Just how strong are the forces arrayed against police reform — and how far are they willing to go? In April 2019, Keith Humphrey was appointed police chief in Little Rock, Arkansas, a Southern city with a fraught history of racial division. Among the growing number of Black police chiefs, Humphrey came in with a mandate from the new mayor to implement reforms and curtail abuses. Almost as quickly as he set about to do that work, the city’s “old guard,” the police union, and even cops under Humphrey’s own command struck back. The aim, to many observers, was simple: to oust Humphrey.
This week on Intercepted: Radley Balko joins The Intercept’s Ali Gharib to talk about Humphrey’s ordeal. Then Balko speaks to Little Rock civil rights attorney Mike Laux and former LRPD Lieut. Johnny Gilbert Jr. Balko, an award-winning journalist and columnist at the Washington Post, is the author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” and co-author, with Tucker Carrington, of “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South.”
[Introductory theme music.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Ali Gharib: I’m Ali Gharib, a senior editor with The Intercept.
The Little Rock Police Department has been riven by internal strife. Things have long since been tense. Like many Southern cities, race plays a salient role in historical and present-day Little Rock. So when a new Black police chief arrived in town and began implementing reforms, things boiled over.
Today on Intercepted we’re going to tell you a story from Arkansas, about Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey, and about the tremendous pressure and backlash he’s getting from the city’s old guard, including inside his own department.
A dozen of own officers have sued him. Internal complaints are too numerous to count. And then there are the media leaks and whisper campaigns. The allegations ranged from a supposed affair, to harassment, to retaliation.
Late last year, The Intercept did a deep dive into this: the story of Humphrey, the campaign against him, the city’s police union, and the decades of fraught history that informs all of it. Our investigation found that most of the allegations against the chief collapsed under scrutiny. So far, Humphrey is hanging on to his job, but his antagonists aren’t giving up.
The story was the culmination of a year and a half of reporting by Radley Balko, an ace journalist and author who has been on the police beat for a long time.
Radley Balko: Another anecdote from the Intercept story that I think that really hammers this home is that a lot of Black officers told me that when white officers are forced to patrol in Black parts of the city, they refer to it as “the hunt.” It’s such a dehumanizing term. For Black officers, it was like: These are people. Right? These are Black people, and you’re basically referring to them as prey and you as their hunter.
AG: We’re going to tell this story in two parts. First, Radley and I spoke about his investigation as well as some stunning recent news: Less than two weeks after his story came out, Radley learned that Chief Humphrey, during patrol on New Year’s Eve, was involved in an incident where he fired his service weapon at a civilian. He’s now under investigation, which is why you won’t be hearing from him today.
Then you’ll hear a conversation between Radley and two Little Rock sources that contributed significant information to his investigation. One is a civil rights attorney and the other is a recently retired Black police officer. They talk about what happened to Humphrey and what’s happening to him now.
Radley and I begin with the New Year’s eve incident:
RB: Humphrey was out on patrol on New Year’s Eve, and he had called a, I guess what he calls an “all hands on deck” for New Year’s Eve. So basically, every officer had to be out on patrol. And one of his guiding philosophies in policing is that even, high-ranking, top-brass police officers need to spend time in patrol because patrol is kind of where you get to know a city, you get to know the people, you become part of the neighborhoods that you’re policing. And he doesn’t exempt himself from that.
But while he was out on patrol, apparently there was a fight between two women in a parking lot. There’s actually a video of it:
THV11 (Jade Jackson): A bottle used to break the window of a car [sound of the bottle breaking the window], leading to a fight outside a gas station — that’s when police say the suspect Taz Hayes pulled out a gun and fired multiple rounds.
RB: It escalates to the point where one woman then pulls out a gun and starts shooting at the other from just a few feet away. And Humphrey apparently pulls up, gets out his gun and fires one shot at the woman who was wielding the gun. And then she, I believe, was later arrested.
But it’s really incredible to have a police chief shoot at someone — an actual chief while on patrol — and he’s now suspended, or, I guess, “on administrative leave” was what they say, pending an investigation into his shooting. He is being investigated by the Arkansas State Police, which is the result of a policy that he himself implemented for shootings involving police officers to be investigated by an outside organization. So he is actually the first person who will be subjected to his new policy.
He initiated this policy of outside investigations to instill public trust in the police department when officers do shoot at someone. And he will be the first person subjected to that policy. So I think it’s, in a kind of perverse way, actually a testament to the reform policies that he’s trying to put in place.
