Neither tactical genius nor exceptional valor is necessary to bring about a bloodless end to a standoff involving a 107-year-old man armed with a handgun and surrounded by police officers inside an otherwise vacant house. Patience, discipline, and familiarity with the art of de-escalation would be sufficient for that purpose. But that approach doesn’t win official commendations, at least in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Members of the Pine Bluff PD’s SWAT team were awarded “lifesaving medal of valor” awards following a September 7, 2013 standoff that ended with 107-year-old Monroe Isadore dying in a torrential outburst of gunfire. Let it not be said that the department is incapable of discretion. The awards were done with so little fanfare that the public – including Isadore’s son and daughter – wasn’t aware of them until Pine Bluff alderwomen Thelma Walker introduced a resolution on July 5 to rescind the commendations.
“It was shocking when I found out about it,” Tyrone Isadore told the local ABC affiliate.
“I looked up `valor,’ and I’m like, `No, that doesn’t fit to what they did to my dad,” added Isadore’s daughter, Paula Aguilar.
Walker’s resolution to rescind the awards was quickly approved by the city council – and has been stolidly ignored by the police department. Rather than deferring to the municipal government to which it supposedly answers, the Pine Bluff PD, working through the local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, has retained legal counsel in order to “weigh out the officers’ options.”
Rather than ordering the department to comply with the city council’s directive, Mayor Debe Hollingsworth is indulging the officers’ desire to retain the baubles they were awarded for gunning down a confused centenarian.
“It’s a tough decision to make,” Mayor Hollingsworth pretended to believe in an interview with KATV News, “and I think that it’s only just if they understand what their options are, as what they should do or should not do and it’s up to them.”
Actually, it is not “up to them”; the department has received a lawful order from the municipal government’s legislative branch, which should be enforced by the executive officer. Her reaction savors strongly of Praetorianism – deadly deference to the military of a sort that characterizes banana republics.
“I don’t understand the rationale.” Councilwoman Walker declared in frustration. “I don’t understand why anyone would want a medal, who can you show it to? Oh, I have a medal of valor – well, were you in the war? No, I killed a 107-year-old man. You know, who would want that?”
The recent history of Pine Bluff’s deeply dysfunctional police department demonstrates an institutional preference for preference for escalation, rather than containment.
Isadore, who suffered the mental and emotional instability attendant to his advanced age, allegedly pointed a pistol at landlady Pauline Lewis and another housemate after Lewis – who had allowed the old man to live there for a few weeks – suggested that he should find another apartment.
By the time police arrived, Lewis and her friend were no longer in danger. This was not a hostage situation, and the 107-year-old suspect was not a threat to engage in a killing spree. There was no reason why the SWAT team couldn’t simply lock down the house, and wait out the suspect – apart from the fact that tactical officers are trained to deal with such situations as military engagements that end when the “enemy” is “taken out.”
SWAT teams attract people with an appetite for kicking ass, preferably in situations involving minimal risk. Where real danger exists – as in the recent mass shooting in Orlando, for example – SWAT operators will be judicious to the point of paralysis, dithering and equivocating until the shooter has sated his depraved appetite. Charging a bedroom occupied by a mentally unbalanced 107-year-old armed with a small-caliber pistol is a task better suited to the skill set and valor of the typical SWAT team.
As it happens, the valiant men of the Pine Bluff, Arkansas Police Department’s SWAT team were equal to that task.
“It was a lot,” one witness told KHTV news, referring to the number of shots fired by the SWAT team in the home where Isadore had holed up. “I can’t even count on my hands.” Another witness said that at least thirty rounds had been fired during the fatal fusillade.
Isadore reportedly fired a couple of desultory shots at the SWAT operators who inserted a tear gas grenade into the house, and then a few more after the entry team flung a flash-bang grenade into the bedroom.
Long before its SWAT team brought a needlessly bloody end to its standoff with Monroe Isadore, the Pine Bluff PD had displayed a propensity for overkill. In April 2012, for example, Officer Anthony Brown, who was assigned as a school “resource officer” at Jack Robey Junior High School, unleashed a chemical barrage to clear a hallway when students were a bit sluggish in returning to class after lunch.
Three students were sent to the hospital with respiratory problems. The mace assault would have been treated as a terrorist attack had it been committed by a Mundane. Officer Brown was “punished” by being docked eight hours’ pay. Neither Brown nor any of the other three Pine Bluff cops assigned as “school resource officers” had any specialized training for that role. This helps explain why his instinctive response to trivial adolescent defiance was to deploy a chemical weapon.
Pine Bluff officers appear to retain their instinct for excessive force off-duty. A few years ago, a Pine Bluff officer moonlighting as a security guard at a local big box retail store attacked and arrested a handicapped shopper named Scott Mouser, then charged him with “obstructing governmental operations” for being insufficiently submissive during the assault. The man had forgotten his cane and provoked the officer’s suspicion by using a shopping cart to assist him while shopping.
Mayor Hollingsworth’s reluctance to confront the SWAT team over its stolen valor in the Monroe Isadore case might have something to do with the fact that the police department, in addition to being a danger to the public it supposedly serves, has been at war with itself.
Tolstoy famously said that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In a similar vein it could be said that every corrupt and abusive police department – the only variety on offer, as it happens – has its own distinctive form of institutional dysfunction. Police culture encourages a pathological sense of entitlement, and in the case of Pine Bluff that tendency appears to have catalyzed latent ethnic antagonisms.
