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Opinion Facing union pushback, another Black police chief steps down

Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey appears during a news conference in Little Rock, in 2020. (Andrew Demillo/AP)

After three tumultuous years on the job, Little Rock police chief Keith Humphrey announced his retirement last week. His resignation is just the latest in an exodus of reform-oriented Black police chiefs across the country after aggressive, ugly and often racist pushback from police unions and their supporters.

Humphrey was appointed by Frank Scott, Little Rock’s first elected Black mayor. Scott had made police reform a central part of his campaign, particularly after my own reporting for The Post revealed that the city’s narcotics unit had been conducting extraordinarily violent no-knock raids. Scott vowed to change the LRPD’s no-knock policy, and under Humphrey, he did. The city conducted 57 such raids in 2018. As of December, there had been just three since Humphrey took office in April 2019.

Humphrey was an outsider with a history of reform, and was appointed over two longtime LRPD officers supported by the city’s police union. All of that posed a threat to the status quo. Moreover, a contentious incident awaited him the moment he took office: A White police officer had shot and killed a Black motorist during a traffic stop. Dash-cam footage showed the officer had created the confrontation by stepping in front of the car as the motorist tried to drive away, a violation of LRPD policy. So, in his first major decision as chief, Humphrey fired the officer.

The backlash was swift and severe. Humphrey immediately faced denunciations from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), a wave of lawsuits and open, public insubordination from high-ranking officers within his department. All but one of those lawsuits were handled by one attorney with ties to the city’s old guard, who has repeatedly demonstrated his hostility to Humphrey and who misrepresented his dealings with me in a court declaration.

Humphrey quickly learned just how entrenched the power structure in Little Rock was. In the summer of 2020, he was criticized for marching with Black Lives Matter protesters, and was later hauled before a committee of the Arkansas legislature, where White lawmakers and law enforcement leaders berated him. In two separate investigations into complaints filed against Humphrey after he fired another officer for misconduct, the allegedly impartial investigators themselves donated to a GoFundMe for the terminated officer.

As a now-retired Black LRPD officer pointed out to me, one tried-and-true way to take down a prominent Black man in the South is to accuse him of being promiscuous — and of making advances on White women in particular. Humphrey was hit with that, too. Back in 2020, one high-ranking subordinate who had been a candidate for the chief job circulated a text message encouraging the recipients to report Humphrey if they’d heard him making inappropriate remarks. One of the text’s recipients said it felt like an effort to manufacture evidence against the chief. She would later file her own complaint with the city, alleging that she had been pressured to make claims against Humphrey that weren’t true. According to my own sources, the harassment claims 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 (the city council) scheduled no-confidence votes against him, though both were withdrawn at the last minute.

Two people close to Humphrey say they think the union’s campaign against him took a toll. “How could it not?” said Mike Laux, Humphrey’s lawyer. “It was just relentless. Almost every day they went after him for something new.” But the 58-year-old Humphrey insists that isn’t why he’s stepping down. “My decision was based on knowing the proper 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 infected the LRPD for decades. The mostly White official police union is run by a select group of mostly White insiders, they said, who ensure the union and its supporters are protected from discipline, are first in line for promotions and receive choice assignments. Black officers are routinely passed over, especially those who speak out about racism, police brutality and civil rights. (The police union did not respond to questions during my previous reporting on this subject; they later issued a statement saying, in part, “the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police strives to be an organization of inclusiveness and is dedicated to achieving true progress.”)

Humphrey was hardly a radical. He pushed for familiar, outward-facing reforms — body cameras, a citizens’ review board and sourcing investigations of officer shootings to outside organizations. But he also pushed for more police funding. And the reforms he enacted that most angered the union shouldn’t have been controversial, such as an anti-nepotism policy, limiting how long officers can serve in elite units and rotating command staff.

Police management experts say such policies are critical to breaking up the fiefdoms that can develop in poorly managed departments. But barons don’t easily hand over their domains. The problem with these particular reforms wasn’t that they hurt cops — most LRPD officers benefited from them. The problem was that they threatened the union’s grip on the department.

Ironically, Humphrey would later become a test subject for his own reforms. Keeping with his policy that even high-ranking officers should do routine patrol, 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 fired at the assailant. As a result, he became the first LRPD officer subjected to his own policy requiring shootings to be investigated by an outside organization — in this case, the Arkansas State Police. That investigation is ongoing.

While Humphrey is sanguine about his retirement, he’s also clear about what his successor will be up against. In the wrong hands, he says, the department could slip back to the days of, as he puts it, “oppressing and suppressing certain demographics” within the city.

“If I were White, the obstacles I encountered would not have existed,” he says. “The next chief must remain committed to not allowing the FOP to control this department.”