- Brian Chilson
- FIRE AT FOREST PLACE: The LRFD unites to battle a 2013 blaze, but race relations within the department smolder.
In October, Little Rock Fire Department Capt. Richard Hudson took the stage in the auditorium of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. He was there to apologize for using a racial slur, as required by a Pulaski County judge in order to regain his rank.
Hudson, a veteran of nearly 24 years in the department, is white. The audience of around 50 people waiting quietly for him to speak was almost entirely black. Most were firefighters or retired firefighters who were members of F.L.A.M.E. (Fire Leaders Actively Maintaining Equality), an association of black firefighters that works with the community and attempts to recruit more minorities to join the department. That latter mission was a particular passion and source of frustration for many in the audience. Though Little Rock has a minority population of 52
At a rear table, retired Capt. Floyd Burns, 78, sat as a living reminder of that history. The city hired its first black police officers after the Civil War, but it took the fire department until 1969 to hire Burns as its first black firefighter. It did so only at the urging of Charles Bussey, who was elected in 1968 as Little Rock's first black city director since Reconstruction (and who later served by appointment as Little Rock's first black mayor, from 1981 to 1982).
Onstage at the Mosaic Templars
The story went that, some years earlier, while Hudson was working as the volunteer fire chief for the Lake Maumelle Fire Department, he'd responded to a trailer fire. When he arrived, a white female resident admitted she'd set the fire on purpose. Her black husband had been unfaithful, and on the side of the trailer, she'd spray-painted "cheating n——-," spelling out the racial slur. Hudson, in 2016, told this tale in front of a white firefighter and a black firefighter. The latter, Jonathan Wilkins, said that when Hudson used the actual n-word, he looked at Wilkins and laughed.
Hudson also told Wilkins a story about a black firefighter's wife coming to a station to confront her husband about his infidelity. Wilkins said in court in August that, in telling the story and imitating the aggrieved wife, Hudson changed his voice in a way that was "Jolson-
Wilkins filed a complaint to then-Fire Chief Gregory Summers and the director of human resources for the city only after Hudson, some weeks later, confronted Wilkins in front of another firefighter with a printout of an email purported to be from Wilkins to Hudson with the subject line "Transfer." It read, "I want out of here. I am tired of fighting
Wilkins filed his complaint Dec. 1, 2016. A long internal investigation culminated in Hudson being demoted from captain to engineer, which meant not just a loss of rank, but a significant pay cut. After unsuccessfully petitioning the Little Rock Civil Service Commission to restore his rank, Hudson appealed to Pulaski County Circuit Judge Morgan "Chip" Welch, who reinstated Hudson on the condition that he apologize to Wilkins and to members of F.L.A.M.E.
"I spoke what the n-word was," Hudson told the assembled members of F.L.A.M.E. at Mosaic Templars. "For
When he wrapped up, there was a long pause followed by a smattering of clapping. Minutes later, as a smooth jazz soundtrack of instrumental music kicked in and an emcee began to
Three months after Hudson delivered his public apology, Frank Scott Jr., 35, became the first popularly elected black mayor in Little Rock. Unlike municipal inaugurations of the past, which happened in City Hall or the Pulaski County Courthouse, Scott was sworn in as mayor Jan. 1 at Robinson Center Performance Hall, before a largely black crowd of more than a thousand people. "This ceremony marks a new beginning, a new day and a new era in Little Rock and at City Hall," Scott said in his inaugural address.
- Brian Chilson
- THE FIRST BLACK FIREFIGHTER: Floyd Burns, 78, joined the Little Rock Fire Department in 1969.
In an election where the candidates were often in agreement on policy matters, Scott, a banker, associate pastor and former state highway commissioner, had distinguished himself by talking often of his personal history. He'd lived all of his life, save his time at the University of Memphis, in Southwest Little Rock, which is home to much of the city's minority, low-income population. As a black man, he talked about how many of the folks he'd grown up with were dead or in jail, and how those ends could have easily been his. A first-generation college graduate, his second job out of school was as a policy adviser in the administration of then-Gov. Mike Beebe. Meeting other governor's office staff after work in Hillcrest was the first time he'd ever ventured into that white, liberal enclave. He'd often say that, as a banker, his daily route from his home off Chicot Road, along Interstate 430, to the western wealthy reaches of Cantrell Road served as a daily reminder of Little Rock's inequities. That history and experience provided the theme of Scott's campaign: In a city long divided by race, he promised to be a unifier.
