A Pulaski County circuit judge has ruled a Little Rock police officer who shot and killed a suspect in a stolen car should not have been fired for his actions. In a written opinion issued Thursday, Judge Timothy Fox said a 30-day suspension was "clearly warranted" and a reduction in pay to that of an entry-level officer was "appropriate," but that Starks didn't deserve any additional penalties.
On Feb. 22, 2019, Starks confronted driver Bradley Blackshire, who had backed into a parking spot at 7305 Kanis Road in a reportedly-stolen Nissan Altima. A dashboard camera in the patrol car recorded the brief encounter, in which Starks repeatedly told Blackshire to get out of the car. At one point the car slowly begins moving forward, brushing the officer’s hip, prompting Starks to begin firing his weapon.
Starks stepped in front of the vehicle while continuing to shoot through the windshield, eventually ending up on the car's hood. The department reported 15 shots were fired, with eight striking Blackshire who died.
Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley declined to file charges against the officer, determining that the shooting was justified. Three of Starks’ commanding officers had recommended he be exonerated for the shooting, but department Chief Keith Humphrey fired Starks in May saying he violated department policy by stepping in front of a moving vehicle.
Starks appealed the decision to the city’s Civil Service Commission, which upheld the termination. Starks then appealed to the circuit court.
In his order Thursday, Judge Fox said:
There is no question Appellant Starks' violation of Little Rock Police Department General Order 303.II.E.2 had serious and substantial consequences. One person died. Appellant Starks was seriously injured. There was a passenger who was not severely injured but could have been severely injured or killed. There were civilians in the area who could have been injured or killed by the gunshots. There were other Little Rock Police Department officers whose lives, and those of the members of the public on the roads with them, were placed into danger when such officers responded at high speed to Appellant Starks' position.
As far as the appropriate consequences for Stark’s actions, Fox said:
The court has determined the 30-day suspension and the reduction in salary to that of an entry level officer are sufficient sanctions for Appellant Starks' violation of Little Rock Police Department General Order 303.11.8.2. There are to be no additional or consequential penalties against Appellant Starks.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr. spokeswoman Stephanie Jackson told KUAR News that the city will appeal Fox’s ruling. Because of that appeal, she said the mayor would not be available to comment.
A message was left with a media contact for the family of Bradley Blackshire seeking comment, but was not immediately returned.
Speaking to reporters outside City Hall on the eve of the Civil Service Commission’s hearing in July, the suspect’s mother Kimberly Blackshire-Lee said she was being "retraumatized" by Starks' appeal. "I had no idea that it was possible… that he would actually want to be reinstated as an officer in Little Rock."
Blackshire’s uncle Rizelle Aaron, who is a former president of the Arkansas NAACP, told reporters then that reinstating Starks would endanger the community.
"The streets of Little Rock will not be safe if Charles Starks is on them with a badge and a gun. No city would be safe," Aaron said.
In June, Blackshire-Lee filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Starks and another officer seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
If Starks is eventually reinstated, he would be due back wages. The order by Judge Fox also said he would get credit for years of service for the purposes of retirement and eligibility for promotions.
On Thursday at 5:05 p.m. a statement was released on behalf of the family of Bradley Blackshire by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The family is alarmed and dismayed by Judge Fox’s order. Judge Fox concluded that Officer Starks wrongfully violated the Little Rock Police Department’s policy concerning officer uses of force. Moreover, the judge concluded that Bradley Blackshire died as a consequence of Starks’s violation. Judge Fox went on to explain that Starks’s actions placed bystanders in danger. These findings and conclusions suggest that the Civil Service Commission’s 5-1 vote affirming Starks’s termination should have been allowed to stand. Instead, Judge Fox opened the door for Starks to return to patrolling our community, armed. We hope the City will appeal the judge’s erroneous ruling. In the meantime, we will continue to pursue justice for Bradley Blackshire in federal court.