Police Abuse

It's Not Just One Bad Apple. Little Rock's Police Department Is Rotten Throughout

Radley Balko thoroughly documents a culture of misconduct, incompetence, and poor training, and the unnecessary deaths that resulted.


Josh Hastings
Little Rock Police Department

"I mean, on some level it ought to be self-evident. You don't hire a police officer who attended a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. It feels ridiculous to even say it, doesn't it?"

Those words of wisdom from Little Rock, Ark., Police Lt. Johnny Gilbert Jr., come toward the end of a sprawling review of the city's shocking failure to hold its officers accountable for bad behavior.

In a heavily researched piece published today at the Washington Post, Reason contributing editor Radley Balko details a police department that appears to be full of bad apples, rotten down to the core.

It may be self-evident to us or to Gilbert not to give a badge to somebody who attends Ku Klux Klan meetings. Nevertheless, Little Rock's police did, in fact, hire a man by the name of Josh Hastings, despite Gilbert's warnings not to. Over the course of five years, Hastings showed himself to be a terrible cop, racking up a lengthy discipline record, culminating in the fatal 2012 shooting of 15-year-old Bobby Moore in a confrontation with the teen and two friends who were breaking into cars. Hastings claimed at the time that the boy had commandeered the car and was driving toward him. Forensics evidence later showed that this simply was not true.

Hastings was fired from the force and held personally financially responsible for Moore's death. But he evaded criminal responsibility, likely due to lackluster prosecution efforts that Balko fully documents, and the City of Little Rock has so far successfully avoided civil liability for having hired Hastings and kept him on despite his many screw-ups.

It is the city's and police department's institutional accountability failures, not Hastings' behavior, that Balko's blockbuster takes to task. Hastings' story is but a glimpse of a bigger, more serious problem. Little Rock's police force is a nasty mess:

Disturbing as Hastings's disciplinary record may be, other officers in the department have even thicker personnel files. In fact, many of the very officers who trained and supervised Hastings have had lengthy histories of misconduct — including domestic violence, lying, and the use of excessive force.

A review of LRPD personnel records, emails and court cases dating back to Hastings's hiring in March 2007 suggests a department plagued by nepotism, cronyism and racism — both blatant and subtle. Internal investigations of officer misconduct can be sloppy and incomplete, and are often haphazardly conducted by officers with clear conflicts of interest. There appears to be little supervision at any level, whether by sergeants over beat cops, the high command over supervising officers, or city and elected officials over the department's leadership. When officers have been fired — and it takes a lot to get fired — they are often able to appeal and win back their jobs, either in court or through the city's Civil Service Commission, usually with the help of the police union.

A former senior counsel for the Justice Department's civil rights division looked over the records Balko provided and observed, "The lack of discipline and accountability is almost comical."

It's probably less comical to be on the other end of the Little Rock police department's fists, batons, Tasers, or guns. One officer successfully appealed a suspension for beating up a man at a restaurant (he had a lengthy history of punching people in situations that did not require force) with the remarkable claim that he had not been properly trained in alternatives to using force. The Little Rock Service Commission accepted this argument and reinstated him, finding that the officer (who had been a cop for 25 years by that point) was "being punished by the same people responsible for not preparing him."

More shocking still is the possibility that he might have been telling the truth. Balko documents a failure by the department to properly train police to use less-than-lethal tools like Tasers and even simple batons, resulting in more than one instance in the use of deadly force when it wasn't necessary.

I cannot encourage you enough to go read Balko's whole thing. It is painstaking documentation of a police department that essentially needs to be (metaphorically) burned to the ground and rebuilt from scratch.

As a side note, much of Balko's reporting was made possible by gaining access to police disciplinary records in Little Rock. Too many states and cities make it difficult or impossible to gain access to such records, which further allows bad cops to act with impunity. Thankfully, California just recently passed a law that will end decades of state-ordered secrecy of law enforcement personnel records.

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  1. It is the city’s and police department’s institutional accountability failures, not Hastings’ behavior, that Balko’s blockbuster takes to task.

    So often it comes down to being a cultural thing.

    1. Yep. Maybe this explains the reception the Clintons got when they moved to the suburbs of New York City.

  2. In his majority opinion in the 5-4 Hudson v. Michigan decision, in which Justice Scalia refused to extend the exclusionary rule to cases where police failed to obey the constitutional requirement to “knock and announce” their presence, the Great Originalist “explained” that “Another development over the past half-century that deters civil-rights violations is the increasing professionalism of police forces, including a new emphasis on internal police discipline.” Thanks for the insight, Nino.

