then get a chief who wants to keep up bad officers accountable, the union can point to an incident where an officer of a different race or gender did something similar and got away with it. And they can say that to punish them for the same offense would be discriminatory. It becomes this race to the bottom for bad behavior.”
It’s against this backdrop of litigation that the lawsuits against Humphrey began to hit, one after another. Some of the allegations include “he said, she said” disputes that can be difficult to fact-check. For those that can be verified — checked against internal records, witnesses, or interviews with the parties involved — most collapse under scrutiny.
The first lawsuit was filed on behalf of Assistant Chief Hayward Finks; his brother, Sgt. Duane Finks; and Sgt. Reginald Parks. Unlike the plaintiffs in all the other lawsuits, the Finks brothers and Parks are Black. The next lawsuit came a week later, on behalf of Alice Fulk, one of the assistant chiefs who applied for Humphrey’s job, and Lt. Cristina Plummer.
These first lawsuits accused Humphrey of verbal abuse and retaliating against staff who contradict him. They also alleged that Humphrey “yells,” “slams doors,” and “rages against” his perceived enemies. Humphrey acknowledged he can “sometimes slip with a ‘shit’ or ‘damn’” but insisted that he rarely yells and isn’t abusive toward his staff. The LRPD staff I spoke with agreed. Laura Martin, a Black civilian employee at LRPD, said, “I work closer to Chief Humphrey than just about anyone, and I’ve never seen anything like that.” Others pointed out that yelling and swearing are fairly shared at the department. Several of Humphrey’s ex-colleagues also told me they found the allegations dubious. (The initial two lawsuits are nevertheless pending.)
Most of the claims in the first two lawsuits grow out of Humphrey’s firing of Starks and the later testimony by officers before the Civil Service Commission. They allege that Humphrey retaliated not only against Finks and Fulk for their testimony, but also against their friends and relatives in the department.
Humphrey said he believes Finks is nevertheless angry that he didn’t get the chief’s position — a sentiment echoed by several other Black officers. “There’s been bad blood between Hayward and I from the day I started,” Humphrey said. “He has told people that the mayor cost him the chief’s job, and he’s going to make people pay for that. That’s fine, but he nevertheless has a job to do. And I expect him to do it.”
Humphrey conceded that he did ask HR to probe Finks for what happened at the Starks hearing, but he reiterated that it wasn’t his testimony — it was demeanor and the celebrating with the FOP. Setting Finks aside, Humphrey insists that the other lawsuits imply a causal connection between incidents that simply aren’t related: the testimony at the Starks hearing; his disciplining of some officers for other, separate misconduct; and reforms that have nothing to do with either.
Parks and Duane Finks, for example, allege that because they’re close with Hayward Finks, Humphrey had them transferred in retaliation for his testimony at the Starks hearing. The two sergeants supervise the LRPD’s School Resource Officer program. That’s a desired assignment, because it allows officers to significantly supplement their salaries by working off-duty security at school events. Both men had been in the position for at the minimum 15 years. Humphrey said the transfers were merely part of his plan to rotate supervisory officers out of the most popular divisions.
“They weren’t demoted, and they weren’t punished,” Humphrey said. “Several other supervisors were transferred the same day. They didn’t lose rank or any salary.” Humphrey conceded the move may have cost both officers some off-duty pay. “Off-duty pay isn’t an entitlement,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to think I would retaliate against Finks’s brother and a sergeant who isn’t related to either of them because of something Finks said or did in a hearing.”
Chief Keith Humphrey walks by the Little Rock Police Department headquarters in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
The lawsuit from the Finks brothers and Parks was filed by Chris Burks, the lawyer who initially filed all but one of the suits against Humphrey. Wasting little time, Burks filed the second lawsuit seven days after the first. It came on behalf of Fulk and her close friend and colleague Cristina Plummer — the lieutenant Wanda said had pressured her to make a sexual harassment complaint against Humphrey.
As with the first, the new lawsuit alleged retaliation by association, claiming that Humphrey retaliated against Fulk for her testimony at the Civil Service Commission and, by extension, Plummer.
Alice Fulk has long been a polarizing figure at the LRPD. “She has this social course of action of people — I call it a cult — who are just fiercely loyal to her,” said one Black officer, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. This social course of action, around 25 strong, which some called “Friends of Alice,” was a theme among white and Black department staff I interviewed. “They go out to eat together, vacation together, date each other,” said a white civilian employee at the department, who also asked for anonymity. “She has the FOP behind her, but she also has her own people in Homicide, in HR, in Internal Affairs. Wherever she’s gone in the department, she always takes some of her course of action with her.”
When Humphrey took over, he transferred Fulk away from running the Executive Bureau to overseeing a different bureau, a move like those he made with the other assistant chiefs. Fulk had often brought Plummer with her when she moved to a new assignment, so when Humphrey made the move, Fulk asked him to move Plummer, who ran a wellness program within the Executive Bureau, too. Humphrey refused.
“We had just spent a lot of money to aim Lt. Plummer to run the wellness program,” Humphrey said. “She had only been there a few months. It didn’t make sense to move her to another department so soon.” The lawsuit characterizes this refusal to move Plummer at Fulk’s request as gender discrimination.
One accusation in the Fulk lawsuit is especially specious. It involves a Black female officer who had alleged her supervisor was abusive. In the lawsuit, Burks, the attorney, wrote that instead of disciplining the supervisor, Humphrey “merely transferred the female employee out of the division,” suggesting that he turned a blind eye to the alleged abuse.
In a phone interview, Kristen Watson confirmed that she is the LRPD officer to whom Burks is referring in the lawsuit. She also said Burks completely mischaracterized her case. “When I first saw that lawsuit, I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” she said. “That isn’t what happened at all.”
Watson said it was Fulk, not Humphrey, who was dismissive of her complaint. “I went up my chain of command,” Watson said. “When I met with Chief Fulk” — assistant chiefs are commonly referred to simply as chiefs — “and told her that my supervisor was making my job impossible, she said, ‘Well, then why are you there?’ Like it was my fault.” (Fulk’s lawyer issued a blanket denial of the allegations in this story.)
Watson then went to Humphrey. It was Humphrey, she said, who took her complaint seriously. Both Humphrey and Watson confirmed he told her that since her supervisor was retiring soon, he could temporarily move her out of the department so she wouldn’t have to persevere continued abuse while her complaint was under investigation. After her supervisor retired, he would move her back. Internal emails corroborate Humphrey’s plan to move Watson back to her old position.
“I was perfectly happy with that solution,” Watson said. “It seemed like the best way to manager it.”
Alice Fulk has since left the LRPD. Last fall, she accepted the chief’s position with the Arkansas State Capitol Police Department, a small agency that oversees security for state government buildings. Humphrey and his allies said Fulk nevertheless holds important sway in both the department and across the city and that influence is nevertheless creating problems for Humphrey.
