When body-camera footage of an aggressive or abusive police officer goes viral, the response from law enforcement groups is often to caution that we shouldn’t judge the entire system based on actions of a few bad apples. That’s fair enough. But what does it say about the system when the cops gets away with their bad behavior? What if, despite video footage clearly showing that the cops are in the wrong, sheriffs and police chiefs cover for them, anyway? What if local prosecutors do, too? What if even mayors and city attorneys get into the act?
Adam Finley had such an interaction with a bad cop. He was roughed up, sworn at and handcuffed. When he tried to file a complaint, he was hit with criminal charges. The local police chief turned Finley’s wife against him, which (according to both Finley and her) eventually ended their marriage. The fact that video of the incident should have vindicated him didn’t seem to matter.
Finley’s trouble — first reported by the Jonesboro Sun and Stan Morris at NEA Report — began in December 2016 in Walnut Ridge, Ark. It’s a small town of about 5,000 in the northeast part of the state — its charmingly humble claim to fame is that the Beatles once changed planes there. Officer Matthew Mercado of the Walnut Ridge Police Department pulled Finley over, near the railroad yard where Finley works. But Finley hadn’t committed any traffic infraction. Instead, Mercado apparently suspected that Finley didn’t really work for the railroad and therefore was trespassing, or perhaps engaged in some sort of criminal mischief.
The encounter quickly escalated. But as you can see in the video below, the escalation was entirely due to Mercado’s behavior, not Finley’s.
Mercado didn’t turn on the audio for his camera until about 30 seconds into the stop. During that time, the video shows Finley handing Mercado both his license and his employee ID from the railroad company. Mercado then asks Finley to get out of his truck. It’s here that Mercado then turns on his mic. He asks Finley, “What’s with the attitude?” Finley, who appears to have done nothing to indicate an “attitude,” replies, “Nothing.”
Mercado persists. “No, you have an attitude. What’s your problem?” Finley responds, “I don’t have no problem, I’m good.” Mercado again pushes. “I can pull you over if I want.” Finley says, “That’s fine.”
Later Mercado again expresses doubt about Finley’s employment — again, despite having Finley’s employee ID in his own hands. “It doesn’t look like you were working,” he says. As he says this, Finley takes a small step away from the truck. Mercado snaps, “If you get up on me again, we’re going to have problems.” Finley, clearly taken aback at the escalation, flashes a nervous smile. Mercado again ratchets up the tension. “I’m glad you think all of this is a joke, sir.” Finley shakes his head and again tells Mercado that he works for the railroad. Mercado again indicates that he doesn’t believe him.
Mercado then orders Finley to put his hands behind his back, and says he’s going to arrest him for “obstructing my operation.” Finley, clearly nervous, protests and tries to prove to Mercado that he works for the railroad by showing him some equipment in the back of his truck. At this point the stop turns violent. Mercado grabs Finley and throws him against the truck. Finley puts his hands behind his back. Mercado cuffs him and says, “You’re about ignorant.” He then again shoves Finley into the truck, this time with enough force to dislodge his own body camera, which falls to the ground.
Over the course of the next several minutes, Mercado repeatedly uses profanity, lectures to Finley as if he were a child and claims that Finley is “hostile and aggressive.” Throughout all of this, Finley is remarkably calm, insisting over and over that he works for the railroad, and that he doesn’t understand why he was pulled over.
Mercado ultimately released Finley without arresting him, likely after finally realizing that Finley really did work for the railroad and had done nothing wrong. But before he does, he issued multiple threats and allegations. At one point he tells Finley, “The next time I tell you something, you’re going to ride lightning.” He’s referring here to a stun gun. Later he warns, “Don’t later on try to complain that I roughed you up or anything like that, because you know I should take your ass to jail.” He also falsely accuses Finley of “assaulting a peace officer.” For good measure, just before walking away, Mercado asks, “Did we learn anything today, Adam?” Finley responds, “Yeah. I learned a lot.” This is undoubtedly true.
But the lessons would keep coming. Finley and his wife later went to the Walnut Ridge Police Department to file a complaint. Instead of taking the complaint, Police Chief Chris Kirksey and Sgt. Matt Cook interrogated and scolded Finley. Cook then wrote Finley two citations for “refusal to submit” and “obstructing governmental operations.” Note that Mercado didn’t feel compelled to cite Finley. It was only after Finley attempted to file a complaint about Mercado’s behavior that Mercado’s supervisors hit him with two misdemeanors. (Note: The Walnut Ridge Police Department declined to comment, citing Finley’s lawsuit. A WRPD officer also relayed my request for comment to Kirksey, who also declined.)
At one point during the interaction, Finley left the room, leaving Kirksey alone with Finley’s wife, Heather. At one point after Adam Finley left, Kirksey said, “From what I saw, he’s lucky he isn’t going to jail.” Heather responded, “Who? Adam? For what?”
“Obstruction of justice.”
“What did he do?”
“He interfered with a law enforcement officer’s investigation … ”
“How did he do that?”
“… Well, when you watch the video, you’ll find out.”