AG: One of the reasons it’s such a good little capsule of the story is that as your story, this massive epic about the Little Rock Police Department, and Humphrey’s arrival there, and the backlash to him shows, there’s kind of a system of – speaking of preferential treatment – these kind of officers and their family members sometimes, and certainly their social circles and, in some cases, legacies of people that became ensconced in these powerful and kind of plum assignments, and just wanted to hang on to them. And, as Humphrey postulated, and a few policing experts backed up to you, that’s not conducive to good policing.
So why don’t you tell us a little bit about the background of how the police department functioned up until this point, the role of the police union, in sort of enforcing the old order that ended up clashing with Humphrey when he came in?
RB: The Fraternal Order of Police ran the department. I mean, it’s the only recognized collective bargaining unit for the city of Little Rock, and has been for a long time, for police officers.
And so, Black officers have long complained that the FOP primarily represents the interests of white officers; that there’s a clique of a few families that have had multiple members become police officers, who have controlled the union and have used the union to control the department and so their people get promotions over other people, their people get plum assignments to elite groups like major crime, special investigations, narcotics, those kind of really sought-after positions.
And Black officers told me that the union would often fight when a Black officer would occasionally get assigned to one of those unions, or would get a promotion over white officers. The union worked hard to protect this kind of clique of people and families and their social circles, to keep them in these powerful positions.
Anytime a white officer clashed with a Black officer — anytime, for example, a Black officer would claim racial discrimination, the union would not support them in their complaint. In fact, I asked every Black officer I interviewed, which was, I think I interviewed over 20 of them, if they could remember a single time when the union represented them in a racial discrimination claim and the most common response I got was laughter, and none of them could think of a single case. Whereas white officers, the FOP frequently represented them in reverse discrimination claims; so when a Black officer would get a promotion over a white officer, the FOP would would sue on behalf of the white officer.
And so there’s a sense among Black officers that the union hasn’t represented their interests and that it works instead to protect this, as you said, ensconced clique of a few families, their supporters, and their social networks.
And then, at the same time because you have this kind of power structure that wants to keep things as they are, any Black officers who have tried to raise red flags over the years about, say, racial profiling, police misconduct, police corruption, excessive use of force, the union has come down on them like a ton of bricks. They don’t get representation in the union. There’s one officer in particular, a white officer, who has had multiple complaints against her by Black officers for harassment, hostile work environments. There’s the internal kind of racial issues where Black officers have a hard time getting promotions, good training opportunities, assignments to these kinds of elite units. And then there are the external effects of that, which is that Black officers who try to raise concerns about the department’s relationship with the Black community in Little Rock with discrimination, with profiling, with abuse of force, those officers, too, are punished within the department.
AG: So Humphrey told you that he came into the department with the intention to win everybody over. But when he gets there, he immediately is faced with this controversy that ignites a debate about what he plans to do there and what kind of chief he’s going to be, and it speaks to the power of the old guard and the way policing is done in Little Rock and the things that he wanted to change. So maybe you can tell us about that incident.
RB: So when he comes in, he’s got this incident waiting for him to take action on immediately and that is this white officer named Charles Starks [who] had shot and killed a Black motorist named Bradley Blackshire during a traffic stop.
Little Rock has a policy that forbids police officers from shooting into moving vehicles unless the vehicle is heading straight for them or is about to strike other people. And even that policy is sort of absurd because if a car is moving in a certain direction shooting and killing the driver is not going to stop it from moving in that direction, right? But the department has a previous problem with this. There was an officer who had been fired and actually prosecuted — although he was not convicted — for killing a Black teenager by shooting into a moving car. Another officer had just been recently fired for shooting into a moving car. And there have been a lot of other incidents where officers were not disciplined for doing so. And so this is kind of a big deal that’s awaiting Humphrey as soon as he starts.
And he ends up firing this officer, Charles Starks. If you look at the dashcam video of the incident itself, first of all, he starts shooting into the car while he’s standing beside it before there’s really any threat. There was a gun in the car, but it was in the backseat and it wasn’t visible to Starks at the time. He then positioned himself in front of the car and sort of slowly climbs up onto the hood as the car continues to slowly roll forward, and then claimed that he had no choice but to shoot and kill the driver because the driver was driving toward him, trying to strike him with the car.
AG: Yeah, the officer claimed that the driver was cutting the wheel toward him. But the video looks to me like there was no need for the officer to step in front of the car.