Multiple LRPD employees said Fulk has close friends in HR, which is overseen by the city and operates outside of the department’s structure. Fulk’s critics said her relationships in the office have allowed her to protect her friends and allies. The issue, the officers said, has been a problem with Plummer in particular, whom several officers described as a “bully.”
“I was assaulted by Cristina Plummer,” said Gary Maltbia, the Black officer who works in the warrants unit. “She shoved me on two occasions. The first time, I was on the phone in my office, and she just walked right in. She isn’t my supervisor, and she isn’t in my chain of command. So I asked her to leave and shut the door. She barged into my office, pushed me, and started berating me in front of a civilian.”
Maltbia’s supervisor and another white colleague corroborated his account as set forth in the HR complaint. “The man has hearing aids, and she’s yelling at him, claiming he slammed the door on her,” said the colleague, who witnessed the incident and requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. Despite the two witnesses, Maltbia said HR rejected his complaint on the grounds that the allegations didn’t rise to the levels of harassment. (A city official pointed out that the HR investigator was a Black woman.)
Discerning what’s true in conflicting personnel complaints can be difficult, but with Plummer there seems to be a pattern, Humphrey said. She’s been the subject of at the minimum six hostile workplace complaints from Black colleagues, according to internal HR records. All were found unmerited by HR or have in addition to be resolved.
“I find it very concerning that everyone who files a harassment complaint against Lt. Plummer … is accused of being insubordinate.”
In a September 2019 email to the HR department, Humphrey addressed the matter. “I find it very concerning that everyone who files a harassment complaint against Lt. Plummer … is accused of being insubordinate,” he wrote. “Employees at LRPD, especially of color, feel that as though they are being disciplined for reporting bad behavior.” (I confirmed that at the minimum two complainants against Plummer were themselves threatened with discipline for insubordination.)
Three days later, Plummer showed up at Humphrey’s office with an FOP representative. She said a source told her Humphrey was unhappy with her performance. “I hadn’t told anyone else about that email,” Humphrey said. “Which method someone in HR improperly leaked its contents to Lt. Plummer.” After the encounter, Humphrey asked HR if someone had told Plummer about the email.
Humphrey and other supplies familiar with this history said Fulk has used her influence to protect Plummer when her behavior has gotten her into hot water. In one incident in October 2016, a white LRPD officer shot a Black man without warning from about 75 feet away. Plummer headed up the Internal Affairs investigation. She exonerated the officer in a report where she justified the shooting using language — claiming the officer said he had no “viable different” to firing, a phrase that frequently gets police off the hook — that the officer had not himself used. (Plummer claimed in a deposition that she used the language to interpret the officer’s remarks.)
According to Humphrey, Fulk said she agreed that, if true, Plummer filing a complaint using language the officer himself had not used would be a serious infraction. Humphrey said he asked Fulk to open an internal affairs investigation and she told him she would look into it personally. Humphrey said there’s no record she ever did.
In May 2020, City Attorney Tom Carpenter sent a memo to Mayor Frank Scott and the city council about the lawsuits against Humphrey. Carpenter wrote that transfers and “complaints about doors and loud voices” were not actionable, under either state law or the city’s contract with the FOP. He additional that the lawsuits appeared to be more of an effort to rally sustain for Humphrey’s firing or resignation than to win in court.
Carpenter pointed out that in one of his emails to the city council, Burks wrote “the University of Oklahoma Police Chief position is open” and additional, of Humphrey, that “it would sure seem to be easier if he left to go there in my view.”
That same month, Burks filed three more lawsuits against Humphrey.
5“What’s Going On”
The office for the Fraternal Order of Police in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
On April 2, 2020, Karen Hunter made a quick trip to the laundromat about a mile from her home to retrieve the clothes she had left in one of the dryers. “I was just going to be a associate minutes,” she said, “So I foolishly left my car running.” As she was collecting her clothes, she glanced over her shoulder and saw two men excursion off in her car.
Hunter worked as an administrator at Philander Smith, a historically Black college in Little Rock. She had met Humphrey at a fundraiser for the school, and the two became friends. After her car was stolen, she called 911. The responding officer gave her his card and a number to acquire a police report. Hunter then called Humphrey.
“I’d just had my car stolen. I was friends with the police chief. It seemed like I should call him,” she said. Humphrey drove to the laundromat, talked Hunter by some of her concerns, and gave her a ride home.
“I was flustered. I had my phone and my keys and my laundry, and so when I got out, I left the officer’s card and the paper with the case information in Humphrey’s car,” she said. She called Humphrey back and asked if he could come by her home with the paperwork. By that point it was late in the day. Humphrey told Hunter he drove by her house most mornings on his way to exercise, before heading to the office, so he’d drop off the report the following morning.
Humphrey said that on the morning in question, he backed his truck into Hunter’s driveway, brought her the police report, and stayed for a cup of coffee. As he left, he noticed an LRPD cruiser parked across the street and pulled around for a chat. Officer Kevin Sexson was responding to a report that a woman in a nearby house had recently died. Humphrey said he and Sexson spoke briefly. He thought little more about the encounter.
Coincidentally, at about the same time, Hunter had been thinking about a career move. “I was hoping for something that paid a little more and that would let me learn new skills,” she said. She had put information out among her friends, including Humphrey, who told her there were a few vacant locaiongs at LRPD. She sent her application on April 1, 2020, the day before her car was stolen.
A shadow is cast on the wall in the office of Chief Keith Humphrey in the Little Rock Police Department headquarters in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
According to internal documents, in the weeks after Humphrey ran into Sexson outside Hunter’s home, LRPD officers close to Fulk and the FOP began accessing the dashcam video of the encounter. Most notably, on April 20, at around 9 a.m., Cristina Plummer asked the LRPD officer who oversees the dashcam system to pull up the footage. The officer would later tell Internal Affairs investigators that, just prior to her request, he had seen Plummer chatting with Angela Carlock, who works in IT and was one of the women asked about sexual harassment allegations against Humphrey on Fulk’s text chain. (Carlock did not respond to a request for comment.) After viewing the video, Plummer asked the officer how she could create a nevertheless-frame photo from the footage.
Several hours later, Hayward Finks, the assistant chief, also accessed and viewed the dashcam footage. As a lieutenant, Plummer wasn’t empowered to access that server. Attempting to do so would violate LRPD policy. Four days later, Plummer used Fulk’s computer to access the server. According to LRPD records, Plummer viewed the video and downloaded it. She would later tell Internal Affairs investigators she had watched the video with Fulk, who then ordered her to download the video to a disk. Fulk then gave the excursion to Chris Burks, her attorney.
