Columns » Max Brantley

What took so long?

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Last Friday morning, Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas fired Patrolman Josh Hastings.

Hastings had been on leave since fatally shooting an alleged car burglary suspect Aug. 12 as the youth tried to drive away from a West Little Rock apartment complex. He was charged with manslaughter, the first police officer in memory charged with a crime for an on-the-job shooting.

Thomas cited two reasons for Hastings' firing:

Hastings hadn't properly checked the premises of a grocery where a burglar alarm sounded last October and had been untruthful about the incident. Also, Thomas said Hastings violated multiple rules in the apartment complex shooting. The police believe Hastings fired on the car even though there was no immediate threat of death or injury to himself or others.

Officers have tough jobs. Hastings, patrolling alone, heard glass breaking in a parking lot and saw multiple people fleeing in the early morning darkness. Few of us would like to put ourselves in his place. But the police have procedures for such circumstances. They don't include trying to stare down a car with a gun over a suspected property crime.

Hastings will have his day in court. It is hard to imagine he'll regain a police job, whatever the verdict.

He'd been the subject of 18 complaints and served six suspensions. He'd wrecked a patrol car.

How many miscues constitute a firing offense? In Hastings' case, it finally took a manslaughter charge.

Chief Thomas has been a steady leader of a growing department in a violent city. But recent incidents have made me sympathetic to Michael Laux, who is attorney for the family of Eugene Ellison, shot dead by one of two Little Rock officers working private security. They'd entered his apartment without permission. His objections led to an escalating incident that ended in his death from a gunshot fired from outside his apartment.

Laux contends Little Rock officers are more likely to use force than those in comparable police departments. And he says police have a conflict of interest in reviewing actions of fellow officers. In the Ellison shooting, the homicide division employs the spouse of one of the two officers under investigation. Laux's idea of justice is about more than money. He'd like to see a settlement that produced independent review of police shootings. The police will resist. You have to wonder why.

Two officers just settled a lawsuit over excessive force for $10,000. Though officers are supposed to file reports any time they use force (an advancement brought by former Chief Louie Caudell), Officer Chris Johannes apparently didn't file a report on the incident in which the city paid $10,000.

Johannes' name should be familiar. He shot at a car attempting to drive away from Park Plaza. He wanted to talk to the occupants, all black, about their speaking to a white girl. He was exonerated for wounding the driver. Johannes also was in on the roust of Surgeon General Joe Thompson after Thompson objected to the unexplained presence at his curb of a private security guard. The private dick complained to the cops, who busted Thompson. Records show Johannes has reported use of force or been in a high-speed chase more than 70 times in eight years on the force. Isn't this a pattern worthy of official concern? Should six suspensions have been a warning about Josh Hastings?

Tough jobs shouldn't come with free passes. Hastings' prosecution and firing don't explain away Laux's concerns. Not when the force still includes a cop who regularly uses force, shot at a teenager suspected of being rude and busted a doctor on the front steps of his home for, essentially, sassing a security guard.

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