Federal, state authorities investigating northwest Arkansas police beating in viral video

Mulberry police officer was previously fired from nearby police department

By: and - August 22, 2022 8:00 pm

A screenshot taken from the viral video that captured three Arkansas law enforcement officers beating a suspect in Crawford County on Aug. 21. (Courtesy of Naomi Johnson)

Who are the three officers?

Thell Riddle

Mulberry police officer Thell Riddle has worked in law enforcement since 2000 when he was hired at the Crawford County sheriff’s office. He resigned from the sheriff’s office in 2008 due to “personal conflicts,” according to records from the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training.

Riddle then went to work for the Kibler Police Department. Kibler is a small town of about 1,000 in Crawford County.

Riddle was fired from the department in September 2008, less than six months after being hired, because he was “involved in a domestic disturbance,” according to state records.

THELL RIDDLE

Though he was dismissed from the department, the agency didn’t recommend to state officials that Riddle be decertified.

Five days before the department notified state regulators that Riddle had been terminated, he told an investigator that he “may have hit” his girlfriend while trying to defend himself as she tried to hit him after an argument, according to a Van Buren Police Department report. (Riddle eight days later submitted a written statement, saying he had not told the officer he “may have hit” the woman.)

An officer wrote in the report that he did not see any marks on Riddle.

08-3500 Thell Riddle Report

The woman told police Riddle punched her in the eye. The officer again noted that he did not see any marks on her, the report states.

Van Buren police had been called previously to an altercation between the couple in April 2008. In that case, Riddle and the woman both told officers that he held her down on the bed to prevent her from leaving the home in a vehicle while drunk, the report said.

08-1408 Thell Riddle Report

No charges were filed in either incident, according to Van Buren police.

From 2009-2017, Riddle was employed outside of Arkansas. Numerous news reports from that time period and Riddle’s social media indicate he was the police chief in Gans, Oklahoma.

Gans Mayor Gary McGinnis confirmed that Riddle was the police chief until March 2017. The town of about 300 people is a “one-officer town,” and Riddle left before McGinnis was elected, but McGinnis said he can conclude from experience that Riddle’s tenure as chief was “pretty uneventful.”

Riddle returned to Arkansas in 2017 to work at the Mulberry Police Department, according to the Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training.

Riddle has completed more than 1,584 hours of training on a variety of topics, from use of force to ethics in law enforcement over the course of his career, state records show.

He was praised in 2019 by U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., for going “above and beyond” to help salvage some of the belongings of a family whose moving truck caught fire near Mulberry.

Mulberry Mayor Gary Baxter also praised Riddle and several other officers earlier this month after a community event “for interacting with children to build positive relationships between children and Fire and Law Enforcement personnel in our communities.”

Zack King and Levi White

There’s less readily available public information about King and White.

King started working for the Crawford County sheriff’s office in January 2018, according to state records.

ZACKARY KING

White started as a Crawford County deputy in January after stints at the Johnson County and Franklin County sheriff’s offices.

LEVI WHITE

Both have completed more than 650 hours of training, per state records.

The FBI is investigating possible civil rights violations after three northwest Arkansas law enforcement officers were shown in a viral video beating a man during an arrest in Crawford County on Sunday morning.

Arkansas State Police is conducting a separate investigation into whether the officers’ use of force was justified.

The Crawford County sheriff’s office wrote a Facebook post Monday that identified the three officers as Crawford County deputies Zack King and Levi White and Mulberry police officer Thell Riddle.

All three have been placed on administrative leave with pay until the end of the state and federal investigations into their actions, Arkansas State Police Director Bill Bryant said at a news conference that Gov. Asa Hutchinson held Monday afternoon at the State Capitol.

In the video, which had been viewed more than 7 million times on Twitter by Monday afternoon, the officers can be seen holding down Randall Worcester, 27, of Goose Creek, South Carolina, and striking him repeatedly with their hands and knees.

The video includes vulgar language and some may want to avoid watching it due to the level of violence.

Hutchinson called the officers’ behavior “reprehensible” and said he watched the video with “sadness and concern.”

“The suspect had a history of concern that was legitimate for the officers, but that response was not consistent with the training that they received as certified officers,” Hutchinson said.

After his encounter with the three officers, Worcester was charged with second degree battery, resisting arrest, refusal to submit, possessing an instrument of crime, criminal trespass, criminal mischief, terroristic threatening and second-degree assault, according to State Police.

Authorities said Worcester was treated at a local hospital before being detained at the Crawford county jail until his release Monday after posting a $15,000 bond, according to online jail records.