Two weeks later, on May 7, Burks sent an email to Little Rock city officials accusing Humphrey of trying to obtain a high-paying job for his mistress. Burks included a screenshot from the dashcam video, which showed Humphrey’s means in Hunter’s driveway. The city should “ask Humphrey about what he was doing there that morning at the address of an applicant who would report to him,” Burks wrote, adding in parentheses: “he will not be honest in my experience.”
Meanwhile, other LRPD officers began running background checks on Karen Hunter. “There’s only a small group of people empowered to run background checks,” Humphrey said. “And in this scenario, it’s only done when we’re ready to offer someone a job. We hadn’t reached that stage for this position.”
The background checks revealed that Hunter had failed to pay a speeding ticket, was fined for driving with an expired license, and at one point had an arrest warrant for failing to pay that fine, though the warrant was no longer active. She also appeared to have exaggerated her work experience in her application for the LRPD position.
Days after Burks’s emails to the city, Little Rock blogger Russ Racop sent a public information request to LRPD asking for documents related to Hunter’s job application, in addition as the video footage of Humphrey’s truck parked in her driveway. He before called Humphrey’s wife in Oklahoma to ask if she was aware of her husband’s alleged infidelity. (Humphrey’s wife remained in Norman, where she works at a university, while their daughter finishes college.) He also sent Humphrey a series of hostile emails, including one with the subject line: “Let’s talk about your side chick.”
Racop has been a particularly prickly thorn in Humphrey’s side. To his credit, over the years Racop’s Bad City of Little Rock blog has exposed abundant misconduct and mismanagement at LRPD. Racop, though, is a partisan in department politics. He’s been consistently hostile toward Humphrey and supported Fulk to be chief.
Racop’s tenacity can also turn petty and vindictive. He assigns puerile nicknames to his targets, such as “Chief Keef.” Humphrey claims Racop livestreamed from outside of his home, in addition as the homes of the mayor and city manager. During a city council meeting last fall, Racop was forced to leave after telling civil rights activists in the room to “shut the fuck up.” When admonished by Scott, he told the mayor, “Fuck you too.” In June 2021, Racop was arrested and charged with harassing a city supervisor. (The charges are nevertheless pending. Racop did not respond to a request for comment.)
Humphrey and his supporters speculate that his critics in the department have been leaking to Racop and local TV news. “I’ve had closed door meetings where information about the meeting was leaked and published on a blog before the meeting was over,” Humphrey said.
On May 12, 2020, Racop posted photos of Humphrey and Hunter on his blog. He publicly accused them of having an affair and detailed Hunter’s expired license, the description of her work experience, and a court judgment against her for an noticeable credit balance. Both Humphrey and Hunter deny any affair.
Three days later, Little Rock TV stop KARK aired its own story about Hunter. The report included the footage of Humphrey parked in Hunter’s driveway; detailed the problems with Hunter’s job application, driver’s license, and credit history; and claimed Humphrey had “pushed Hunter’s name to the top of the list” for the LRPD position. It also included an interview with Sexson, the officer whose dashcam captured Humphrey’s car in Hunter’s driveway, who did not have authorization from the chief to speak to the press.
Hunter said Racop’s post and the KARK story upended her life. She has faced harassment, she said, and has lost friends and job prospects over the accusations. Whoever leaked the photo also leaked her job application. Her home address was published, as was the information about her personal finances. She said she’s now known as the woman sleeping with the police chief, and she has since left her job at the college.
Questions have been raised about the provenance of the video from the morning Humphrey, with his car parked in Hunter’s driveway, encountered Sexson. According to Humphrey and other LRPD employees, the video is missing some important footage. Sexson’s dashcam should have started filming the moment he turned on his lights to begin his shift, and it should have captured every call he went on that day. “There should be hours of video,” Humphrey said. Instead, the footage released to the press is just eight minutes long. Humphrey said he truly passed Sexson’s parked patrol car on the way in. If true, the video should have shown Humphrey pulling into Hunter’s driveway — but the footage begins only after Humphrey’s arrival. Because of that, Humphrey said his critics have been able to falsely insinuate he’d been at Hunter’s house the complete night.
The video has other anomalies. The video I was given came from Internal Affairs. Michael Primeau, a forensic video analyst, analyzed the video using MedEx Forensics, an industry standard tool. He found several inconsistencies that should not have been present. Primeau said the video’s metadata showed numerous originating devices, processing signatures, and possible interaction with editing software, social media, and other applications. “This was not taken directly from the department’s servers,” he said.
Primeau said the signatures he found “indicate the video may have been trimmed or edited, and is not a complete representation of the events as they naturally occurred.”
Humphrey also denies using his influence to get Hunter the job. He said the only arguable favoritism he showed Hunter was to tell those who reviewed the applications that he had a friend who would be sending in her begin again. As chief, Humphrey sits on the five-person panel that makes LRPD hiring decisions. He said he asked to recuse himself from the position for which Hunter was applying because he was friends with one of the candidates, but HR insisted he keep on the committee. “There were five candidates, and I asked each of them the same question,” he said. “After that, I had no input about who would be hired.” Five days after the KARK report, Hunter withdrew her application for the position.
The City Hall building in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
About an hour after his email to city officials accusing Humphrey of having an affair with Hunter, Chris Burks sent another email, this time alleging that multiple women had told him that “Humphrey has produced a hostile work ecosystem based on sexual comments and illegally favoring women for city employment under him that he is romantically involved with.” In our phone call, Burks mentioned several of these women, including those on the text message Fulk sent out on May 27 — the messages Wanda had reported.
If Fulk, Burks, Finks, and Plummer weren’t working together against Humphrey, they’ve certainly acted as if they were. After Hunter filed a complaint about the release of her job application, the department opened an investigation into the leak. Finks responded by asking a city court to block Humphrey from ordering the investigation. Humphrey, though, had only asked for an investigation into whether Plummer had improperly accessed the video from Fulk’s computer and who then distributed it. The order for an investigation didn’t mention Finks.
“Assistant Chief Finks never suggested why he should be concerned, nor that he participated in the MVP (video release),” wrote the city attorney in a memo to the mayor and city council. “This is strange since Chief Finks would know that General Order 316 does not permit information from an MVR to be given to the public.”
Burks’s behavior has been already odder. When I called Burks for comment on the lawsuits he’d filed against Humphrey, we initially agreed to an off-the-record interview where he could provide background, after which I would email him a list of questions to answer on the record. It was one of the strangest interviews I’ve ever conducted: It quickly became clear that Burks thought he had carte blanche to lie to me. For reasons I laid out in the Washington Post, I’m no longer honoring the off-the-record agreement.
It was one of the strangest interviews I’ve ever conducted: It quickly became clear that Burks thought our off-the-record agreement gave him carte blanche to lie to me.