But Scott also campaigned on creating change and pledged to restructure city government. He proposed to give the mayor complete authority over municipal government and remove the three at-large city board positions to ensure that the board reflects the diversity of the city. Should the city board not approve his changes, he pledged he would take the proposals to voters.
In the meantime, Scott told me, he would begin taking charge of key municipal functions in a way that outgoing mayor Mark Stodola never did. Scott cited a 2007 ordinance approved by voters that made the mayor the city's chief executive and the city manager, Bruce Moore, the chief administrative officer. That law gave powers to the office of mayor that Stodola had simply failed to exercise, Scott argued. He speculated that "a lot of community and political realities" held Stodola back, but did not elaborate further.
In his first weeks in office, Scott had taken on direct supervision of six departments, including the Little Rock Police Department and the Little Rock Fire Department, which together represent a majority of both the city's personnel and general fund budget.
Scott's unity message likely resonated with voters in part because racial tensions, and outright racism, continue to haunt Little Rock. Sixty years after white mobs tried to block black students from attending Central High, most schools remain de facto segregated, the result of decades of white flight from the Little Rock School District. Residential patterns have also long been dictated by race: For many white residents, the
- Brian Chilson
- SHIFTING POWER: New Mayor Frank Scott Jr. (left) and longtime City Manager Bruce Moore talk at a recent city Board of Directors meeting under the portraits of past mayors. Scott, Little Rock's first elected black mayor, has taken control from Moore of six city departments, including fire and police. Scott says he will select the next police chief.
No mayor could truly fix such systemic problems, but Scott's campaign put forth an optimistic, ambitious vision of change. He pledged to expand economic opportunities for minorities and bring a new wave of job growth to the city. He promised to advocate for the Little Rock School District to be returned to local control after years of a state takeover fraught with racial politics. But, those are complicated matters that involve decision-makers outside of city government. By taking over supervision of the fire and police departments, Scott put himself in charge of two of Little Rock's most racially troubled institutions — which he has the power to change.
In October, two months before Scott was elected mayor and a few days after Hudson delivered his apology to members of the black firefighters association, Scott joined journalists in the auditorium of a nonprofit
Crump, of Tallahassee, Fla., has a national reputation. He's represented the families of many of the highest-profile black victims of police shootings in recent years: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Terrence Crutcher. Though Laux does not live in Little Rock — he splits time between Chicago and California — he'd become perhaps Little Rock's best known attorney since he won a civil rights settlement from the city of Little Rock in response to a lawsuit he'd filed over the shooting death of Eugene Ellison, a 67-year-old black man who was shot to death inside his apartment by a white off-duty Little Rock police officer.
Laux quickly followed that case with a number of lawsuits over the killings of black people at the hands of the LRPD. They included
At the October press conference, the attorneys appeared with their client, Roderick Talley, 31, a barber who had been the subject of the Post expose on the LRPD published the day before. In the summer of 2017, Talley awoke to the sound of an explosion that launched the front door of his apartment on top of him on the couch where he was sleeping. Eleven LRPD SWAT team officers stormed into the apartment.
According to an LRPD detective's affidavit, as reported by the Post, the department's drug division had used an informant to make a drug buy from Talley. The affidavit said that police had observed the informant having a conversation with someone, who the informant confirmed was Talley after detectives showed the informant a picture of him. The informant told police he'd purchased $100 worth of cocaine from Talley and another man inside the apartment.
But Talley had proof none of that had happened. Concerned about crime in his apartment complex, he'd previously installed security cameras inside and outside his apartment. On the day the affidavit said the informant was supposed to have purchased cocaine, Talley's footage showed a shifty looking man knock on his door and then leave after a moment. Prosecutors declined to proceed with charges against Talley, but Talley's efforts to get the police department to initiate an Internal Affairs investigation went nowhere
- Brian Chilson
- FIGHTING BACK: Roderick Talley (right), with attorney Benjamin Crump, says he was the target of a dangerous and illegal no-knock warrant; he's suing the city and LRPD officers in federal court.
