opinion | In the face of opposition from the guilds, Little Rock’s black police chief was the last to step down

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After three turbulent years on the job, Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey announced his retirement last week. His resignation is just the latest episode in a mass exodus of reform-oriented black police leaders across the country after an aggressive, ugly and often racist pushback from police unions and their supporters.

Humphrey was appointed by Frank Scott, the first elected black mayor of Little Rock. Scott made police reform an essential part of his campaign, particularly after my own reporting for The Post revealed that the city’s drug unit was conducting unusually violent raids. Scott pledged to change the LRPD’s no-hitting policy, and under Humphrey, he did so. The city carried out 57 such raids in 2018. As of December, there have only been three since Humphrey took office in April 2019.

Humphrey was an outsider with a history of reform, and he hired more than two veteran LRPD officers with the support of the city’s police union. All of this posed a threat to the status quo. Moreover, a controversial incident awaited him the moment he took office: a white police officer shot and killed a black motorist during a traffic stop. Dash-cam footage showed that the officer created the confrontation by standing in front of the vehicle while the motorist was trying to get away, in violation of LRPD policy. Therefore, in his first major decision as chief, Humphrey fired the officer.

The reaction was fast and intense. Humphrey immediately faced denunciations from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), a wave of lawsuits and public disobedience from high-ranking officers within his circle. All but one of these lawsuits were dealt with by one attorney with connections to the city’s Old Guard, who had repeatedly shown his hostility to Humphrey and who had misrepresented his dealings with me in a court declaration.

Humphrey soon learned how deeply entrenched Little Rock’s power structure was. In the summer of 2020, he was criticized for participating in a rally with Black Lives Matter protesters, and was later taken to a committee of the Arkansas legislature, where he was reprimanded by white lawmakers and law enforcement leaders. In two separate investigations into complaints filed against Humphrey after he fired another misconduct officer, alleged impartial investigators donated to GoFundMe for the terminator officer.

As a retired black officer in the LRPD explained to me, one of the tried-and-true ways to eliminate a prominent black man in the South is to accuse him of being promiscuous—and of making headway with white women in particular. Humphrey got hit by that, too. Back in 2020, a high-ranking subordinate who was a candidate for president circulated a text message encouraging recipients to report Humphrey if they heard him making inappropriate remarks. One recipient of the text said it felt like an attempt to fabricate evidence against the president. She later filed her own complaint with the city, claiming that she had been pressured to file lawsuits against Humphrey that were not true. According to my own sources, the allegations of harassment all came from white women with ties to the police union, and after an internal investigation, the city took no disciplinary action against Humphrey.

Humphrey faced constant public criticism from white elected officials. On two occasions, the Little Rock Board of Directors (City Council) set a vote of no-confidence against him, although both were withdrawn at the last minute.

Two people close to Humphrey say they believe the union’s campaign against him has affected. “How not?” said Mike Lowes, Humphrey’s attorney. “He was just so relentless. Almost every day they would chase after him in search of something new.” But Humphrey, 58, insists that’s not why he’s stepping down. “My decision was based on figuring out the right time to retire and enjoy life,” he says.

Black officers I interviewed told me that what Humphrey faced was a microcosm of the systemic racism that has plagued the LRPD for decades. The predominantly white official police union, they said, is run by a select group of mostly white insiders, who ensure that the union and its supporters are protected from discipline, are first in promotions and receive selection assignments. Black officers are routinely crossed, especially those who speak out about racism, police brutality, and civil rights. (The police union did not respond to questions during my previous report on the subject; they later released a statment He says, in part, “The Little Rock Fraternity of Police strives to be an inclusive organization dedicated to making real progress.”)

Humphrey was not a radical. He pushed for familiar, outward-oriented reforms—body cameras, the Citizens Review Board, and providing outside organizations with investigations into the officer shootings. But he also pushed for more police funding. And the reforms he enacted that angered the Union should not be controversial, such as anti-nepotism policy and limiting the length of time officers could serve in elite units and the rotating command posts.

Police management experts say such policies are necessary to break up fiefdoms that can develop in poorly managed departments. But the barons don’t easily surrender their domains. The problem with these reforms was not precisely that they harmed the police – most LRPD officers benefited from them. The problem was that they threatened the guild’s grip on the department.

Ironically, Humphrey later became a test subject for his own reforms. In keeping with his policy that even high-ranking officers must conduct routine patrols, Humphrey was on duty in the city last New Year’s Eve when he encountered a fight between two women. When one woman opened fire on the other, Humphrey shot the attacker. As a result, he became the first LRPD officer subject to his own policy of requiring that the shooting be investigated by an outside organization—in this case, the Arkansas State Police. This investigation is ongoing.

While Humphrey is optimistic about his retirement, he is also clear about what his successor will face. In the wrong hands, he says, the administration could go back to the days of “repressing and repressing certain demographics” within the city, as he put it.

“If I were white, the obstacles I faced would not have existed,” he says. “The next president must remain committed to not letting the FOP take control of this department.”

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