RB: And, in fact, the video shows that if Starks was legitimately in fear of his life because the car was moving toward him, it was because he placed himself in front of the car. And there’s a specific policy prohibiting that as well — officers are obligated to position themselves in a safe place.
So Humphrey fires Starks. So you’ve got this reformist Black police chief who within weeks of taking office after being appointed by this reformist Black mayor, fires a white police officer for shooting and killing a Black motorist; the FOP goes crazy, they immediately vow to help Starks get his job back, help him sue the department, the city, over this. It immediately turns a good percentage of the police department, mostly white officers, against Humphrey right from the start. And what it does then from there is it becomes this excuse that officers who have a beef with Humphrey can cite by claiming retaliation when they’re affected by the other reforms that he puts in place.
So, some of the kind of more banal reforms — but still important — not even really controversial reforms that Humphrey puts in place, are things like an anti-nepotism policy, right. So you can’t have an officer in the same chain-of-command as, say, his dad, right? Or you can’t have a husband and wife working side by side. Or you can’t have twin brothers working in the same unit — all of which have happened at LRPD.
He also instituted a policy of rotating his command staff. So he immediately signs all of his assistant chiefs to oversee different bureaus than the ones that they were overseeing. He takes not the assistant chiefs, but the next level down, he rotates them as well to new departments. The idea is from Humphrey’s perspective, you want new blood in these departments, you don’t want these supervisory officers overseeing the same department for 5, 10, 15 years at a time because it allows them to kind of build these little fiefdoms, it breeds corruption, or at least it breeds a sense of cronyism, and you get stagnation. And so the idea is to rotate your command staff to new departments.
The other thing about Humphrey, too, is that he’s very much about career development. And he’s constantly trying to hook people up with other people in ways that will help their careers, but he’s always about creating your best self and a lot of self-improvement. And I think he legitimately wanted to rotate his command staff because he thought it’d be good for them, he thought it’d be good for their careers to get different experiences, to get exposed to other bureaus, departments within the the LRPD, so that they could go out and get chief’s jobs with other departments. But instead, the way this gets portrayed is that he’s just transferring these officers to these high ranking officers because they disagreed with him about his firing of Charles Starks and that this is retaliation.
AG: None of these officers responded to your request for comment, Radley. But if you put yourself in their heads, why would you guess that they resisted Humphrey so strongly?
RB: They immediately, from the start, hate Humphrey — or maybe not hate him personally, but hate what he represents. And they hate that he and the mayor represent change and represent upending the power structures in Little Rock. So they characterize these transfers and these new anti-nepotism policies as retaliation from this tyrannical chief who doesn’t like that people disagreed with him about his firing of this white officer.
And I’ll tell you, I interviewed a number of experts in police management, groups like PERF, other police foundations that promote best policies in policing, particularly in large cities. And they all say that these reforms that Humphrey implemented, they’re not radical, right? They shouldn’t really even be controversial; I mean, the idea that you don’t want to father in the same chain-of-command as his son, or that you don’t want a married couple working side-by-side, you don’t want that in really any organization, but particularly in policing.
AG: Humphrey fires Starks because of this issue of loss of life that involved violations of LRPD policy, and then Starks fights for his job back. There’s this extremely tense episode around these two days of hearings, Civil Service Commission hearings, where Starks is appealing his firing. And then some of Humphrey’s antagonists testify there. And, I mean, despite many complications, they cite their testifying against Humphreys decision to fire this officer as the seed against which he later retaliated by instituting these reforms and taking away their positions from him. And I think it’s fair to say that the forces of the old guard, the kind of forces of reaction in Little Rock and the police department really went to war with Humphrey to an incredible degree at this point. The means through which they did that was a raft of human resources complaints and other internal things, and then also taking their fight into the courts, and Chris Burks, who you mentioned before was deeply involved in this.
So if you could just give us a little bit about the history of the way litigation has shaped the Little Rock Police Department and what people from the days of yore in Little Rock told you about that, and then also the incredible degree to which these lawsuits started to fly at Humphrey?
RB: There’s kind of a three-front war on Humphrey, right?
The first is through the human resources department and EOC complaints, allegations of retaliation,. Then there are these lawsuits, all but one of which are filed by Chris Burks, on behalf of various officers from the department, including a good percentage of Humphreys command staff when he starts.
There’s also a war in the press. And one of the things that I found probably not surprising, but disturbing, is the degree to which the local media in Little Rock just sort of ate up whatever tips the FOP fed them and ran with really any accusation at all with very little skepticism.