Standing beside Talley at the press conference, Crump called him a "hero."
"When we use the word hero, you all may not understand the scope of this," the attorney said. "Think about America and times where poor people of
Scott quickly released a forceful condemnation of the no-knock practices. "[As] a black man and lifelong resident of Southwest Little Rock, I can tell you that there's nothing new about '
The Post story made alleged LRPD abuses an issue in the mayoral race. But it was only after the Nov. 6 general election led to a runoff between Scott and former Little Rock School Superintendent Baker Kurrus that things heated up. On Nov. 15, the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police posted on its Facebook page a picture from the October press conference of Scott with his hand on Talley's shoulder. At the event, Scott had asked Talley if he could pray with him.
But since then, Talley had gotten himself in trouble: After Cross County sheriff's deputies tried to arrest him for being late for a court appearance, he'd fled the courthouse in his car and allegedly hit a deputy with the vehicle. (In a statement, Laux denied that Talley hit the deputy and asserted that he may have been treated harshly by Cross County officials because of his federal lawsuit, but conceded that Talley's actions were "unlawful, ill-advised and reckless.") The FOP, which had endorsed Kurrus, tried to taint Scott with the story and photograph: "The Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police want the citizens of Little Rock to know that candidates who align themselves with fleeing felons fail the qualifications for any public office," the police union wrote. Scott condemned the post as a "divisive smear" and Kurrus publicly asked the FOP to take it down. The police union
The FOP has long been considered the bastion of a white good
Scott campaigned on increasing the number of police officers on the force by as many as 100 to expand community policing efforts. In an interview a few weeks after he was sworn into office, he said he remained committed to that plan, though he was open to staggering the expansion over four years and wanted to do a
Scott's call for a federal investigation into the department's use of no-knock warrants seems likely to fall on deaf ears: The Trump Justice Department has so far been unwilling to intervene in local governments over civil rights matters. Scott said he would learn more about how the Justice Department works with cities when he visits Washington, D.C., for a mayoral conference in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Scott said he wanted to know more about why the LRPD had employed no-knock warrants so often and how it could curb that practice, which he believes to be unconstitutional.
He said he'd "been extended a lot of grace and mercy" throughout his life and had forgiven the FOP for its campaign attack. He planned to meet jointly with the FOP and the Black Police Association. But he also said he remained committed to his campaign pledge to create an independent citizens committee to review police misconduct, which would likely reignite the ire of the union.
The racial tensions within the Little Rock Fire Department are less well known. Scott may not have made it part of his campaign platform, but he's intimately familiar with the department's history of
His father and namesake, Frank Scott Sr., became a Little Rock firefighter at age 20 in 1984, when Scott Jr. was
For people without college degrees, firefighting is a profession that's long been a path to middle-class wages. Base pay for a Little Rock firefighter is around $40,000. For an engineer, it's more than $60,000. The base salary for a captain approaches $70,000. All firefighter positions receive established annual step raises and a retirement pension.
In the hierarchy of firefighting, in order of ascending rank, there's a firefighter; an engineer; a captain who supervises two to four firefighters or engineers; battalion chiefs who oversee four to seven captains; an assistant chief who supervises operations and another who oversees administrations; and the fire chief. When Scott Sr. joined the department in 1984, Burns, the trailblazing firefighter, and one other black man were the only minority fire captains in the department, Scott Sr. said.
