LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Little Rock city officials reversed course late Friday, saying they would now release a memorandum of findings from an internal police investigation into a deadly 2021 pursuit after first saying they wouldn’t.
In a statement, Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter said a conversation with Little Rock Police Department Chief Heath Helton clarified the matter that had led the city attorney to earlier determine the review of the March 23, 2021, incident was exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.
Carpenter said his initial decision centered on the idea that the review focused on reviews of specific officers. Since there were no officers suspended, demoted or terminated due to the review’s findings, Carpenter said the review was exempt from FOIA requests.
After discussions with other city officials, Carpenter reached out to Helton, who provided him with a copy of the full review.
After Carpenter reviewed those documents, he said he determined that the review did not focus on disciplinary matters for individual officers but rather looked at the actions of the department as a whole.
That difference, Carpenter concluded, means the review does fall under FOIA rules.
At the heart of the review were the actions taken by the department following the March 2021 pursuit. In that incident, an officer attempted a traffic stop of an SUV that turned into a pursuit, which ended with a crash that killed a passenger, 14-year-old Zayne Ortiz.
Details of the pursuit and crash were uncovered by FOX 16 News reporter Mitch McCoy in a July 2022 news report, which Helton noted in communications with Mayor Frank Scott’s office about the investigation earlier this year.
In July of 2022, Scott’s office asked for an investigation into the incident, focusing on three questions:
- Was there any deliberate effort to withhold information?
- Can any systematic failures be identified to account for the communications breakdown?
- Can a corrective action plan be developed to ensure this kind of incident does not happen again?
Helton submitted a memo outlining the results of the internal investigation to the mayor on February 13, 2023.
Was there any deliberate effort to withhold information?
According to Helton’s memo, the investigation found that multiple members of the LRPD command staff were aware of the pursuit, the death of the teen passenger and potential policy violations made by department staff involved in the incident.
Among those with knowledge of the events were former LRPD Chief Keith Humphrey and former interim Chief Crystal Haskins.
Humphrey told investigators that the pursuit policy violations were taken seriously and investigated. He also noted that, “I did not see a reason to notify anyone in City Hall about this accident,” advising that the death of the teen was due to an “accident” and he never identified City Hall about accidents.
The retired chief also claimed that the “entire command staff of the majority of command staff were aware of the incident,” though investigators claim Humphrey maintained no one intentionally withheld any information.
The investigators noted that attempts were made to get a statement from Haskins but that she never responded.
While investigators said there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate a deliberate effort to withhold information, there was a failure on the part of some members of the command staff to “realize the seriousness of this incident.” The investigators said this lack of a clear communications plan impacted efforts to be transparent by the department.
Can any systematic failures be identified to account for the communications breakdown?
When investigators turned the review to the larger communications issues in the department, they noted that at the time of the pursuit, the LRPD had “ineffective lines of internal communication.”
The challenges faces by the department were not centered on any one individual or incident, but rather the result of “multiple conflicts or disagreements” between command staff and LRPD staff, describing the situation as “a toxic environment fueled by personality conflicts that created distrust and animosity.”
Investigators did note that “significant changes” in the command staff and internal communications since the pursuit have “vastly improved” the situation.
Can a corrective action plan be developed to ensure this kind of incident does not happen again?
As far as steps for a corrective action plan, the memo notes that the policies and procedures the LRPD already has in place for notifications of serious incidents are “sound & proper” but stressed that department members followed those policies.
The corrective plan also advised the department will continue evaluating best practices and maintain a “positive relationship with our media partners.”
LRPD command staff are also now holding weekly meeting with key personnel, including communications staffers, as well as more interdepartmental meetings to allow for more open communication and opportunities to address critical issues.
The Media Relations Unit is also now holding weekly meetings reviewing LRPD communications and possible transparency issues with local media.