Bryant said at the news conference that it remains to be seen how long the State Police investigation will last. Detectives will turn over their findings to the Crawford County prosecuting attorney, who will decide whether the three officers will face criminal charges and whether their body camera footage will be made public.

Hutchinson said Arkansas police have had to complete more required training hours since 2020 at the recommendation of a law enforcement enhancement task force, which he formed in light of a nationwide outcry against police violence, but he admitted that training only goes so far.

“The challenge is that you can train, you can train and you can train, but officers have to be able to follow their training and put it into practice,” Hutchinson said.

All three officers had been suspended Sunday within hours of the incident, according to statements on Facebook by Crawford County Sheriff Jimmy Damante and Mulberry Mayor Gary Baxter.

“I hold all my employees accountable for their actions and will take appropriate measures in this matter,” Damante said in his statement.

In a later post that named the three officers, Damante directed questions about the investigation to the State Police and the FBI Little Rock Field Office.

The federal and state investigations are being conducted independently of each other, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Arkansas, which is working with the FBI field office.

“The FBI and the Arkansas State Police will collect all available evidence and will ensure that the investigation is conducted in a fair, thorough, and impartial manner,” said U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Charlie Robbins. “As this is an ongoing investigation, we are not able to comment further at this time.”

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in an emailed statement that the video of Worcester’s arrest was “disturbing.”

“However, it is important that Arkansas State Police gather facts and give them to the local prosecutor for a determination of criminality,” Rutledge said. “Every good cop in America is disgusted every time these incidents occur.”

Baxter said in his statement that he was “shocked and sickened” by the video and wanted to assure the public “that Mulberry Police Officers will treat all people with dignity and respect.”

The officers’ behavior was “totally beyond excessive force” and they should be held accountable, said Rev. Benny Johnson, founder of the activist group Arkansas Stop the Violence.

The video is “one of the worst ones I’ve seen,” of police attacking civilians, Johnson said.

The Crawford County deputies, White and King, are represented by Russellville-based attorney Russell Wood, who released a statement Monday claiming the Mulberry Police Department has another video of the incident that has not been made public. He said White was “incapacitated momentarily” by Worcester “striking him in the back of the head and face,” so White’s use of “all force necessary” to detain Worcester was justified.

“Such a violent suspect cannot be allowed to remain unrestrained … The amount of force authorized under the law is always relative to the offense the suspect commits,” Wood wrote.

He also said White has a concussion and a bruised and swollen right eye as a result of the altercation.

State crime prevention efforts

Hutchinson spent most of Monday’s news conference discussing the recent spate of shootings in central Arkansas, primarily in Little Rock.

As many as 17 shootings occurred in the city two weekends ago, prompting investigations by the State Police, the Little Rock Police Department and the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office. LRPD has charged a suspect for an Aug. 14 shooting at the Valero gas station on Mabelvale Cutoff Road.

Bryant said Monday that the State Police has not charged any suspects and authorities have not determined the motives of anyone arrested for the shootings.

“It appears that a lot of it is random,” he said.

Hutchinson listed several state initiatives meant to curb violent crime, including using $1 million from the Governor’s Discretionary Fund for the Intensive Supervision Program, which monitors parolees who were incarcerated for violent crimes. The program covers five counties and increased its number of parole officers from six to 14 in April. Law enforcement has confiscated 48 illegally owned firearms from parolees since then, according to data Hutchinson presented.

Last year, the Legislature passed and Hutchinson signed a law that makes someone ineligible for parole in Arkansas if they are found to possess a firearm after being convicted of ““a violent felony offense or any felony sex offense.”

The Legislature set aside $75 million earlier this year to build a new state prison, which Hutchinson said will relieve a backlog of more than 2,000 state prisoners in local jails.

Additionally, the Arkansas Legislative Council will decide this week whether to use $9 million in American Rescue Plan funds to hire more public defenders and deputy prosecutors, with $4.5 million dedicated to each position. The state’s American Rescue Plan steering committee unanimously approved the request last week with the goal of clearing a backlog of court cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson said he was “disappointed” that Hutchinson has not taken more action against community violence and did not address the Little Rock shootings sooner.

“To me, it shows a lack of concern,” Johnson said.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri. A Midwesterner by birth, she graduated from the University of Missouri's journalism school in 2019.

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. He spent the better part of the last decade investigating and reporting on Arkansas government and politics. For three years, he covered education policy, medical marijuana and the Arkansas General Assembly as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. Hunter got his start in journalism covering sports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

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