First, Burks told me he had additional information about Karen Hunter that would further incriminate Humphrey: He said that during a recent deposition, which at the time was under a protective order, Humphrey admitted both to visiting Hunter’s house a second time and lying about it. After my conversation with Burks, I learned that Humphrey did indeed visit Hunter on the evening in question — but so did Humphrey’s wife and a male friend of Hunter’s. It was a dinner party. Humphrey’s wife and Hunter both confirmed this account.
According to everyone in attendance, during the dinner Humphrey received an anonymous, disconcerting text message: a photo of his own car in Hunter’s driveway, taken just moments earlier. The texter asked Humphrey if the car was his. Humphrey replied, falsely, that it was not. “Sure, I lied,” Humphrey told me. “I lied in response to an anonymous text message from someone I had good reason to think was stalking me and my wife.” He said he learned soon that the texter was Russ Racop. ultimately, the exchange ended up in Burks’s possession. Burks not only misled me, but also violated a protective order in doing so.
The following week, he accused Humphrey of violating the protective order over the depositions — first in an email to Humphrey’s attorneys and then in a court filing. Burks claimed I told him Humphrey had revealed to me things that were covered by the order. This wasn’t true: At the time, I hadn’t spoken to Humphrey since the depositions in question.
In December 2020, the court found Burks in contempt, allowing him to withdraw from the case instead of being disqualified. Burks withdrew, later receiving an official caution from the Supreme Court Committee on specialized Conduct and was ordered to pay $50.
When I asked Burks about Wanda’s accusation that Fulk and her allies had been soliciting harassment accusations against Humphrey, Burks suggested that Humphrey and his attorney Mike Laux were homophobic and attacking Fulk because she’s openly gay. Both Humphrey and Laux deny the accusation, and Burks offered no evidence to sustain it.
supplies familiar with the city’s investigation of the allegations, who asked not to be named because they aren’t empowered to speak on the matter, said that while Humphrey’s critics are characterizing the complaints as “sexual harassment,” the allegations include what others said was Humphrey’s use of not harmful idioms. Because the city investigation didn’t consequence in disciplinary action against Humphey, its contents keep unavailable under public records laws.
According to supplies familiar with the investigation, one complaint concerned the phrase “tricking fund,” which the accuser overheard in a conversation between Humphrey and a male colleague. “It’s a phrase in the African American community,” Humphrey explained. “It’s some money a husband might keep on the side to pay for things like beer, golf, poker nights, that kind of thing. There’s nothing sexual about the phrase at all.”
Humphrey said he was also reported for using the phrase “take one for the team.” Burks specifically mentioned this phrase in our phone conversation, telling me that Humphrey had used it with multiple women in a sexual context.
“That’s a phrase I’ve used forever. It’s when I ask someone to do something that needs to be done, but no one else wants to do,” Humphrey said. “There’s nothing sexual about it at all. I’ve used it with male and female officers.”
Humphrey did concede he once jokingly used the phrase when he told a single woman in his office that she should go on a date with Russ Racop so the blogger would stop hounding him. “I said I’d already pay for the dinner, but it was clearly a joke,” Humphrey said. “I never suggested she have sex with him. The concept that I’d suggest, already jokingly, that a woman have sex with someone for my assistance is just ridiculous.”
supplies familiar with the probe said it found that while Humphrey did use phrases like “tricking fund” and “take one for the team,” he didn’t use them in a sexual context.
As with the allegations about Humphrey’s temperament and abusive language, his former colleagues and associates in Texas and Oklahoma said they find the accusations of promiscuity and sexual harassment difficult to believe.
“I’m just floored,” said Breea Clark, the mayor of Norman. “I never heard anything of the kind while he was here. I suppose people can always surprise you, but to me it just doesn’t seem plausible.”
“In all the years I’ve known Keith, he’s never been accused of anything like that,” said Rickey Childers, the former city manager in Lancaster. “It’s just not in his character.”
The allegation of an affair with Hunter, the implication there may be others, and the sexual harassment allegations also improvement a narrative of Humphrey as a Lothario on the prowl. Longtime Black officers said the parallels between the treatment of Humphrey and Lawrence Johnson, the city’s first Black chief, are hard to ignore.
“They’d have you believe that this Black man who left his last two jobs on great terms, who has no history of that kind of behavior, he comes to Little Rock and — what, after a year on the job, he’s already had multiple affairs and sexually harassed a bunch of white women?” asked one active Black officer. “Come on. We know what’s going on.”
Chief Keith Humphrey holds his Little Rock Police Chief badge in his office in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
By mid-2020, momentum for Humphrey’s ouster was growing. There were the lawsuits, the Starks firing, the harassment allegations, and the controversial reforms. There were also allegations of undisclosed debt and reverse racial discrimination. Then came the George Floyd protests. Throughout the summer of 2020, the FOP and conservative lawmakers criticized Humphrey for his handling of the protests. When Humphrey and Mayor Frank Scott joined a short and peaceful march with Black Lives Matter leaders in June 2020, the Capitol Police circulated rumors that the two men had helped foment riots.
Later that month, Humphrey testified in hearings called by the Arkansas House of Representatives about the protests. Other witnesses included the then-chief of the Capitol Police, LRPD Capt. Heath Helton, and, oddly, Chris Burks.
The Capitol Police chief and white legislators spent much of the hearing berating Humphrey for being too deferential to protesters, focusing on his decision to rule out lethal force to defend public character. The Capitol Police chief accused Humphrey of passing “police intelligence” to protesters. He also referred to Humphrey as “that man” instead by his name or title. When two Black members of the committee attempted to speak up in protest, the white chair gaveled them quiet.
“‘That man’? Are you kidding me?” said Willie Davis, the recently retired Black LRPD sergeant. “They completely disrespected Humphrey. Some of them were addressing Helton, a white captain, as if he were the chief. It was ugly.”
The following October, 10 of the 13 officers on Humphrey’s command staff sent a letter to the city council stating that the chief was “verbally abusive” and had “produced a very toxic, hostile, and explosive work ecosystem,” and that they no longer had confidence in his leadership. The letter was a huge blow. in spite of of the merit of the specific allegations, it was clear evidence that Humphrey had failed to win over a large portion of the department’s highest-ranking officers.
The list of signatories showed just how interconnected Humphrey’s critics are and how vested most of them are in maintaining the position quo.
The list of signatories also showed just how interconnected Humphrey’s critics are and how vested most of them are in maintaining the position quo. They included Finks, Fulk, Capt. Marcus Paxton, and Capt. Russell King, all of whom by then had filed lawsuits against Humphrey. Others who signed included officers aligned with the FOP’s aims, those close to Humphrey’s most noticeable antagonists, and those affected by reforms like the anti-nepotism policy. After the letter, three members of the city council called for Humphrey to be fired.