  3. (Little) Rock of Rages.

  4. You can burn them all tot he ground and leave them as piles of dust.

    Until police officer’s employment is tied directly to an elected official’s, this shit will keep plodding along.

    1. It is even worse when it is easy for elected officials to fire civil servants. Imagine the police weapons and authority all changing hands the day after an election. A situation like that is why some countries have so much election related bloodshed.

  5. I miss the old days — the classic Friday Balko nut-punch. The agony and the rage.

    1. Christian has a similar beat of just pointing out bullshit, but I wish he was harder on it. He speaks with too disinterested a voice. He should be angrier, and showing the injustices inflicted on us by the Government, both petty (straws) and large (police state) is a means for change.

      1. To be sure… Now there were three equivocating words one never found in a Balko piece.

        1. And I’m aware of the irony of me telling someone else to angrier. I’m as mealymouthed as almost any writer here.

        2. How he doesn’t have a massive episode of embarrassment every time he’s typed those words out I will never know.

  6. I’m sick and tired to hearing “poor training” used as an excuse for violence

    The problem is lack of any personal responsibility or negative consequences. Once word gets out that joining a certain profession allows one to be a violent bully that can kill pets and people with impunity and, at worst, extra paid vacation will be the only punishment, it’s not a big surprise that more and more violent bullies will apply.

    The standard advice from career counselors is, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Well, if you love harassing people and sometimes shooting them and their dogs, guess what career you will be drawn to?

    1. The problem generally isn’t “poor” as in inadequate training, the problem is training that is very deliberately designed to turn cops into paranoid psychopaths.

      1. And they are starting out with people who have those tendencies.

        There was a bully in our high school who was clearly a psychopath. He was a bodybuilder, back when that was weird, he trained in karate and weapons and was said to whip the back of his neck with a leather belt to toughen it up (I know, right?). He actually managed to graduate, a couple years ahead of me, and it was a revelation into “How the Adult World Works” to hear that he had hired on to the local police force.

        So he was going to protect and serve people he’d spent years terrorizing and abusing. Good job, local PD!!

        I hear stories like this all the time, and it’s no longer surprising.

    2. Poor training is a collectivist idea, that individuals have no agency, no responsibility, no accountability. It is always The System, and the system doesn’t have faults, it just has improvements to promise to make next election.

      If they ever allowed cops to have responsibility, that’d be admitting that agents of the State can have flaws, which means the State itself could have flaws.

      1. To be fair, the goal of training is to reduce agency in certain situations to a minimum, so that, in theory, you can rely on every police officer to react similarly. Of course, they still have agency, and of course, dubious killings rarely occur in those trained situations. Or if they do, the officer did not react as he was trained.

    3. What progressive, enlightened high school did you or your kids attend? All my kids got was “Go to college, get a degree…any degree…or your life will be ruined forever.”

  7. It is the city’s and police department’s institutional accountability failures

    I think that if you’re institutionalizing a lack of accountability, a lack of accountability can hardly be considered a “failure”. It’s clearly a feature, not a bug.

  8. Attending a meeting of a disfavored group makes you ineligible for employment by the government? That sounds libertarian. That concept is a bit scary. Now I can see it if someone attends multiple and is active in the community, but even that could be problematic. This guy sounds like he was an asshole who should have been fired a long time ago, however, a one time attendance shouldn’t be the reason.
    Young people sometimes do stupid shit. So if someone attended a Plan rally once, discovered they were assholes and never returned, would the LT quoted feel that they were ineligible to be a police officer. how about if someone belongs to a black supremacist group (they do exist)? Would they also be inelgible? Could the government extend this thinking to more mainstream groups?

    1. “if someone attended a Plan rally once, discovered they were assholes and never returned,”

      I’m sorry is there some confusion as to what the Klan is about?

      1. So a one time attendance bars you for life?
        You seem to be purposely misunderstanding my point. Your assertion seems to be Klan bad racists, therefore it is okay for the government to ban you for life because you once attended one of the meetings. Where do you draw the line on that policy? Which other groups are barred from service, who gets to decide which groups meetings you can or cannot attend?

