Few excessive force complaints filed against Fort Smith police officers

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,974 views 

Of the 154 sworn officers of the Fort Smith Police Department, none have five or more internal or citizen-filed complaints for use of excessive force, according to information the department provided Talk Business & Politics.

Examples of use of force requested in the analysis include use of a baton, elbow strike, headlock, pinning technique, pepper spray, taser, hard hand strikes, hit with a flashlight, and being forced to the ground.

Aric Mitchell, public information officer for the department, said the relatively short length of service among the force is one reason for so few complaints with officers.

“Searching the last 20 years of records, we have no Officers with five or more such complaints on their records. Again, this is not too surprising due to the relative youth of our Department as, currently, 95 of our 154 sworn officers have less than 10 years of service to this Department,” Mitchell wrote in a response.

There were 287 instances between Jan. 1, 2018, and June 9 in which an officer was subject to a disciplinary review, according to information from the FSPD. Following is a percentage breakdown of review outcomes. (The FSPD did not note if an officer was part of multiple reviews.)
37%: No action taken
24%: Counseling
19%: Written reprimand
7%: Termination
4%: Suspension
4%: Remedial training
2%: Resignation

The request was made by Talk Business & Politics following reports that police officers responsible or the death of those in custody had numerous previous complaints on their records. The request was also made because a growing number of groups – ranging from Congressional committees to local community groups – are pushing for more transparency of police officer records and the limiting of use of force measures now allowed by some police departments.

For example, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with murder in the May 25 death of George Floyd, had 17 misconduct complaints, including two shooting incidents. Of the 17 complaints, 16 were closed with no discipline action taken.

Three of the Louisville, Ky., police officers involved in the murder of Breonna Taylor in her home had been sanctioned several times for violating department policies. Officer Brett Hankison was allowed to continue to serve while being the focus of a lawsuit alleging he harassed suspects and planted drugs. Taylor was killed during a no-knock warrant.

A 2019 American Economic Journal article indicated a relationship between civilian allegations of misconduct and the likelihood of officer misconduct

“First, the nonlinear relationship between civilian allegations and civil rights litigation implies that intervention efforts could be fruitfully concentrated among a relatively small group of officers. The evidence suggested that only officers with abnormally high allegations should be scrutinized,” noted part of the research work. “Second, the results show that the mere presence of excessive civilian allegations, whether or not investigated or sustained, can be used to identify officers who are at high risk of perpetrating serious misconduct and creating significant liability for the city.”

Mitchell said prior to hiring an officer, a background check is made with law enforcement agencies where the officer worked, if applicable, and with the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training.

Another push following the death of Floyd has been to remove or amend qualified immunity for police officers. The rule has been broadly followed after a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which justices noted that police officers and government officials “performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker, who has been praised for his department’s approach to community policing and working peacefully with those involved in recent protests, does not support removing qualified immunity.

“A serious discussion about removing qualified immunity from police officers cannot be had until we also talk about doing it for politicians, judges, and attorneys. Because that is not currently on the table, it seems. I find the legal push to do it for police officers suspicious and disingenuous at best,” Baker noted in a statement. “Of course, we need more transparency and accountability. However, the Police still need the ability to do their jobs or there would be little reason to enter this profession. Qualified immunity only exists for a police officer when he or she is operating within policy. Allowing an officer to be sued simply for doing their job will bog down the legal system and discourage any law enforcement action.”