Three Arkansas law enforcement officers have been removed from duty and are facing state and federal investigations, officials confirmed Monday, after bystander video captured at least two of them punching and kneeing a suspect during an arrest.
At one point in the 34-second video recorded Sunday, one of the officers also lifts the suspect’s head and slams it into the pavement.
A Crawford County Sheriff’s Department Facebook post identifies the law enforcement personnel involved as sheriff’s deputies Zack King and Levi White and officer Thell Riddle of the Mulberry Police Department. CNN has reached out to the deputies and officer.
The deputies are not rookies and have been in law enforcement “for some time,” while the Mulberry officer has been in policing for “many years” and previously worked for the sheriff’s department, Crawford County Sheriff Jimmy Damante told reporters Monday. They are suspended with pay, he said.
The US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Arkansas confirmed it had opened a federal civil rights investigation. The FBI Little Rock field office and the US Justice Department’s civil rights division are also investigating, according to a statement from the US Attorney’s Office.
Analysts: Use of force seems excessive
The video, which was posted on social media, shows the officers restraining an individual – identified by state police as Randal Worcester, 27, of Goose Creek, South Carolina – near a curb outside a business. One officer throws punches at the person’s face and slams his head to the ground, while another knees the individual in the side and back.
A woman who is not seen on the video says, “Don’t beat him! He needs his medicine!” One officer responds, “Back the f**k up!” while another orders her to get in her car.
“We do not know what would happen if that person would not have been videoing,” said Carrie Jernigan, one of Worcester’s attorneys. “The fight was escalating with those officers and you hear that woman on that video yelling, and whoever that is, I think she could’ve saved his life.”
Damante declined to get into many specifics, emphasizing the case remains under investigation, but said the actions he saw on the video are “not indicative of the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department or any law enforcement agency in this area.”
The deputies “will be punished for what they did, if they’re found to be in violation of any rights,” the sheriff said.
None of the officers was wearing a body camera, but the Mulberry officer had a dashboard camera on his squad car, which provided details on how the scuffle began, the sheriff said without elaborating.
Two CNN senior law enforcement analysts say, judging solely from the video footage, the use of force appears excessive.
Worcester is charged with second-degree battery, resisting arrest, possessing an instrument of crime, criminal trespass, criminal mischief, terroristic threatening and first- and second-degree assault, Arkansas State Police said.
Worcester allegedly threatened a gas station clerk in a neighboring town, Damante told CNN affiliate KHBS. When he was spotted in Mulberry, Worcester was initially cooperative, but then tried to attack the officers, leading to the confrontation in the video, Damante told the station.
The suspect told officers he had a weapon, but the sheriff believes Worcester handed it over before the fight ensued, he told reporters Monday.
Worcester suffered multiple abrasions to his face, scrapes on his knees, scratches, a swollen right ear and had his eye gouged during the altercation with the law enforcement officers, attorney David Powell said.
“Lots of things happened to him that should not have happened during this altercation,” Powell said.
Worcester was released on $15,000 bail, Powell said. He had his bicycle with him as attorneys escorted him out of the detention center, and he gave no audible response to a reporter’s question. He will be staying with family, his lawyers said.
‘It doesn’t make sense’
For two CNN senior law enforcement analysts, there remain questions about what happened before and after the moment caught on video. Yet even if Worcester attacked the officers as alleged, the level of force with which they respond seems excessive, the analysts said.
“Especially the blows to the face and head,” said former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. “At one point in time, you see one of the officers actually lift the head and push it down into the pavement. Obviously, that raises the level of force considerably.” It also heightens the risk of serious injury or death, he said.
Ramsey continued, “Certainly the blows to the head at the same time you’re trying to get a person to put their hands behind their back – think about it. It doesn’t make sense. If you’re getting hit in the face, you’re going to lift your hands to try to protect your face.”
Ramsey and fellow CNN analyst Andrew McCabe, former deputy director of the FBI, say it’s difficult to imagine what could necessitate the officers’ violent response.
“It is important to remember that this video only catches a portion of the interaction between this individual who was arrested and the three officers,” McCabe said. “Importantly, those officers maintain that before the video that he attacked one of them, punched him in the head, pushed him to the ground. So, there was obviously a scuffle here that led to the use of force.
“However, what we see on that video, it is very, very hard to argue that what you’re seeing – the sort of punches and the kneeing him in the back and slamming his head … on the ground. That is not acceptable, normal, standard police use of force under really any circumstances.”
It’s important to consider there are three officers on a single suspect, McCabe said, and the lawmen do not appear to be using any accepted techniques for handcuffing a suspect.
Rather, it appears to be an “incredibly violent assault seemingly on a person on the ground and under the control of three officers,” he said. “I’m finding it impossible to justify what you’re seeing on that video really in any way.”
If attacked, police have a right to respond with necessary, proportionate and objectively reasonable force, Ramsey said, but the Arkansas officers’ reactions seem neither proportionate nor reasonable. Being attacked “doesn’t give you permission to then use excessive force when taking the individual into custody, period. It just doesn’t,” the former police chief said.
Suspect held on $15,000 bail
The person who posted the video online said her sister witnessed the altercation outside the Kountry Xpress in Mulberry.
“In reference to the video circulating on social media involving two Crawford County Deputies, we have requested that Arkansas State Police conduct the investigation and the Deputies have been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation,” the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
The Mulberry police officer is on administrative leave pending the investigation’s outcome, his department said.
“The City of Mulberry and the Mulberry Police Department takes these investigations very seriously and holds all their officers accountable for their actions,” a Mulberry police statement said.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson found the officers’ actions to be “reprehensible conduct in which a suspect is beat in that fashion,” but said the video shows only a “glimpse” of the encounter.
Without elaborating, he said Worcester “had a history of concern that was legitimate for the officers” but also said the officers’ response was “not consistent” with their training.
“This is not what our law enforcement community represents. It’s not the proper response, and they will be reviewed and appropriate action taken consistent with” the findings of the investigation, the governor said.
Arkansas State Police issued a statement saying its investigation “will be limited to the use of physical force by the deputies and the police officer,” and its findings will be submitted to a local prosecutor who will decide if the use of force was consistent with state law. A spokesperson told CNN the statement was the office’s only comment on the case.
CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe, Nadia Romero and Kevin Conlon contributed to this report.