There’s a good explanation, there’s a good reason for that, which is that if you’re in the FOP, if you are an assistant chief who’s been in the LRPD all your life, you probably have connections and local media, right? You have sources that you can reach out to. And for local media, they’ve developed these sources. If you’re on the police beat for the local TV station or local paper in a city, the size of Little Rock, being skeptical of what those sources tell you makes it a little more difficult for you to do your job, right?
Well, Humphrey comes in and he kind of tips over the applecart and he’s trying to implement all these reforms. He doesn’t have those same sources in local media that his opponents have built up over the years. And so it’s very easy for them to plant stories about Humphrey with local journalists and for those journalists to then run with it without a whole lot of skepticism.
And so you see a lot of accusations against Humphrey, including really petty things like there was one accusation that he had turned on his lights to run a stoplight in Little Rock. And that this, of course, was illegal, and an abuse of his position, and a local TV station ran with the story. And Humphrey had to basically use GPS data from his car to prove that he was on the other side of the city at the time with this alleged infraction — and they never ran a correction.
But what we see then is just this kind of full-court press against Humphrey and part of the problem, too, is that in Little Rock, the police union, they collectively bargain on behalf of everybody in the department whose rank is sergeant or lower, but anybody in the department — excluding the chief — including the assistant chiefs, can pay union dues and in exchange for that they will get representation if they ever face any sort of discipline from the department or from the chief. And so a guy like Humphrey comes in from the outside, the union is representing everybody in the department but him.
So usually what happens in a situation like this is a city appoints a reformed chief, any higher ranking officer who had wanted his job sees the writing on the wall, and they resign and try to find a job somewhere else. But in Little Rock, because the union represents everybody up to and including the assistant chiefs, two of the three assistant chiefs at the LRPD had applied for this job: They wanted it, they didn’t get it, Humphrey got it. So immediately he’s got two of his three direct subordinates are already pissed off because he got the job that they want. A lot of the rest of his command staff are part of the old guard, they don’t want these reforms, they aren’t happy that this new mayor was elected and appointed this reformist Chief.
AG: Yeah. And we should add again, that none of these officers responded to your request for comment. But anyway, Radley, Humphrey’s hands were tied.
RB: And because of the way the union is set up in Little Rock, there’s nothing an outsider chief can really do about that. He’s got a command staff that’s going to be pretty militantly opposed to his new policies, and there’s nothing he can do to change it.
A lot of the policing experts that I talked to said that it’s untenable. You have to be able to put in a command staff that supports your policies. And if you can’t, it’s going to be nearly impossible for you to get anything done. And, in fact, they’re sort of surprised that Humphrey had been able to implement the reforms he had given that the deck was kind of stacked against him when he started.
So there’s all that resistance from the start. And then we started seeing the lawsuits, the lawsuits start flying, and Burk files one after another, after another, after another. And they all hew to this line that all these officers who are filing lawsuits against Humphrey are alleging basically the same thing, which is that one of the parties to the lawsuit, either testified against the firing of Charles Starks, or publicly advocated against the firing, or opposed the firing from behind the scenes, and that Humphrey had then taken actions to retaliate against them and their friends and family, or whoever, because of that.
AG: Radley, can you tell me a little bit about how this story fits into the bigger picture of police reform post-George Floyd, whether reforms are possible, the sort of forces that are going to push back against these sorts of efforts from inside police departments?
RB: Here you have a clear mandate from this new mayor, he runs on police reform, he wins, he appoints a reformist police chief. And what you have a couple years later is you’ve got a chief who’s been in constant turmoil, who’s been fighting left and right for his job, and who’s basically had difficulty implementing even these kinds of basic, non-radical, fairly mundane reforms.
And what it tells us is that the resistance to reform is going to be formidable, that it’s going to be especially vulnerable in cities that have strong police unions, because they’ve negotiated their way into a position that they’re not gonna back down voluntarily.
But also, I mean, what you found in Little Rock was it wasn’t just the FOP. There were state legislators who got involved in the campaign against Humphrey and who tried to publicly shame him. In one case, you had an HR investigator donating to the GoFundMe campaign for the officer who’s firing she was investigating, right? [Chuckles.]
So policing has been the institution that it is for generations in this country. As somebody who has been covering this issue for 15 years now is very encouraged by what happened in the wake of the George Floyd protests, and that we’ve seen the most substantive reforms, I think, we’ve seen since I’ve been covering this issue. But, again, policing has been the way it is for generations and generations; the people who have a vested interest in keeping it the way it is have a lot of powerful allies and so it’s going to be hard to shake all of that up.
