"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.