Again, the video shows nothing of the kind. But authority figures can be incredibly persuasive. And there are few positions that project more authority than a chief of police. Perhaps that’s how Kirksey managed to turn Finley’s own wife against him. She said to Kirksey, “Well, there’s probably more to it than what he … I don’t know what he did, he gets a little … ”
“Does he get irate?”
At that point Finley returned, and the two stopped talking. The full exchange begins at about the 8:00 mark in the video below.
Both Adam and Heather Finley would later tell Morris that this exchange eventually ruined their marriage. They’re now divorced. “I’m sure they had their problems, like any marriage. But I think that was definitely the main thing that did it,” says Adam Finley’s attorney, Mark Rees.
Finley’s case then went to the office of Third Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Henry Boyce, who assigned it to deputy prosecutor Ryan Cooper. Again, despite the video, Cooper moved forward with the charges against Finley. He took the case all the way to trial. In April 2017, an Arkansas judge acquitted Finley on both counts. Finley filed a civil rights lawsuit in April 2018. The city answered in May with a brief arguing that Finley hadn’t made an actionable claim, had missed the statute of limitations and had failed to sufficiently serve the officials he is suing.
When the lawsuit went public, local media outlets filed open-records requests for video of the traffic stop and any records related to it. Morris, a former newspaper reporter who runs what is essentially a one-man operation (NEA stands for Northeast Arkansas), had been particularly dogged in pursuing the story, filing multiple open-records requests, poring through the results on his Web-based program, then asking Walnut Ridge officials to answer for what he had found.
At one point, Morris said, Kirksey called him in to his office and pleaded with him not to publish anything about the incident. “He had Mercado in there with him,” Morris said in a telephone interview. “Mercado said he made a mistake by using the f-word and apologized. But they also told me that the video would show that Finley was wrong” — just as Kirksey had done with Finley’s wife.
When Morris finally saw the video, he felt deceived. “It definitely helped me understand what that meeting was really about,” he said. “I think they knew that this would be a big problem for them, and they tried to mislead me.”
After he sent his open-records request, city attorney Nancy Hall texted Morris to fill him in on some additional information about Finley — that he had been the subject of a protective order from his first wife. “I hadn’t asked for anything about that,” Morris said. “I thought it was completely irrelevant. They were trying to make him look violent.” He later learned that Hall was the personal attorney for Finley’s first wife during the divorce. “That seemed like a conflict of interest. I asked Finley about the order. I still didn’t think it was relevant. But he made a persuasive case that it was all a misunderstanding.”
Morris later obtained a copy of Mercado’s police report on the original traffic stop and noted a number of contradictions between the two. Among them:
- Mercado claimed that Finley wouldn’t hand over his driver’s license when he asked for it, and instead “he just waved it front of me.” The video shows Finley promptly handing over his license.
- Mercado claimed Finley at one point said “this is the stupidest s— ever.” That isn’t depicted anywhere in the audio. It’s possible that Finley said this at the outset of the traffic stop, before Mercado turns on his mic, but that seems inconsistent with Finley’s language and demeanor during the entire portion of the video for which there’s audio.
- Mercado claimed that Finley “made an aggressive step” toward him. The video doesn’t show anything of the kind.
- Mercado claimed that once he restrained Finley, he continued to look for evidence that Finley was an employee of the railroad company. But he had that evidence — Finley’s ID card — from the very first moments of the encounter.
- Mercado claimed that Finley drove his shoulder into him, which dislodged his body camera. The video seems to show that Mercado was the aggressor, and that his camera came loose when he threw Finley into the side of the truck.
Despite all of this, city officials continued to defend the stop and the criminal charges, both publicly and privately. Their main claim was that Finley had been aggressive and combative before Mercado activated his microphone, and that it was this behavior that escalated the situation. There are several reasons to be skeptical of that claim. First, only about 30 seconds transpire before Mercado activates his mic. Second, the silent footage of that 30 seconds doesn’t suggest that Finley was angry or uncooperative. Third, it seems odd that Finley would be aggressive and rude for the first half minute of the stop, then immediately become cooperative the moment Mercado turned on his mic. It also isn’t clear that he would have known when the mic was on or off. Finally, there should have been dashboard-camera footage of the entire incident, including that first 30 seconds. There wasn’t. Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp initially claimed there was no dashboard camera in Mercado’s car. When photos indicated that it was outfitted with a camera, the city said they could not access footage because of dash-camera software changes.
Snapp did issue a verbal warning to Mercado, but only for using the “F-bomb” — as he put it — during the stop. The rest of Mercado’s actions apparently didn’t merit discipline. In April, Boyce, the head prosecutor, put out a press release defending the decision to charge Finley. Boyce pointed out that under Arkansas law, it’s illegal to resist an arrest, even if there was no legal justification for the arrest itself. That may be true, but it’s also true that a prosecutor has the discretion to decline to bring charges if doing so wouldn’t be in the interest of justice. Resisting an illegal arrest would seem to be the sort of scenario for which it would be appropriate to use that sort of discretion. An even more appropriate scenario would be one in which the arrestee wasn’t even resisting, as the video strongly suggests.