Lawrence Johnson, the former Little Rock police chief, said the blame lies in other places. “He needs to fire every member of his command staff who signed that letter,” Johnson said. “And the city needs to back him up. If there are lawsuits, deal with them. Maybe it costs some money, but the only way that department changes is if an outsider comes in and has the freedom to surround himself with the right people.”
An outsider like Humphrey faces structural obstacles to making such moves. In most large cities, supervising officers aren’t represented by the main police union; they either have their own union or are on their own if they’re put under investigation. The Little Rock FOP only collectively bargains on behalf of lower-ranking officers, but when it comes to discipline or termination, the FOP often provides a union representative for higher-ranking officers in addition, except for the chief. This makes it difficult for a chief to fire or demote high-ranking officers, especially over policy disputes.
“That’s really a huge problem,” said Sue Rahr, the executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission and a member of the National Police Foundation. “The first and most important thing a reformist chief needs to do is change the culture of the department. And to do that, you have to be able to surround yourself with a command staff who sustain you and your goals. If you can’t fire or demote people who don’t proportion your vision, you can’t implement any changes. That can be crippling.”
After the public letter’s allegations of verbal abuse, Humphrey asked his secretary to start recording all staff meetings and release transcripts every Friday. The secretary, whom he inherited from the past administration, resigned. She now works for Alice Fulk in her new position at the Capitol. Humphrey said other high-ranking critics complained that recording the meetings violated their privacy.
One of Humphrey’s allies in the department pointed to the absurdity of the reaction from the chief’s critics: “He said, ‘Fine, then I’ll record all the meetings.’ Then they’re mad at him about that too.”
As accusations and recriminations began to build up, Humphrey has expressed hope that current investigations, either in Internal Affairs or by the city, would ultimately clear everything up and allow him to move forward. Here, too, he’d learn just how pervasive and entrenched the police union is across the city. Humphrey is frustrated that the investigations haven’t cleared his name. Some of them don’t appear already to have feigned independence or objectivity.
In October, Internal Affairs finished its probe into the leaked dashcam video and illegal background checks on Hunter. While the investigators acknowledged that one or more officers clearly leaked both, those involved with the video’s release escaped any discipline.
Cristina Plummer admitted to investigators that she had accessed the dashcam video from Fulk’s computer, downloaded it, put it on a thumb excursion, and gave it to Fulk. The investigators concluded that because her actions were in response to orders from a superior — namely, Fulk — Plummer couldn’t be held responsible. LRPD policy instructs officers to refuse and report any immoral, illegal, or unethical command from a supervisor, but Plummer characterized her actions and those of Fulk as whistleblowing, noting that Fulk planned to send the dashcam video to the Arkansas attorney general.
Fulk herself was not investigated. Because Hayward Finks’s request for a court injunction had delayed the investigation for months, by the time it finally began, Fulk had taken her new position with a different department. She declined to cooperate.
The report did find that Sexson, the officer whose dashboard camera recorded Humphrey’s car in Hunter’s driveway, had improperly spoken to the KARK reporter without authorization from the chief’s office, but it didn’t keep up him responsible for doing so. Sexson told investigators it was Burks who first asked him to speak to a local reporter about his encounter with Humphrey. Instead of contacting Humphrey’s office, Sexson contacted the head of the police union. The union head then contacted Finks, who gave Sexson permission. According to Humphrey, Finks wasn’t empowered to give that permission.
In the end, the Internal Affairs investigators consistent just one allegation, against a sergeant named Greg Birkhead, for improperly accessing Sexson’s dashcam video. supplies at LRPD said Birkhead too is aligned with the FOP’s aims. According to internal records, he also has at the minimum one hostile workplace complaint pending against him from Black subordinates.
It was another investigation, one conducted from outside the department, that further demonstrated the fierce institutional resistance reformers like Humphrey can confront. The probe started with another one of Burks’s lawsuits against Humphrey stemming from an April 2020 incident where Humphrey reprimanded a civilian employee and her command staff. In court filings, Burks said that Humphrey had reacted to “a minor paperwork issue.”
The incident was more serious. According to Humphrey, an LRPD civilian employee who worked as a victim’s advocate had been arrested for driving with a blood alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit. The arrest was never reported to Humphrey, as required by LRPD policy. According to Humphrey, he later learned that the woman’s supervisor and two officers up the chain of command had tried to cover up the arrest. He reprimanded all of them. Burks then sued on behalf of the civilian employee and two of her supervisors, Lt. Rusty Rothwell and Sgt. Kirk McCauley, to acquire records related to the incident.
Later, in the late summer of 2020, the department received repeated reports of a man exposing himself to women in an affluent part of the city. One of the victims — who encountered the flasher on two occasions — happened to be the wife of LRPD Officer David Mattox, a popular SWAT officer. According to the officers stated to the matter, Rothwell and McCauley grew impatient with the speed of the investigation, so they and Mattox began investigating on their own. Mattox ultimately spotted a means that resembled the one described by his wife. They then ran a background check on the owner and discovered he was an undocumented immigrant who had once been arrested for offering an undercover officer $10 for oral sex.
Though LRPD policy forbids officers from participating in investigations of crimes in which they or family members are victims, Mattox filled out a form related to the arrest himself, parked nearby as the arrest transpired, and was present when the man was booked. According to a report by Detective Aaron Mathis, the officer originally stated to the investigation, Rothwell and McCauley told him they had given the officer’s wife a photo lineup, already though she never got a good look at the perpetrator. She would later let in that she had overheard her husband mention the speculate’s name and looked him up on Facebook.
McCauley and Rothwell also failed to have other victims look at the photo lineup, according to Mathis’s report, because they were afraid the others wouldn’t pick out the same man Mattox’s wife had identified — the complete point of a lineup. Rothwell and McCauley also dismissed the failure to follow LRPD’s lineup procedure because they had already notified U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the arrest, and the accused would likely be deported before trial. Robert Newcomb, a lawyer representing Maddox, McCauley, and Rothwell said he could not speak fully about the allegations against his clients because of current proceedings, but denied that the lineup had been conducted improperly because of an impending deportation.
Mathis and his supervisor were alarmed and notified Humphrey, who suspended McCauley and Rothwell with pay pending an Internal Affairs investigation. Burks then quickly filed an addendum to McCauley and Rothwell’s original lawsuit characterizing the suspensions as retaliation for their initial lawsuit against Humphrey.
“I was a homicide detective for 15 years,” said J.C. White. “I have serious questions about the way they handled that investigation. I also have serious questions about whether they got the right guy.” The officers’ defenders have pointed out in media interviews that the exposure incidents stopped after their arrest.