AG: We should add, again, that none of the officers that are apparently hostile to Humphrey responded to Radley’s detailed and repeated requests for comment, including then-assistant chiefs, Finks and Fulk, who have both since left the department.
AG: Radley also recently spoke with two people who are very familiar with the Little Rock Police Department: civil rights attorney Mike Laux and Johnny Gilbert, Jr., a Black lieutenant who retired in 2019 after 35 years on the force. Gilbert’s father was also an officer in Little Rock.
Radley asked Gilbert about his career, and about his dad’s legacy at the LRPD.
Johnny Gilbert, Jr.: My father became a Little Rock Police Officer in 1967. Prior to being a police officer, he was a construction worker with his older brother.
According to my dad, that was his call for police officers, firemen; it was a call for Black leadership to be spread throughout the public sector. And I remember him quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he said: If you’re going to be a ditch digger, be the best ditch digger that there is. So he decided he was going to become a Little Rock Police Officer based on what was going on in the world, in America, in Arkansas, and in Little Rock because the number of Black police officers was almost insignificant. And so he heard the call and he became a policeman based on that.
He told me later on in his life that it was very, very difficult. And he said he always had to prove himself time, and time, and time again — that he was worthy, that he was competent enough to be a police officer. But he was judged by his race, by his color, and not by the badge and the gun that he had, or even his intelligence. So he was always struggling, fighting, resisting and asking himself: Is it really worth it?
Mike Laux: They call that the double consciousness, that added burden of African-Americans who strive to succeed in various professions.
Think about all the added stress, and the added consternation, and self-doubt, and all of the other burdens that folks of that generation and certainly today still take on. I take my hat off to Lt. Gilbert’s father, he’s a trailblazer and a heck of a icon really
JGJ: Thank you, Mr. Laux. And you bring up Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and “The Souls of Black Folk” when you said double consciousness.
RB: Johnny, so your dad eventually started the Black police officers union in Little Rock and filed a lawsuit a discrimination lawsuit against the department in the city. Can you tell me a little bit about how both of those things came about, and then how that affected your hiring, eventually, at the department?
JGJ: As far as the Black Police Officers Association is concerned, he didn’t believe — and these other Black police officers and some of them are still alive — didn’t feel that the Fraternal Order of Police would represent their interests, because they were Black. And they felt as though: Why can’t we start our own organization and represent ourselves as a bargaining agent with the city of Little Rock?
And so consequently, there were five Black police officers who helped to form the Black Police Officers Association that was formed in 1978. He said that they conspired — his words — to keep him from being promoted to sergeant because they don’t want to deal with a Black man or Black supervisor. And in that situation came the evidence for a lawsuit against the city of Little Rock, because he and several other Black police officers didn’t feel they were being treated fairly in terms of the promotion process.
AG: You had told me that you got out of the military, where you had some policing experience. And then you apply for a job at the Little Rock Police Department. And what happens?
JGJ: I apply for a job with the Little Rock Police Department. They told me I didn’t pass the examination. And so I asked them: If I didn’t pass the examination, could you tell me where I faltered? Or what errors, and what I was weak in? And they told me that they couldn’t show me that information.
So I re-enlisted in the Air Force and decided to serve my country again. And while I’m on my second enlistment with the Air Force, I’m coming back from Germany, I found out that the United States Justice Department had come and interviewed people in the Little Rock Police Department and city government had entered into a consent decree to hire African Americans and females at a rate commensurate to the population of the City of Little Rock. I was on my second enlistment from the Air Force and I had the opportunity to go to Germany for four years unaccompanied without my wife, or I can leave the military early and join the Little Rock Police Department and start being employed there. I chose the latter. I chose to become a member of a Little Rock Police Department in 1984.
RB: So Johnny, when you talk about systemic racism, structural racism in policing, one of the responses you often get from groups like police unions or people politically on the right, is that: Well, there are all these Black officers in policing, this department is majority Black, or 30 percent Black, why would Black officers participate in a system that is systemically racist, right? You’re saying that those officers are racist, too?
And I think one of the things I tried to show in this article is that Black officers themselves will agree that the system is racist. How would you respond to people who make that argument, that policing can’t have systemic racism issues because it has so many Black police officers in it?