Among Scott Sr.'s colleagues and friends was DeArthur Jordan, who joined the department in 1986. At that time, Jordan said, there was an unwritten policy of not letting black firefighters work together. Jordan took the promotional exam to become a captain around 2000. He scored third among those eligible for promotion, but the white fire chief at the time, Phil Johnston, instead promoted a white firefighter who had scored lower on the exam. Jordan filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging in part that Johnston had blocked him for promotion because Jordan was an outspoken member of the black firefighters association (an earlier incarnation of F.L.A.M.E.) and had refused to join the firefighters union. (The same tensions that exist between black police officers and the FOP also have been long at play between Little Rock Firefighters Local 34, which represents all firefighters in negotiations with the city, and minority firefighters.) A federal jury ruled in
Frank Scott Sr. and Jordan had also worked alongside Antar Baaree, the department's first black battalion chief, and Gregory Summers, who became the first black Little Rock Fire Department chief in 2009. Baaree filed a lawsuit in the wake of Jordan's suit after Baaree was passed over being promoted to assistant chief. (He settled the suit with the department and eventually became the first black assistant chief.).
Multiple firefighters told me that it's
Such disparities rarely attract public notice. Fires are rare. What citizen experiencing a tragedy for the first time is likely to say whether firefighters could have done more to salvage their belongings?
Chief Hubbard said that he'd never heard any complaints from the community regarding firefighters not treating
One firefighter told me that he didn't think the inequities within the department would be corrected without a federal consent decree overseeing departmental practices. Such orders have been implemented in Memphis; Austin, Texas; and other cities. Told of that contention, Hubbard said, "I could respect that opinion," but added that he didn't "have enough information and time in the seat to say, 'yes, there needs to be something like that.' " Mayor Scott told me he hoped it wouldn't come to federal intervention and was optimistic that Hubbard would be able to effect change within the department. Scott noted that Hubbard had started a diversity council within the department, the culmination of an effort that began soon after Hubbard started the job. It had involved surveying all the members of the department on issues of race and diversity and, around the time of the Hudson appeal hearing, diversity training classwork.
As to the department recruiting more minority firefighters to better reflect the demographics of the city, Scott said he needed to take the lead in recruiting and making sure "people understand those are
The F.L.A.M.E. gathering where Hudson made his apology doubled as a celebration of the careers of recently retired firefighters, like Jordan. The setting hadn't been picked at random. The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center celebrates the black experience in Arkansas, but its history is also fraught with painful reminders of the city's past. In 1927, the last lynching in Arkansas reached its grisly conclusion immediately outside, on the corner of Ninth and Broadway, where a white mob that eventually grew to as large as 5,000 people burned the body of the black victim. The building itself is a recreation of the 1913 Mosaic Templars Grand Temple, which was destroyed by a fire in 2005. The original structure was once the cornerstone of a thriving black business and entertainment district along Little Rock's Ninth Street that was decimated by so-called urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s.
For many black firefighters in the crowd, Hudson was emblematic of a good
White supervisors spoke highly of Hudson during his appeal hearing. "He's someone who's got a lot of knowledge and skills and abilities and he's not shy about" putting them to work, a battalion chief said of him. But the same chief, who also called Hudson one of the "best captains in the department," conceded, "Some people think he can be too aggressive in terms of fighting
But Hudson had been burned. He'd been caught in a flashover, one of the most feared occurrences in firefighting. Hudson had paused from exiting a building to make sure a baby crib was empty when the radiant heat in the room rose to a point that all the combustible material inside instantly ignited. He managed to push a fellow firefighter mostly out of harm's way, but Hudson sustained second- and third-degree burns on his back and his helmet
- Brian Chilson
- SUCCESSFUL APPEAL: A Pulaski County judge overturned the demotion of Little Rock Fire Captain Richard Hudson (center) for using a racial slur. He stands between his father, Richard Hudson Sr. (left), a retired Little Rock firefighter, and his attorney Robert Newcomb.
In both the appeal before the Civil Service Commission and the one in Pulaski County Circuit Court, Hudson's attorney Robert Newcomb had made Hudson's bravery part of his case. Like the civil service hearing, the gallery at the appeal hearing was mostly filled with firefighters. Black firefighters sat on one side, white on the other. Newcomb called four battalion chiefs who defended Hudson's reputation and praised his knowledge and dedication. Newcomb tried to show the fire department had meted out punishments less severe than
Asked whether he had heard anyone in the department use the n-word, Coney said he'd overheard Summers, his retired former boss, use it at the fire station while talking to another high-ranking black firefighter. Although most people would concede that it is wholly different for black people to claim the word as their own than for a white person to use it, the city has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to saying the word. Newcomb asked Coney whether Summers had been hypocritical in using the n-word himself — and in demoting Hudson for using racially offensive language while merely suspending the battalion chief for making the misogynistic Facebook post. Yes, Coney said. Summers, who retired January 2018, was clearly livid when he took the stand for the city. He said Coney was "flat-out lying" and that he had never used the n-word on the job.