Apparently, nobody employed by the Pine Bluff PD can be fired without immediately filing a civil rights lawsuit alleging various forms of invidious discrimination. Those lawsuits provide a fascinating composite portrait of an organization that seethes with racial resentments, percolates with petty political intrigues – and offers no evidence of being populated by the kind of judicious, disciplined people capable of waiting out a 107-year-old barricaded suspect.
Pine Bluff is an impoverished town of 47,000 people that punches well above its weight where crime is concerned. About 75 percent of the population is black, and a little more than 21 percent are white. Until the administration of former Chief Brenda M. Jones, those proportions were roughly reversed. A few months before the SWAT team slaughtered Isadore, Jones was fired by then-newly installed Mayor Hollingsworth, and promptly filed a lawsuit claiming that she was “discriminated against on account of her race and sex, and in retaliation for having opposed discriminatory practices.”
During her nearly three-year tenure as Pine Bluff Police Chief, Jones narrated in her lawsuit, “The percentage of white officers decreased from 75% to 52% … which caused animosity and racial resentment amongst some of the white officers … chiefly amongst them Chris Powell, who served as President of the Police Officers Benevolent Association (PBA).”
In 2012, Powell’s union approved a no-confidence vote on Jones, which obviously did nothing to endear him with the chief. Powell also publicly supported the mayoral candidacy of Hollingsworth, who was “one of two white candidates running for mayor, out of a field of approximately nine candidates, the rest of whom were African-American.”
Taking advantage of a crowded field and a divided “African-American” turnout, Hollingsworth was elected with a little less than half of the votes that were cast – and in her first official act as Mayor, she fired Jones. According to the ex-Chief, this was done in the interest of appeasing “many of the white officers employed by the Pine Bluff Police Department, and much to the satisfaction of Chris Powell.”
Powell was also fired in 2012 after an internal investigation concluded that he had sexually harassed and intimated a young female police recruit named Keyonna Penister. Shortly thereafter, Powell – in keeping with local customs – filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging that he was the victim of race and sex discrimination. Powell claims that he was the victim of a racist conspiracy “to violate [his] constitutional rights … including his right to be free from discrimination based upon his sex of male, and race of white.”
According to Powell’s version of events, Miss Penister falsely accused him of sexual harassment as part of a plot carried out by then-Chief Jones and Assistant Chief Kelvin Sergeant. This was allegedly done “for the sole purpose of punishing him because of his support [for] Mayor Hollingsworth and because he was white.”
The harassment complaint “was first investigated by Lt. Joann Bates[,] a white female who was assigned to the internal investigation unit and she did not sustain the complaint,” claims Powell. “A second investigation was conducted by two Deputy Police Chiefs who were African-American and not assigned to the internal investigation unit as required by Police Department policy.” Powell insists that “The City of Pine Bluff systematically excluded whites from the Review Committee” created to conduct the second investigation of Penister’s charge.
Powell asserts that the decision to fire him was “arbitrary and capricious… and a motivating factor was [his] race and gender…..” He also claims to be the victim of disparate treatment, because “Black members of the Pine Bluff Police Department who have committed sexual harassment have not been terminated.” Among them, allegedly, are Ivan Whitfield, an assistant Chief of Police, and Officer Ed Johnson, who “was not terminated” despite supposedly conducting an affair while on the clock. Powell also claims that a black officer named Treadwell “threatened other officers and was not fired,” that Officer Billy Bradley “was arrested and found guilty of DWI, leaving the scene of an accident, and making a false statement and was only suspended; and that Lt. James Golden remains on the payroll despite being found “drinking on duty.”
Pine Bluff Police Chief John Howell, who was fired by then-Mayor Carl Redus in Mach 2010, filed his own lawsuit the day after he lost his job. Howell insists that Redus fired him in a fit of incoherent rage when the Chief expressed concerns about a proposed gun turn-in program in which police would void traffic tickets on behalf of citizens who surrendered their firearms. Powell also claims that Redus improperly intervened in criminal cases, sometimes to the extent of questioning witnesses before allowing them to talk to the police.
Redus claimed that he fired Howell for insubordination. The ex-chief described the termination as an act of age and race discrimination – and said that by choosing Brenda Jones, a 48-year-old black single mother, Redus validated that claim.
Howell’s suit was dismissed by a federal judge in December 2010. While Powell and Jones continued to pursue their lawsuits, the office they once held is occupied by Jeff Hubanks, who was lured out of retirement by Mayor Hollingsworth.
The Mayor introduced Hubanks “to a cheering crowd of police officers, many of whom had waited in the parking lot of the civic center for more than an hour,” reported the Pine Bluff Commercial. Powell – who at the time hadn’t yet been shown the door – exulted that by firing Jones and appointing Hubanks, Mayor Hollingsworth had demonstrated that “the era of tyranny is over.”
Hubanks was warmly embraced by his troops, but the public had legitimate cause for concern: Before retiring as a Lieutenant, Hubanks served as commander of the department’s SWAT team for more than a decade. At least some of the operators who carried out the execution of 107-year-old Monroe Isadore were probably selected and trained by him, and he clearly is willing to defy his “civilian” chain of command in order to protect the awards they received for that murderous feat of supposed valor.