JGJ: I will tell you just because you have Black people there is not enough. Those people of color, Black people, female, aspire to be in positions of leadership. They want to be able to steer the ship. They want to be able to influence it. They want to impart fair policies, they want to use their life experiences, they want to use their formal education, they want to use critical thinking and reasoning, and that has been circumvented time, and time, and time again, in my experience. And it’s hurtful. It’s hurtful.
When you spend time, and time, and energy, and you carry this stuff home inside the house with you, and it impacts your family, it impacts your quality of life, it impacts your thinking. It’s a kind of an ongoing trauma that you have to endure all the time. And you say: When’s enough? I didn’t sign up for this.
I don’t have the answer. But I realized as I have it in my rearview mirror that I was traumatized.
RB: And when you say you’re traumatized, you’re not talking about seeing violence, getting resistance from suspects, you’re talking about trauma inflicted by your fellow police officers?
JGJ: I’m talking about trauma inflicted by supervisors and managers who don’t see my point of view because they don’t want to see it. They don’t want to see the truth.
RB: I think Mike was one of the people who mentioned this phrase to me, but this idea of: As long as you’re blue before you’re Black, you can be alright. But as soon as you put your Blackness ahead of your badge, that’s when you start, you get in trouble as an officer. And so you get the racism within the department, but then the systemic racism in the department prevents Black officers from raising concerns about how the Black community is treated by the department.
But Mike, if you want to talk about your experience, and some of the lawsuits you filed, and what you found?
ML: I’ve been handling police-involved shooting and racial discrimination lawsuits in Little Rock for over 10 years now. It’s really remarkable for me to say that, but it’s true. And I have personally reviewed and scrutinized thousands upon thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pages of files — internal affairs review files, divisional operation investigation files, citizen complaints — and there are certainly trends that break through all of these different kinds of files. And one of them is that there’s definitely a tier system in the Little Rock Police Department. And by that I mean, there are tiers of particular types of officers who are on a hierarchy, are placed in the hierarchy. And the ones at the top have bad conduct overlooked. If it can’t be overlooked, their discipline is minimal, they get the plum positions — this is previous to Chief Humphrey’s reforms — but they get the plum positions, they get the plum off-duty positions, they get promotions, they get perks, nicer department cars, things like that. And the tiers are basically white males who are connected, who are legacies, at the very top.
RB: Lt. Gilbert, I’d like to hear specifically what you think about that, in your own experience? Because I know that you have raised concerns about some personnel decisions about how officers were disciplined after shootings, and I think you suffered repercussions for that?
JGJ: Yes, sir. I can. But this hurts — hurts deeply.
When I was assigned to the training division, that’s where police applicants and candidates come through the city, through the police department go through these backgrounds, physical fitness examinations, moral turpitude interviews, but the one that stands out in my mind most distinctly was this legacy — and Mike referred to legacies — of a guy by the name of Josh Hastings.
He came to the police department as an applicant. Part of the criteria of a police applicant was to submit to a polygraph examination. And when he was undergoing a polygraph examination, the question was: Has he ever been a member of or participated in a subversive group that undermined and tried to overthrow the American government? And he said he had accidentally gone to a Klan meeting. The polygraph examiner stopped the tape, and says: Go talk to your father and come back and talk to me in a couple of days.
And so I read it, and I said, in writing and verbally: Why are we entertaining the idea of hiring someone who says they’ve actually gone to a Klan meeting? My document was submitted, it went up the chain-of-command, and was ignored. That individual was hired as a police officer, and I was removed from the training division. That individual was hired.
There was a call to a shooting that took place in Little Rock, where supposedly, there were some Black males breaking into cars. The responding officer was officer Josh Hastings. One of the suspects was an individual named Bobby Moore. Hastings shot him and alleged that Bobby Moore was trying to run over him.
And so, for me, I go back to what I said before, how sometimes police work can cause trauma. Hastings should’ve never been hired in the first place. If he hadn’t been hired, maybe — I don’t know — maybe Bobby Moore would still be alive.
I will tell you, I was not viewed in a respectful manner by my superiors. I was not. I was regarded as a problem child.
RB: Because you didn’t want to hire an officer who had gone to a Klan meeting? [Laughs.]
JGJ: [Laughs.] All I can do is tell you the truth. That’s all I can do.
RB: Mike, one thing I’ve found interesting is sort of the arc of who you’ve represented in Little Rock over the years. So, you often represent residents of Little Rock who’ve been shot or abused by Little Rock Police officers. But then you start representing some Black officers when it comes to policies, and promotions, and training, and alleged discrimination.