Nevertheless, Boyce declared in his press statement that “I have … reviewed the video of the incident that led to the citations being issued and feel that the evidence justified the recommendation Mr. Cooper made to the Chief of Police.” Hall, the city attorney, also said the city’s legal team would “make quick work” of the case and said, “It’s sad that this happened because we have such good, hard-working personnel within our department.”
Morris kept digging and discovered that roughly two years before the incident with Finley, Mercado had been arrested for battery, though he was acquitted. Moreover, before he was hired by the Walnut Ridge Police Department, he had left two different police agencies in Colorado in a span of less than three months. He had been on the job in Walnut Ridge for 11 days before he pulled Finley over.
Mercado resigned a couple of months after the incident with Finley, and he has since moved back to Colorado. Despite the timing, it isn’t clear if his resignation was forced or voluntary. His message seems to indicate he was looking for more pay, and he asked that he be reconsidered for law enforcement if Walnut Ridge followed up on a proposal to merge with a nearby town. Kirksey responded with an email praising Mercado’s service to the department.
When video of the stop was finally made public, reaction was quite a bit different than that of city officials. Commenters to Morris’s reports expressed outrage on behalf of Finley. The managing editor of the Jonesboro Sun sharply criticized city leaders in an opinion piece, and the police department said it was temporarily shutting down its Facebook page.
Perhaps seeing the public pressure building, the city placed Kirksey and Cook on administrative leave, albeit 16 months after their alleged infractions. Kirksey resigned last month, although here again, there was no public indication that his resignation was related to his handling of the Finley complaint. Cook is back on the job. Boyce and Cooper also remain on the job.
There’s an argument to be made here that the two officers who treated Finley most poorly have since resigned and therefore have been held accountable. But for accountability to work, for it to serve as a deterrent to bad behavior, there should be clear, articulated connection between the behavior and the punishment. Here, the reason for both resignations remains ambiguous.
It’s tempting to blow all this off as a single, insignificant incident in a small town. It isn’t Los Angeles’s Rampart, after all. Or Chicago’s systemized torture. But it also isn’t unique. There’s a steady stream of stories like this one. I was alerted to this particular story by a former police officer who now advocates criminal-justice reform. (He asked me not to use his name, for reasons that will be apparent in a moment.) I asked him: In his experience, how common is this sort of thing? His response:
This is very common in policing. Looking back on my career, I realize just how often I acted similarly and didn’t even realize it. It was subconscious. I was trained and subtly incentivized to do so. You intentionally create conflict and manufacture noncompliance in order to build your stop into an arrest situation. Because that’s what generations of law enforcers who have been steeped in a fear-based, comply or else, us-vs.-them mind-set do. They arrest people. Arrests are a primary measure of productivity and gives the appearance your department has solved a problem.
Most aggressive cops have honed this to an art. They are savvy, know exactly how to weaponize numerous petty laws, ordinances, use-of-force policy and procedure against citizens. This cop was off his game and clumsily went through the motions like a desperate door-to-door perfume salesman. Except when cops manufacture a “sale” like this, the “customer” ends up arrested, criminalized, emotionally and financially devastated, not to mention possibly physically beaten or worse. And the justice system will deem it legal, even when it isn’t.
As far as the police leadership and prosecutors, they knew exactly what they were doing. If someone makes a complaint, you find something, anything to charge them with.
Finley wasn’t shot, or choked to death, or found hanging in a jail cell. He didn’t suffer any permanent or lasting physical injury. Mercado didn’t even use racist or bigoted language. But Finley did everything he was supposed to. From the footage we can see and hear, he was polite, provided ID when it was asked of him and stepped out of the truck when ordered. Despite cooperating, he was treated poorly, detained and roughed up. When he then tried to file a complaint, he was harassed, and the chief of police attempted to turn his own wife against him — by citing video she hadn’t seen and that ultimately vindicated her husband. Yet even after viewing that video, city officials proceeded to prosecute. And even after the video was released, city officials maligned Finley in the press and insisted that the residents of Walnut Ridge believe the assertions of authority figures over the video evidence that contradicted them.
The “lesson” Finley learned here is pretty clear. Power usually wins. You can be as cooperative as possible, but if a police officer wants to dish out some abuse, he can. And he’ll probably get away with it. Try to hold him accountable if you’d like, but just know that doing so may come with a heavy price.
Once other public officials cover up for “bad apple” cops, the story is no longer about the bad apples. It’s about systemic failure. It’s about public servants willing to tolerate abuse because they’re more loyal to one another than to the public they serve. It’s difficult to say how someone in a position of authority — someone with the public trust — could view footage of the encounter between Mercado and Finley and proclaim they believe that the criminal charges against Finley were merited. Perhaps they were just lying. Or perhaps they were so blinded by deference to law enforcement, a fear of accountability or a knee-jerk defense of authority that they actually believe what they’re saying. I’m not sure which of those scenarios ought to worry us more.