Judge Welch said in his ruling from the bench that it sounded like the department, in handing down discipline, had been more sensitive to racism than women's rights. He agreed that it had a history of uneven punishment and restored Hudson's rank, but suspended him for 30 days in addition to requiring him to apologize to Wilkins and publicly to F.L.A.M.E.
Wilkins resigned from the department in June 2018. In his resignation letter, he said, "I have been witness to the
I tried to interview Hudson after his apology to F.L.A.M.E., but Newcomb told me it was department policy that firefighters receive permission from the chief to participate in an interview. After the chief granted me permission to interview Hudson in January, I reached Hudson, who said he wanted to check with the chief himself and would call back. He didn't respond to a subsequent phone message.
Hudson's appeal hearing received only cursory coverage in the media. KATV, Channel 7 broadcast a short item the day before that began, "If you are ever in a room with a doctor, a police officer, a firefighter, even a journalist, there is a chance you will hear some really good stories. But tonight we report on how one fire captain shared a tale he wishes he could take back." In follow-up reporting, KATV called the ordeal the "ABC trial" because of frequent reference to the n-word along with "the 'P' word and the 'C' word."
Local media also barely acknowledged The Washington Post's reporting on the Little Rock Police Department's dangerous overreliance on no-knock warrants and other
But there had been plenty of coverage of a cascade of controversies surrounding the use of the n-word by police recruits. The Black Police Officers Association had sent a letter to Chief Buckner in November 2017 complaining that a white recruit, Brandon Schiefelbein, had used the n-word in a Facebook post. Attorney Robert Newcomb also represented Schiefelbein, and he soon pointed out that Brandon Gurley, a black recruit who had complained about the post directly to Schiefelbein, had also used the n-word in social media. Buckner fired both recruits and later fired another black recruit, Katina Jones, when it was revealed that she'd used the word quoting the lyrics to a Lil Wayne song on Facebook when she was 16.
Buckner also suspended Sgt. Willie Davis, then an officer in the black police association, reportedly for initiating the original complaint about Schiefelbein rather than taking the matter up the chain of command. Each of the fired recruits sued over wrongful termination, and in the course of the back-and-forth litigation, Buckner conceded in a deposition that he had used the n-word since becoming police chief.
It will be no easy task for the new mayor to reform institutions such as the police and fire departments. Inevitably, other racial flash points will emerge in the months and years ahead around issues of language, discrimination and much more. To succeed, Scott must chart a course that substantively addresses the many well-founded grievances of Little Rock's black community while maintaining enough political support from the city's existing power structures to enact his agenda.
Scott told me during the campaign that he'd heard from a white supporter that his white friends in the Heights liked him, but were wary of the idea of a city with a black city manager, a black police chief (before Buckner left), a black fire chief and a black mayor. I heard the same concern relayed by someone in touch with downtown business leaders.
In the end, Scott won over a significant number of white voters. Yes, the
Democratic state Sen. Joyce Elliott, a longtime Little Rock resident, former teacher and advocate for racial and educational equity, publicly supported Scott during the campaign and serves on Scott's transition board working with him to develop a plan for implementing his agenda.
"Because I can't afford
In an interview after the election, Scott told me he knew change would be difficult and referenced a quote from Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli he only partially remembered. The full quote: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its
During the campaign, Scott wrapped much of his calls for changing the city in the hope of unity. After he was elected, he said, "The reason I ran was
Little Rock hasn't grown economically because of a "power structure that only keeps a few in power, only keeps a few connected," Scott said, talking of how wealth and power have gotten passed among families and cliques for so long. It's time for that to stop, he said. "This is something I always say," he said. " 'The voices of the voiceless will eventually be heard, loud and clear.' "