But now you’re representing the damn chief, right? And he’s still encountering the same problems that everybody else has been encountering that you’ve represented. I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about that — or if that’s occurred to you — what does that say about just how difficult this is going to be to change or to reform, particularly from the outside?
ML: Yeah, it’s been quite a journey. And it’s been quite an odyssey. I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done in Little Rock. And I’m very proud of my clients and the cases I’ve handled. And I think, hopefully, I’ve made some kind of a difference there.
Yeah, I represented Lt. Gilbert and three other officers in a, I think, fairly landmark race discrimination case; it settled. And I learned a lot about the inequities within the department and how they are on equal footing with the inequities out in the field toward Little Rock citizens of color. I have never seen such naked hostility to reasonable reform in my life than I have witnessed with Chief Humphrey and the very reasonable measures that he’s trying to implement — ones that have been endorsed by the residents of Little Rock via the polls, and via their choice as Frank Scott, Jr. for mayor.
RB: The reforms that Humphrey has proposed are pretty mild. I mean, these aren’t radical reforms by any stretch of the imagination. They tend to be reforms supported by groups like PERF and the National Association of Chiefs of Police. And yet, he still gets this kind of resistance. He gets these sort of baseless sexual harassment allegations. He gets this very classic, racist trope: when you want to bring a Black man down, you accuse him of having inappropriate relations with white women. And he’s not alone. I mean, this has happened to Black police chiefs across the country, they face similar campaigns against them with similar allegations.
ML: I’ll tell you, it’s been disheartening to see the resistance that Chief Humphrey is facing, and some of the underhanded tactics that have been used against not just him but myself. But, as I think your article really demonstrates and really showcases, because it’s such a comprehensive piece you did, I really feel like it takes a long time to turn around an ocean liner. And this ocean liner has been going for a very, very long time in open seas. And it takes a long time to get that baby turned around.
And when I read your article, kind of taking myself away from the frontlines, and reading it from afar, reading it as I hope and I believe your many, many readers will do, it’s actually a positive story, in a sense. And I say, cautiously, it portends, I think, well for the future.
RB: The kind of villain in the story is the FOP. And this is what we’ve seen nationally, the FOP has been the biggest barrier to reform. There’s certainly been a disconnect between Black officers and the FOP — not just in Little Rock, but across the country. I remember seeing stories about how the national FOP and FOPs across the country endorsed Trump, and a lot of Black officers unions actively resisted that, to the point of in some cases, withholding dues. So there does really seem to be this racial divide within law enforcement.
And yet, the FOP in Little Rock and elsewhere remains the only recognized collective bargaining agent in these cities. How do we get around this? How do we get around that this monstrous barrier to reform that is, I guess you could say, largely white police unions? What do we do?
ML: These contracts are annually renewed. And so there’s no long-term issue here. These are just simple contracts. So when the contract period expires, at least in theory, you’re free to draft whatever type of an agreement you’d like.
Now, I know that mayor Scott has been entertaining, if not more, the idea of getting more comprehensive representation into some of these negotiations for police contracts. And by that, I mean, the LRBPOA, which is the Black officers’ union. Now, whether that’s kind of window dressing, or whether that puts them on equal footing with the FOP, I think is going to be the nuts and bolts. That’s going to be the thrust of anything in terms of change or not.
But I think the the way is that you’ve got to start to loosen and then remove the stranglehold, quite simply, that the FOP has on Little Rock and other cities across the country: Hoke County, North Carolina; Kansas City; in Columbus, recently, there is an article on CNN about the really malicious lengths to which these unions will go to thwart reform.
And basically we’re talking about greediness, basically. We’re talking about greed. We’re talking about a resistance to just sharing resources equally. No one’s overreaching. No Black officer is overreaching, or Black officer’s group is overreaching. They’re just trying to get the baseline. And so what that means is that for generations and generations, some of these white officers are going to have to relinquish some of these cherry-on-top-perks that they’ve been enjoying for so long.
But that comes with having a healthy, fairly run, egalitarian, and thus more effective police department. It’s the lesson we all learn in kindergarten: you share your toys, and you share your sandwich, you share the resources, you don’t hoard at the expense of others. And so I think that if some of those key things can be implemented, maybe you’ll see some change.
RB: One of the questions that came out of the George Floyd movement is this question of defunding the police or abolition of police, and without getting into that aspect of it, I just want to ask, as somebody who’s experienced a lot of these problems with policing firsthand, or somebody who has tried to reform the system from within and has faced retaliation for that, I guess my question is: Is policing reformable? Can it be changed in a way that will actually make a difference in people’s day-to-day lives?