        1. The Klan aren’t just racists, they are terrorists.

          1. So attending one meeting makes you a terrorist? Does attending a Mosque that has a history of supporting terrorism make you a terrorist? The idea that the government can ban someone for life because they once attended a meeting of a group that is morally objectable should be problematic for all Americans. Is there a chance for redemption? I am not defending the Klan but find it problematic the statement that attending a meeting once is enough to bar you from employment.
            And which Klan? The Klan is no longer a single organization. And not every group who identifies as Klan has been involved in terrorist activity.
            If you attended a meeting for research purposes, would that also make you inelgible for government employment?

            1. Like no one ever grows up or changes their mind or goes once or twice out of curiosity or ignorance.

              As though those who insist that one faux pas damns you for eternity could really live up to their own standard.

          2. Antifa and by any means necessary are also terrorists… Can we ban them from all government jobs as well? They are even in video admitting to using government resources to do their enemies.

            1. And there ya have it. Principles and stuff.

              I hate ANTIFA, and I sure as shit don’t want them in any positions of power… But until we go into purge mode as a nation, to ban somebody from employment for going to a single meeting of ANY group is preeetty sketchy. Even multiple meetings of horrible groups like ANTIFA or the KKK.

              Because where do you draw the line? The Proud Boys? Green Party meetings? How about the GOP? Once somebody is deciding this shit, it opens up the door for all kinds of fuckery.

              1. If the GOP had rounded up 70,000 people of a particular race and tossed them in a camp, then sure, ban the fuckers!

  9. They used to fuck with me on occasion when I lived there. It was the long hair. That’s all it took to have probable cause to pull me over and search my car, which happened about 6 times in the 4 years I lived there. One time the cop pulls some dirt/grass off the floorboard and was all like, “What’s this, huh?” “Uh, it looks like grass.” “Oh yeah? What kind of grass?” “You know…grass grass (you ass).”

    1. Heh. T’was in a desert truck stop where I got to respond to a loudly-whispered “Is that a boy er a girl?” with the line I”d had waiting for a long time: “Why don’t you suck my dick and find out?!!” and a mad dash to the parking lot.

      It was perfectly cinematic. We ended up roaring lights out across the desert on a rutted dirt track with the lights out, but it felt like victory for a 120 lb hippy boy.

  10. The Balko piece is a remarkable read, even for a longtime Reason reader.

  11. Just another case of the 99.99% making the other 0.01% look bad.

  12. So reason… What percentage of a group has to be bad to condemn them? Seems like if they are in a caravan formation we can’t condemn them at all.

  13. Well, this is the State that gave us Bill & Hillary.

  14. National licensing for officers.

    A proactive National independent investigative agency dedicated to only police conduct.

    Treble the penalties for any public servant convicted of a crime.

    Enforce the oaths. 1 civil rights/COTUS violation and you are out for life.

    Local civilian review boards.

    Training in civil, not military, policing methods. Much more emphasis on “martial arts” training.

    Ban “No Knock” warrants except when civilian life is directly threatened.

    Much more restrictive deadly force law, not dept policy.

    Uniforms and equipment that is not designed to be intimidating. Think UK police safety colors. –Safer for the officers and less likely to foster a militant mid set.

    That will get us started toward more professional and less abusive policing.

    Until then, always record every encounter with the police.

  15. Wait a second, a cop isn’t allowed to shoot somebody who is IN THE MIDDLE OF GRAND THEFT AUTO anymore? WTF.

    A normal persons life might be worth more than a car, but not the kind of person who steals a cars life. I don’t care if it’s a rusted out 1988 Toyota Tercel with 350,000 miles on it… If they’re trying to flee the scene, cap their ass if you can’t stop them another way.

    NOW, this guy may have done a bunch of other shady shit that isn’t cool, but I really don’t see a problem with this. If I walked out and somebody was stealing my car, and I shot them, I think I would be justified. So if I should be justified, why isn’t a cop?

    This is the problem with “criminal justice reform” zealots. There are MANY things that DO need to be reformed. Cops shouldn’t shoot people when they can beat their ass, taser them, etc. They also shouldn’t shoot too fast. Sentences for some stuff should be shorter. LOTS of problems. But then there are the things where it just turns into going soft on dirt bags for no reason.

    So it’s not cool to shoot a car thief… What about somebody stealing an armored car? Is that cool? How about if it’s filled with millions in cash? Or how about a bus? How about a bus filled with kids? An RV which is somebodies home? You start getting into stupid shit.

    1. It’s a slippery slope. You probably shouldn’t cap somebody running away from a store with a stolen pack of gum, but honestly a car seems legit to me. Where in between does it become acceptable? I dunno, but somewhere.

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