The Little Rock Police Department 12th Street Substation in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Ariel Cobbert for The Intercept
The Internal Affairs report on the complete affair came out in August 2021. It was written by Sgt. John Trent. Trent’s report cleared McCauley and Rothwell of any wrongdoing, based in part on supportive testimony from McCauley’s brother, another LRPD officer who told investigators his brother and Rothwell were “honorable, decent, hard-working police officers” who would never cut corners. Trent didn’t merely exonerate McCauley and Rothwell; he also found Mathis “derelict” in how he conducted his investigation.
“That report just embodies everything wrong with this department — everything Chief Humphrey is trying to change,” said Andre Dyer, the LRPD veteran, said of the fallout, which included a Black supervisor investigated for using profanity in an interview with Internal Affairs. “Nepotism, favoritism, racism, bogus allegations of retaliation. It has it all.”
Trent’s report did find Mattox had participated in an investigation in which his wife was a victim and was untruthful about filling out the arrest form — something he only admitted to when confronted with his own handwriting. nevertheless, Trent cleared Mattox of wrongdoing, credulously citing Mattox’s claim that he misremembered filling the form out. Trent also failed to mention that LRPD policy extremely Mattox from participating in an investigation of a crime where his wife was a victim. Trent recommended the allegations against Mattox be “not consistent.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Dyer. “You filled out an arrest form for a guy you think exposed himself to your wife. Is that the sort of thing you just forget?”
Mathis has since resigned from the LRPD. He did not respond to a request for an interview but, according to a media report, he resigned in large part due to being labeled a “snitch” by fellow officers. Mathis’s supervisor is named in several public documents and media reports but agreed to be interviewed on the condition that her name not be published here. “I’ve been tagged as a whistleblower,” she said. “That’s enough to end your career in law enforcement. I’m also now worried about my physical safety.”
Several officers interviewed for this story were angry about the report. “I knew it was bad here, but I guess I just hoped we weren’t that corrupt,” said J.C. White. “Police officers have a duty to intervene when they see wrongdoing by colleagues, not just with use of force, but with any misconduct. Here you have two officers who made an improper arrest, notified ICE, and then gave an improper photo lineup. And in addition it’s the officers who intervened who get reprimanded.”
A supervising officer, a Black woman, later overruled Trent and consistent the allegations against Mattox. Humphrey then fired Mattox for lying about the arrest form. The union declared Mattox a hero for getting a predator off the streets and started a GoFundMe for the fired officer.
As the complaints and counter-complaints involving the new chief began to pile up, Little Rock’s Human Resources department hired an outside investigator to look into Humphrey: Loretta Cochran, a marketing and management professor at Arkansas Tech University. It seemed like a strange choice. While Cochran has experience in HR, she has no apparent experience in law enforcement. (Cochran did not respond to my request for an interview.)
Humphrey, who sat for interviews with Cochran, said her without of policing experience was apparent in her questions. “She said she didn’t understand what was wrong with letting a police officer probe a case in which his wife was the victim,” he said. “That was exceptional to me. She also didn’t see what was wrong with prioritizing situations involving officers or their families. The indecent exposure incidents were serious, but so were a lot of other crimes we were investigating at the time. We can’t give special treatment to our officers at the expense of others.”
Humphrey said Cochran also seemed preoccupied with race. “She wanted to know why I was a member of the National Black Police Association and NOBLE” — the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. “She seemed to think that was improper — that those organizations were unnecessary. And she asked me if whites are allowed to join those groups.”
In June 2021, Cochran sent a bombshell email to city HR director Stacey Witherell with her preliminary conclusions. “Just to reiterate my past guidance, it is my opinion that the termination of Officer Mattox is a clear indication of racial discrimination, hostile working conditions, and retaliation,” she wrote, naming three Black officials. “This ill-advised decision will most likely contribute to a continuing destabilization of the LRPD,” Cochran wrote. “I only pray that no lives are lost due to this current but preventative crisis.”
In September, Cochran’s email to Witherell was reported in local media. An independent investigator might be furious that such a potentially explosive email had been leaked while the investigation was nevertheless officially underway, in addition Cochran seemed more jubilant than angry. She posted local news coverage of her email on her Facebook page at the minimum twice, in addition as to the page of a Little Rock neighborhood association. In one post she additional, “Please proportion widely!” In another, she praised Mattox for his selfless service.
Cochran also appears to have donated to a GoFundMe the FOP had set up for Mattox, the officer whose termination she was hired to probe. The site showed a publicly disclosed donation for $100 from a Loretta Cochran. It was later either retracted or confined from public view. Trent, the sergeant who conducted the Internal Affairs review, also appears to have donated $500 to Mattox. Trent himself then later joined Rothwell, McCauley, and Mattox — the very officers he investigated — in a lawsuit asking the courts to compel the city to release the Cochran investigation.
In October, Scott, the mayor, announced the city would take no disciplinary action against Humphrey. In a statement, Scott said Cochran’s donation to Mattox’s GoFundMe had compromised the legitimacy of her investigation; that “the report offered many conclusory statements without actual findings of fact, while misstating or misinterpreting the applicable legal standards”; and that the evidence in the report “does not sustain the complaints filed.”
Under Arkansas law, personnel investigations that don’t consequence in disciplinary action can’t be released, so unless the lawsuit by Trent, McCauley, and the others — or perhaps a court challenge from local media outlets — is successful, the Cochran report is doubtful to ever be seen by the public.
In November, the Civil Service Commission overturned Mattox’s firing, deeming that he should have been suspended. Mattox, though, had already resigned and taken a position as a police officer in nearby North Little Rock.
7“Gunning for You”
Maj. Troy Ellison stands for a portrait at his office in the Special Operations Division in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
“African American police officers navigate a treacherous scenery,” said Johnny Gilbert. “People talk about the bond police officers have with one another. As a Black police officer, I usually found more camaraderie with people outside the department who looked like me — people who didn’t view police officers all that fondly — than with many of my white colleagues.”
Black LRPD officers interviewed for this article said soon after they’re hired, they’re forced to make a choice, one that resonates throughout their time in law enforcement: Stay quiet and have a career or speak out and risk a miserable work life.
“Early in my career, I didn’t speak up about anything that didn’t directly affect me,” said Andre Dyer, the department veteran. “You don’t want to be the angry Black man. It isn’t good for you professionally. But as I got older and more experienced and saw more and more, I just couldn’t keep quiet anymore.”
“You think to yourself, ‘I’m going to stand up when I see injustice. I’m going to stand up when I see wrong,’” said Gilbert. “Next thing you know, here comes a wife. Here comes two kids. Now you have other people to think about. People to sustain. So you compromise your identity to be accepted by your co-workers. To be a applicable member of the organization. To keep your job. To keep your sanity.”
