by Max Brantley
Former Little Rock Police Chief Walter E. "Sonny" Simpson died this morning of apparent natural causes while driving to lunch, friends say. He was 77.
Simpson, who lives on the western side of Little Rock, was found in his pickup in a ditch on Grassy Drive, just off Lawson Road, about 11:11 a.m., the sheriff's office said. He was unresponsive and taken to Baptist Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Simpson was a pivotal figure in Little Rock politics in years past. He joined the department in 1959 and eventually served nine years as chief, from 1977 to 1986. He rose to the post after suing successfully over his demotion to jailer by then-Chief Gale Weeks. Weeks and other department leaders believed Simpson had improperly provided help to attorneys in a broad race discrimination case against the department. Until then, he'd been a department rising star, popular as a public information officer. He started the department's Crime Stoppers program
Simpson was close friends, too, with pharmacist and former Mayor George Wimberly, whose drugstore was a hangout of political people and law officers. Wimberly's filing of a theft charge against a popular police chief whom Simpson had once promoted, Jess F. "Doc" Hale, became another consuming city controversy for a time. People took sides for and against the prosecution of Hale, who committed suicide in 1988. After retirement as a law officer, Simpson devoted some years to turf farming.