LITTLE ROCK, Ark.- Little Rock’s Mayor is fighting to keep a police officer off the force, a legal battle that’s costing taxpayers thousands of dollars all while the city faces dire financial issues over COVID-19.
The case involves Officer Charles Starks, who’s white, and was fired for shooting and killing a black man. That shooting was deemed justified.
Several city board of directors think fighting this case isn’t a good use of funds, and believe the city should have walked away from this fight a long time ago.
“It’s just not holding water to me,” said Lance Hines, who’s on the Board of Directors. “A lot of us felt that it was not the right decision to begin with on the Mayor and Chief of Police’s part.”
In February 2019 a traffic stop ended when Officer Starks shot and killed a black man. Dash camera video shows the man hitting Officer Starks with his car seconds before Starks fired his gun.
A department investigation found Starks’ use of force was justified.
Then in another report, Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegely agreed and decided not to file charges. Days after that came out, the department fired Starks.
That decision is at the center of several lawsuits by current officers, claiming they’ve been retaliated against by Police Chief Keith Humphrey for testifying that Starks shouldn’t have been fired. There’s also sworn testimony that Mayor Frank Scott Junior asked to fire Starks hours after the shooting.
“This was purely a political move on the mayor’s part. He wanted to fire him before the investigation was even done,” Hines added.
Last year, Officer Starks brought his case to the city’s civil service commission and lost. Then in January 2020, Starks won an appeal and a Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge ordered the city to rehire Starks.
The city is now trying to take to its case to the Arkansas Supreme Court, a choice Hines says didn’t include the board.
“If we’re going to continue to spend taxpayer funds on this case then we need to have a discussion at the Board of Directors about it,” he said.
The costs are adding up. The city hired lawyers at “Friday, Eldredge and Clark.” Invoices show they’ve billed almost $90,000, and that doesn’t count costs for the State Supreme Court appeal.
Starks’ lawyer, Robert Newcomb, billed about half that rate. For the circuit court case, the city was ordered to pay Newcomb $32,729.80.
The city was also ordered to pay $28,177.50 in back pay to Starks.
That brings the total so far to about $150,000.
“There’s a lot of push around the country that officers should be responsible for this misconduct and be personally liable for it. Well then I think the mayor and the chief should be personally liable too, not the taxpayers,” Newcomb said.
Newcomb also represents Starks in a lawsuit against the mayor and police chief claiming retaliation.
He says one proof is a letter from Chief Humphrey to the state commission in charge of certifying officers. The chief wrote Starks exhausted “all appeals,” wasn’t re-hired, and should be decertified. It’s dated September 20th, 2019, only a few days after the city Civil Service Commission hearing, and before Starks filed his appeal.
“That either shows complete ignorance of the system that he’s supposed to be a part of, or an untruth to a governmental body,” Newcomb said.
Its a case Chief Humphrey and Mayor Scott won’t talk to us about, both saying they can’t comment because there’s pending litigation.
“A month ago I requested an update from the Mayor and I was told in session that I would get that and I have yet, to date, to get it,” Hines said.
Hines says he’s not giving up until he gets answers and action from the Board of Directors
“Vote on whether or not we’re going to pursue this case any further before another dime is spent,” he added.
We reached out to every member of the board of directors and heard back from two, both saying the board has not been brought into the conversation about the Starks case by the mayor and that they should have a say.
Court records show the city has until July 28 to file it’s argument in the State Supreme Court appeal.
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