Deputies resign, sheriff apologizes: ACLU, MADD call for vigorous prosecution
"They both have relayed their deepest regrets for their actions that may have brought embarrassment to this department, this administration, their fellow officers and themselves, as well as the citizens of White County." -Pat Garrett White County Sheriff
Two White County Sheriff Department deputies involved in alcohol-related incidents resigned Wednesday night, but political fallout from the incidents continues to rain on the department.
Detective Britt Simpson had a drunken run-in with a Brinkley police officer on Sept. 21, and Lieutenant Jim Hale was arrested for drunken driving in Dallas, Texas, on Sept. 24. After the incidents, Sheriff Pat Garrett handed Simpson a ten-day suspension, but reserved disciplinary action against Hale until and if he is convicted by the Texas courts, noting that "in America, you're innocent until proven guilty."
But after incidents became public, Garrett called an emergency meeting of his management staff to discuss the matter. By the end of the meeting Simpson and Hale had handed in their resignations.
"They both have relayed their deepest regrets for their actions that may have brought embarrassment to this department, this administration, their fellow officers and themselves, as well as the citizens of White County," wrote Garrett in a statement faxed to news organizations.
"It is at times very hard to admit that a mistake in judgment can cost a law enforcement officer their careers. These men have served White County for several years with honor and clean records. Although their actions are inexcusable to my department and to the citizens they serve, I wish it noted that we appreciate their many years of honorable service."
Garrett went on to personally apologize for the officers' behavior.
"I know that the citizens of White County hold my deputies to a higher standard," he wrote.
But while Garrett may have hoped to put the controversy behind him, Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas said Simpson's resignation doesn't settle a thing.
"What [Simpson] did he did while holding up his badge," Sklar said Thursday. "Those African-American men in Brinkley submitted to him because he had a badge, and you can't make that better by him resigning."
According to a statement from Ryan Hollowell, an officer with the Brinkley Police Department, on Sept. 21 a drunken Simpson patted down several black men for drugs, took Hollowell's gun and threatened the men with it, and repeatedly used a racial slur.
The men later said Simpson drove through an apartment complex firing a gun out his truck window, but police could not independently verify that accusation.
"If you or I took an officer's gun and fired it in the air, we would probably still be in jail," said Sklar. "And if an African-American did it, he'd probably be dead."
Sklar said the ACLU wants the prosecuting attorney in Monroe County to "vigorously pursue" an investigation into the incident. She has also sent a letter to the U.S. Dept. of Justice requesting a civil rights investigation.
Additionally, she said, "people involved might want to get legal representation to pursue a private civil rights action of their own." She said the ACLU will consider representing the men in Brinkley.
Beyond the particular injustices done to the men in Brinkley, said Sklar, there are broader issues concerning relations between the police and the black communities in both Brinkley and White County.
"It's over-generalization to say that we have concerns about the entire White County Sheriff's Department," she said. "But race is still a major problem in our nation, period. And a racist officer can cause grave consequences because they carry a badge and a gun."
Teresa Belew, executive director of the Arkansas chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said her organization is also very concerned about the incidents involving Simpson and Hale.
"When I first heard there were two incidents involving officers, I said, 'Say it isn't true,'" she said.
The sheriff's department has been "very supportive" of the White County chapter of MADD, said Belew, who stressed that MADD likewise was a "big supporter" of law enforcement.
"But can you imagine if [Simpson] had been any other citizen?" she asked.
According to Hollowell's statement, Hollowell allowed a very drunken Simpson to drive away from the scene of the confrontation with the black men.
MADD has also asked the Monroe County prosecuting attorney to further investigate the incident, paying particular attention to the legal issues involved with one officer allowing another officer to drive drunk.
"In order for the scales of justice to be balanced there has to be a level playing field," she said. "And law enforcement needs to be treated just like everyone else."
Belew was equally concerned about Hale's Texas incident, in part because Garrett said that an officer of the Baylor Hospital Police Force had suggested it was a mistake to arrest a fellow law enforcement officer.
Hale was arrested while driving Garrett's father's truck. Garrett told The Daily Citizen that he and Hale traveled to Texas to participate in a gun show, and had separate hotel rooms. At about 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 24, said Garrett, Hale showed up at his room and asked to borrow the truck to get something to eat.
Just 45 minutes later, at 10:15 p.m., Hale was stopped by a Baylor police officer and was found to have a blood alcohol content of .165 percent, over twice the legal limit.
"The whole scenario" said Belew, "is a reminder to everyone to be extra vigilant, and to take extra care when deciding to drink."
The Texas chapter of MADD will follow Hale's case through the court system, said Belew, and will make sure that Texas prosecutors don't drop the matter.
Belew said her organization urges companies and organizations to confront alcohol abuse head-on by sponsoring voluntary treatment programs and extending health benefits to cover substance abuse.