Few officers have experienced that sort of internal conflict more than Troy Ellison. Eleven years ago, two white officers confronted, shot, and killed his father.
On that December night in 2011, Ellison was preparing for bed after a holiday dinner with colleagues when his phone rang. It was J.C. White, a personal friend and homicide detective. “He asked if I had heard anything about the officer-involved shooting that night,” Ellison said. “I said I’d heard it happened, but that was about it. Then he asked if I was related to a Eugene Ellison.”
Ellison paused. “I said yes. I said, ‘That’s my father.’”
The other end of the phone went silent. “I’m sure it was just a few seconds, but it felt like minutes,” Ellison recalled. “Then he said, ‘I think … I think he might have been involved. Let me call you back.’”
White called back. “He said, ‘Yeah, your dad was involved. He was killed by two officers working off-duty.’”
Ellison said he sat on his bed, hindered silent. “You don’t know what to do,” he said. “Do you start making arrangements? I’m a police officer. My dad was just killed by police officers. I knew them. I knew the police officers who killed my father. It was just profound shock.”
He called his brother Spencer, himself an LRPD officer for 13 years before retiring in 2007. “We were hindered,” Spencer Ellison said. “Crushed. And all we could do was wait.”
Children play on a staircase at the Big Country Chateau Apartment complicate in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Ariel Cobbert for The Intercept
On the evening Ellison was killed, Officers Donna Lesher and Tabitha McCrillis were working off-duty at an apartment complicate near the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a gig arranged by Lesher’s husband John, a sergeant in the homicide unit at the time. Under LRPD policy, both were required to be in their official uniform. Lesher was in a dark blue battle dress uniform that was issued by the department but had not been approved for off-duty work.
Eugene Ellison, a 67-year-old Vietnam veteran, lived alone in the complicate. According to testimony and police reports, the two officers stepped into Ellison’s apartment because his door was open. According to court records, this wasn’t uncommon at the complicate. Due to poor ventilation, residents sometimes opened the door to cool their apartments when using the oven or stove.
Ellison, seemingly startled, told the officers, “Get the fuck out of my house.” They entered anyway. The officers and Ellison then had a physical confrontation, which escalated until Lesher finally shot and killed Ellison while standing outside his door. She, McCrillis, and responding officers claimed that at the time Lesher shot him, Ellison was wielding a walking stick “like a baseball bat.” That account would later be contradicted by the bullet trajectories described by a coroner in a lawsuit deposition.
J.C. White was among the first detectives called to the scene. What he observed, according to an interview in addition as a deposition in a lawsuit, contradicted the accounts he later read from white officers. The officers claimed Lesher killed Ellison only after unsuccessful attempts to subdue him with pepper spray, but White didn’t pick up any scent or indication of pepper spray, either in the apartment or when inspecting Ellison’s body at the hospital.
A coroner would later say in a deposition he too saw no sign of pepper spray on Ellison’s body. LRPD officials responded by publicly criticizing the coroner and producing reports from officers who claimed to have seen Lesher and McCrillis coughing and choking from exposure to the spray. A crime lab report found a small amount of pepper spray on Lesher’s sleeve but none on Ellison’s body or clothing.
J.C. White and other Black officers began to speculate a cover-up. Their suspicion grew the day after the shooting, when an LRPD spokesperson told local media that Ellison had once been treated for “emotional problems.” This was true: Twenty-seven years earlier, Ellison had been diagnosed with schizophrenia after an arrest for assault. He treated the illness with medication and had no legal problems in the intervening decades. “They were digging up dirt to malign the man before they already knew he was the father of one of our own officers,” White said.
The unit stated to probe Ellison’s death was led by the husband of the officer who killed him.
The investigation was also plagued by a major conflict of interest. LRPD policy dictates that the homicide unit perform the first investigation of a police shooting. In this case, the unit stated to probe Ellison’s death was led by the husband of the officer who killed him.
“It didn’t matter who Sgt. [James] Lesher stated to rule the investigation; it should never have been handled by Homicide,” White said. “Anyone they picked would be investigating his boss’s wife. It should have been given to the Arkansas State Police from day one.”
Lesher and McCrillis were ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. “I was at a memorial for fallen officers when I got the call,” said Troy Ellison. “I picked up the phone and was told there would be no criminal charges against the officers who killed my father. Donna Lesher was standing about 20 feet from me at the time.”
The investigation did rule to some disciplinary action: Four officers were ultimately sanctioned, either officially or less formally. All four are Black, and all four were punished for criticizing the investigation.
J.C. White was investigated for leaking information about the investigation to the media. Another Black detective was disciplined for insubordination after she complained to Internal Affairs about the preferential treatment shown to Lesher. Gilbert had an Internal Affairs investigation opened against him for telling Troy Ellison about a later incident at the same apartment complicate, in which LRPD officers were again working security while not wearing their uniforms.
The final officer who faced consequences in relation to the death of Eugene Ellison was his own son Troy. The Ellison family filed a lawsuit against the LRPD. In May 2013, shortly after giving a deposition for his family’s lawsuit, Troy Ellison received a call from his supervisor, who told him he needed to attend a mandatory training seminar on lethal force. Typically, officers are allowed to schedule such courses on their own time.
By the time Ellison arrived, the class had already begun, and the only obtainable seats were in the front. As all eyes turned toward him, Ellison said he could barely believe what he saw. Lesher and McCrillis, the officers who killed his father, were also in the class. So were some of the officers who conducted the investigation. The instructor was the same attorney defending the city and department against the lawsuit by Ellison’s family. The instructor then asked a question about a Supreme Court precedent on the use of lethal force and called on Ellison to answer. According to legal filings, it was the only question the instructor asked anyone over the time of the class.
“They were trying to humiliate him,” said Whitten, the former longtime LRPD officer. “What other possible explanation could there be?”
Ellison told his attorney about the incident, which was raised in a motion as part of the lawsuit. He said he then received the first negative performance review of his career and was passed over for a promotion. In 2016, the city settled the Ellison family lawsuit for $900,000.
“Every detective knew that was a fucked-up shooting,” said Terrell Vaughn, a retired Black officer and a homicide detective at the time of the killing. “Every prosecutor knew. And at the same time, everybody knew that there was no way in hell those officers were ever going to be charged. For Black officers, it was a hard pill to swallow.”
Maj. Troy Ellison sits on a bench dedicated to his father Eugene Ellison in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
When I first interviewed Troy Ellison in person in 2016, he spoke carefully and deliberately, as if he were looking for words that were both true to his anger but also wouldn’t bring further retaliation. He was well dressed and fit, with a clean-shaven head, his sharp turn up noticeably in conflict with the anguish roiling inside of him.