JGJ: That’s a deep question, man. That’s not even fair to ask me something like that.
In terms of police reform, some people are going to have to get hurt. Some people are going to have to leave this profession. It’s not cut out for everybody. It’s not not cut out for people like Josh Hastings. It’s not. He doesn’t have the maturity, the emotional maturity or psychological maturity. He doesn’t. If we’re going to elevate this thing to a profession, you can’t hire a bunch of derelicts — you can’t — with a bunch of baggage, emotional psychological baggage. Say no.
So the stamps have to be increased. Is it gonna hurt? Yes. Are we hurting? Yes. Is the Little Rock Police Department hurting for police officers? Yes. But that trend goes across the board and law enforcement across the country. But somebody has to sacrifice themselves and be the blood on the altar. You have to be! Because I wouldn’t be without that. Not just my father, but people before him, suffering and sacrifice, enduring hardship again and again and again. And they kept coming back. I’m not gonna go away. You’re gonna have to deal with this Black face. I’m gonna contribute in my own way. I want to be a leader. I want to be a supervisor. I want to contribute. I want to tell you about my community. I want to tell you about my church. I want to be heard. I want to be respected; I want to be valued. We can’t turn the ship around. But guess what? We can start turning. We can start turning. We can start turning and we can start rowing.
AG: That was Radey Balko, in conversation with former Little Rock police officer Johnny Gilbert, Jr., and civil rights attorney Mike Laux.
Radley Balko is a journalist and author. You can find his full investigation into the Little Rock Police Department on TheIntercept.com. It’s called “Big Trouble in Little Rock” and we’ll link it in the show notes.
Radley, thank you so much for joining us.
RB: First, thanks for having me on. And second, thanks for everything that The Intercept did to put the piece together, to make it visually appealing. And, I have to add, for the heroic job that you, yourself, did editing the piece. I really appreciate everybody that worked hard on it.
[End credits music.]
AG: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Podcast fellow Truc Nguyen helped produce this episode. Truc’s fellowship is ending, so this will be their last episode with us — for now. Thank you, Truc, for all of your work at The Intercept.
José Olivares is Lead Producer. Supervising Producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
And I’m Ali Gharib.
But before you go — I want to let you know about the new season of Murderville, dropping February 1. To get a sneak peak, check out this trailer:
Jordan Smith: Houston, Texas, October 1992, an elderly woman named Edna Franklin is found stabbed to death on her living room floor.
Newscaster: Police described the victim as frail, weighing less than 100 pounds.
Newscaster: Her throat was slashed and she was nearly decapitated.
JS: Police quickly arrest a suspect: a. family friend named Charles Raby.
Newscaster: Twenty-two-year-old Charles Raby —
Newscaster: — Charles Douglas Raby —
Newscaster: — has been charged with the murder of an elderly woman last week in North Houston.
Newscaster: Homicide investigators say Raby confessed, but say he can’t remember everything about the violent act, claiming he Blacked out.
JS: No physical evidence ties into the crime, but a jury finds him guilty and sentences him to death.
Liliana Segura: One problem — that confession, the state’s key piece of evidence against Charles Raby, he says it was false.
Charles Raby has been on death row for 27 years. He’s in a race against time to prove his innocence.
From The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.
JS: And I’m Jordan Smith. Welcome to Murderville, Texas.
Gloria Rubac: The state of Texas will commit premeditated murder of an innocent man.
Sgt. Wayne Wendel: Raby confessed to killing her, a poor innocent, a poor woman like that, who would kill her?
Dr. Lloyd White: This was a really vicious attack.
Charles Raby: I didn’t kill the woman. I did not do it.
Sgt. Dwane Shirley: We were given a free rein in solving the case.
Dr. Jeff Kukucka: This could be a case study of why interrogation should be recorded.
Linda McClain: I mean, who is gonna confess to murdering a 72-year-old woman with arthritis who weighed 98 pounds. Who’s gonna confess to that?
James Jordan: It’s not about your guilt or innocence in Texas. It’s hell to be poor and broke in Texas. When you got somebody getting ready to juice up on a gurney, why wouldn’t you want to know the truth?
JS: Murderville, Texas drops February 1.
[End credits music.]
AG: The new season of Murderville is coming out February 1.
If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/join — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.
If you haven’t already, please subscribe to Intercepted so you can hear it every week. And definitely do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find us. And, if you want to give us feedback, email us at [email protected] Thanks so much. Until next time.