This Arkansas legislator was arrested for observing police — a right he already fought for
Civil rights attorney John Walker says he has been bearing witness to the unfair treatment of African-Americans by police since the 1960s. But on Sept. 26, Walker's decision to watch an arrest in progress in Little Rock, Arkansas, didn't just annoy the on-scene officers — it got him, and an attorney from his law firm, arrested.
The officer who arrested Walker, a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives, and Walker's young colleague Omavi Shukur, seemed to think the 79-year-old was interfering, and that Walker only wanted to record the arrest to make a big deal out of the routine traffic stop of black men.
Allegations of unfair and unduly harsh treatment of African-Americans by police in Arkansas, whether substantiated or not, have been a concern for years, according to a state task force on racial profiling. Blacks make up a little over 15% of the state's population, higher than the national percentage, but are disproportionately stopped by police.
"There's a tendency [among officers] to believe that these people [they've stopped] are worthless and can be treated any kind of way," Walker, who is black, said in a phone interview.
One reason behind the officer's scorn has everything to do with Walker and his having helped pass a law in 2015 which made it legal for Arkansas residents to watch and document police without their permission — a fact the officer, Jason Roberts, is seen admitting to on dash cam footage.
In incidences Walker has witnessed over the years, police have dodged public criticism by pointing the finger back at the whistleblower. "They almost always say that we're the provocateurs," Walker said.
The circumstances leading to Walker's arrest were no different that fall day Walker came upon the scene of a traffic stop by Little Rock police. Instead of a single police cruiser, the black driver's vehicle was surrounded by multiple cruisers.
"Every time multiple [officers] arrest a black man, now, if I'm around, I'm going to take pictures. There have been too many killings."
Walker took a perch and attempted to film from across the street. The driver noticed Walker and asked why he was filming.
"I'm making sure they don't kill you," Walker responded.
That comment caught the attention of Roberts and another officer, who left the scene of the traffic stop to confront Walker. When Walker expressed concern at the large presence of officers for the arrest of one driver, officers said they were training rookies.
"Every time multiple [officers] arrest a black man, now, if I'm around, I'm going to take pictures," Walker is heard telling the officers. "There have been too many killings."
Walker said he had been referring to other recent fatal encounters with Little Rock police — although, on that day, he could have easily been referencing any number of police shootings in the United States which sparked protests nationwide in the previous week.
At that point, the otherwise civil encounter took a turn. In a police videos, one of the officers is heard asking, "Mr. Walker, have you ever been a police officer?"
But as Walker tries to further explain his purpose for being there, Roberts is heard cutting in: "Until you walk a mile in the shoes of a police officer, you have no idea what goes on."
"You're the type of person who tries to exploit this to try to cause chaos," he continues. "You're a race-baiter, is what you are. Okay?"
When Roberts and another officer returned to the scene of the traffic stop, Walker followed them and refused to return to the other side of the street. At this point, Shukur, who works with Walker in his Little Rock law firm, had already joined Walker on the scene. "I had a fear that they might try to arrest me, so I called Omavi," he said.
The police did arrest them on a misdemeanor charge of interfering with government operations, alleging the men had approached the scene in an "antagonistic and provocative manner," according to KTHV-TV. Police video clearly shows neither Walker nor Omavi were acting belligerently before their arrest.
"My boss and I were arrested for being black, privileged and giving a damn about these men and their sister; for not being pacified in our second-class citizenship," Shukur wrote in a Facebook post Sept. 27, after he and Walker were released from jail.
The office of Pulaski County prosecutor Larry Jegley announced last Thursday it would not prosecute Walker or Shukur, the Arkansas Times reported. The chief of police and the mayor have apologized to Walker in a letter. But Walker said he refuses to accept the apology until charges are formally dropped against Shukur. Jegley's office has "nolle prossed" Shukur's case, a term for charges that are put on hold and can be brought back within a year, at the prosecutor's discretion.
Last week's ordeal wasn't the first time Walker caught a case for watching police officers interact with blacks. He's been concerned about racial profiling in Arkansas — but nationally, law enforcement data shows African-American are 30% more likely than whites to be pulled over, three time more likely to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested.
Arkansas, which has passed laws discouraging officers' use of race, ethnicity, national origin or religion in deciding whether to stop or investigate individuals, has a statewide task force on racial profiling. According to the most recent racial profiling report by the state Attorney General's Office in 2011, one-third of all complaints about police received by the office in the preceding year were of race-based discrimination.
In 2005, Walker was arrested by police in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where he'd stopped to watch officers executing a traffic stop of young black men. An officer and his partner, seemingly bothered by Walker's presence at the scene, arrested the lawmaker for obstructing governmental operations — practically the same offense for which Walker was arrested last week.
He successfully sued the City of Pine Bluff and the officer in U.S. District Court for violating his constitutional right against unlawful arrest under the Fourth Amendment. The city and the officer later failed in challenging the lower court's decision in Walker v. City of Pine Bluff, after asserting in the U.S. Court of Appeals that the officer enjoyed privileged immunity from civil prosecution as a sworn policeman.
Fast forward a decade and Walker, who was elected to represent Little Rock in 2011, championed legislation that bars police or other public officials from prohibiting any person from observing and recording activities taking place in out in the open. The law was adopted in 2015.
Little did Walker's arresting officer know, Walker had inadvertently failed to record anything on his smartphone, Shukur said in an interview.
"Mr. Walker didn't know how to work the camera on his phone."