“Every day, every month, every year, I have to walk into that department and deal with what happened,” he said at the time. “I have to walk in and confront the fact that I use the same badge and uniform as the officers who killed my father, and the officers who investigated his death,” he said. “It ate at me. My wife and kids told me I had become a different person.”
When I asked back then if he had ever considered leaving the department, Ellison said he had, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. “They took my father from me,” he said. “They took my peace of mind. They put strain on my family. I grew up here. I like protecting my community. I’m not going to let them take that too.”
When I interviewed him again in 2020, Ellison seemed more at ease speaking candidly. “This is a stressful job,” he told me over the phone. “Black officers deal with additional stress and anxiety every day, not because of some shooter or violent criminal — it’s from the people we work with. Chief Humphrey is trying to change that, and I think a lot of us are grateful for that.”
Ellison was recently promoted to major. Prior to that, over the last few years, including during both the Bradley Blackshire and George Floyd protests, he was head of the LRPD Special Response Unit, the team that responds to protest and civil unrest. Ellison recognized the inescapable irony in him holding that position. He also said he felt that if anyone should head the division, it should be someone who understands what the police brutality protests are all about.
“The color of my skin, what happened to my father — that puts me on one side. My job puts me on the other.”
“I look at my job as protecting their right to protest,” he said. “But yeah, of course I’m torn. There’s always a part of me on both sides of that protest line. The color of my skin, what happened to my father — that puts me on one side. My job puts me on the other. And I’d be lying if I said that isn’t difficult.”
Ellison thinks he’s uniquely positioned to navigate that line. “Little Rock is a small town in some ways,” he said. “The protesters know who many of the police officers are, and we know most of them. So they’ll call officers out by name, insult them, swear at them. But they don’t do that with me. I guess they know who I am, and maybe there’s some understanding there for what happened to me.”
Ellison nevertheless struggles to reconcile his father’s death with his profession. He recalls one incident during the protests, after the Blackshire shooting. “We were there to monitor the protests, and some of them were calling out officers and supervisors by name. And then Tabitha McCrillis showed up. Here I am working a protest against a police shooting, and now I’m on the same side of the line as one the officers responsible for my father’s death,” he said. “I almost had a panic attack. Questions kept going by my head. What if they recognize her and go after her? What if I have to defend her? What if they ask me, ‘Why are you standing next to her and not with us after what they did to your father?’”
None of that happened, but Ellison said the anxiety made him realize he’d in addition to resolve the conflict churning in his head. He said, “Sometimes I’m nevertheless not sure I know the answer to that last question.”
Ellison said Humphrey and the new policies he has implemented have given many Black officers hope that the department can change. “You don’t have to refer to Wisconsin or Ferguson or Minneapolis. You don’t have to look that far. Because it happened here too,” he said. “It happened to my father. I don’t want people to forget that. Chief Humphrey has made us think that things can change. And that’s why what’s happening to him made me decide to speak up.”
Chief Keith Humphrey sits in his office at LRPD headquarters in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo: Andrea Morales for The Intercept
Like Ellison, many of Little Rock’s Black officers see Humphrey as the last best hope for the city and the department. Several said they’d consider retirement or look for work in other places if he’s fired or forced to resign. “I think you’d see a lot of Black officers leave with him,” Ellison said.
Earlier this year, Humphrey promoted a Black woman to assistant chief for the first time in city history. He also promoted two Black officers, Ellison and Andre Dyer, to major — the first time two Black officers had been promoted to that rank at the same time.
The promotions only brought more controversy. In Little Rock, officers up for higher-level promotions are given an assessment judged by outside auditors, usually police chiefs from other jurisdictions. The city chief can then choose three candidates from a list of several top-ranked candidates. There’s no obligation to choose the three highest ranked, only three from the list. In choosing Dyer, Humphrey passed over Cristina Plummer. Plummer alleged that Humphrey’s failure to promote her was retaliatory and discriminatory, adding a new claim to her lawsuit against him.
According to Humphrey and Dyer, the promotions also weren’t well received by the FOP and Humphrey’s critics. “Finks turned his back on them during the promotion ceremony,” Humphrey said.
“There have been slights,” additional Dyer. “Just little things, like not changing our ranks in a database, comments here and there about how we didn’t deserve it. Just little reminders that some of our colleagues think people who look like us don’t ever deserve these locaiongs.”
The Black officers interviewed for this investigation weren’t without criticism of Humphrey. Some didn’t approve of his new policies regarding use of force or outside investigations of police shootings. Two disagreed with his decision to fire Starks, though among their Black colleagues they were considerably outnumbered. already among those who supported the termination, some thought Humphrey could have communicated better, both with the department and the public. Some thought he nevertheless wasn’t doing enough for Black officers.
The most shared criticism of Humphrey from Black officers I interviewed is that he was overconfident when he came to Little Rock — that whether due to arrogance or naïveté, he was too sure of his ability to win everyone over, especially those who have a lot to lose if he’s successful.
“We don’t need good police officers to take knees, we need good officers to shake trees,” said Willie Davis. “I’ve known Chief Humphrey for a long time. He’s a good man with a good heart. But I tried to warn him. A lot of us did. This isn’t Norman, Oklahoma. Here they’ll be gunning for you from day one.”
For now, at the minimum, Humphrey has weathered the storm. The mayor nevertheless stands by him. Two of his highest-ranking detractors are no longer with the department: Fulk and now Finks, who left in December to become the school safety director for the North Little Rock School District. Three of the lawsuits against him have now been dismissed or dropped, and three more of his higher-ranking detractors have retired. And, in September, the Arkansas Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s reinstatement of Charles Starks.
In October, the research firm CNA released the thorough report on Little Rock Police Department that the mayor had commissioned shortly after taking office. The report did not look into specific allegations against individual officers or supervisors but at the department as a whole. Most of its conclusions were consistent with Humphrey’s reforms, particularly with respect to nepotism, cronyism, and racial disparities in promotions, training, and discipline, especially for Black female officers.
nevertheless, few think the campaign against Humphrey is over. Subordinates continue to file complaints against him alleging retaliation and reverse discrimination. And the Cochran email and unpublished report have emboldened his critics, who continue to allege that the mayor is covering for him. In September, a federal estimate dismissed Humphrey’s own lawsuit, in which he alleged a conspiracy to oust him from office.
Humphrey insisted he has no plans to leave. “I don’t regret coming to Little Rock, I don’t regret the changes I’ve made, and I’m not leaving so someone else can destroy our progress,” he said. “The resistance is coming from a handful of people who have a lot to lose when we get these policies in place. But I think we now have the sustain of the great majority of this department.”
However, some Black officers believe Humphrey nevertheless has a long fight ahead of him. “For most of this city’s history, the FOP has had a meaningful to the back door to the chief’s office,” said Dyer. “Humphrey took that away from them. You know they’re going to fight like hell to get it back.”
Click: See details