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Arkansas county settles
police brutality case
[Lonoke, AR]


January 10, 2001
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Arkansas county settles
police brutality case
[Lonoke, AR]

Adam Welsh, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
December 31, 2000, Sunday
Copyright 2000 Little Rock Newspapers, Inc.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
December 31, 2000, Sunday

(LONOKE, Ark. -- Troy Grantham had just returned to his home near Cabot after watching the Razorbacks vs. Kentucky football game at a friend's house. He'd been drinking since just past noon.

It was a Saturday night in October, two years ago.

Grantham, disabled with a bone disease that has fused his spine into a constant stoop and made his joints rigid and unbending, fired a shotgun loaded with birdshot.

The 135-pound Grantham says he was just firing into the ground to scare off stray cats.

But three Lonoke County deputies standing outside Dude's Place store, just across the intersection from Grantham's house, say he fired the gun over their heads.

By the time the deputies handcuffed Grantham, he had a broken elbow, two broken hips, a leg so badly broken that his foot faced the wrong way and a hairline fracture in his spine. He spent the next 40 days in a hospital bed and had surgery to replace his shattered leg bone with a prosthetic metal replacement.

A month ago, Grantham agreed to settle a lawsuit with the county for $300,000.

The shot fired that night has fueled political feuds and led some county officials to question Sheriff Charlie Martin's ability to manage his department. The dissension has left the Lonoke County Quorum Court polarized.

Some justices of the peace say it's time to move on, but others say they want answers: Why did the county settle if the deputies did nothing wrong? And, if they did wrong, why was no one ever disciplined?

Other incidents are being questioned as well:

A Lonoke County deputy fired at a truck and hit the passenger's side, taking out the window, as the driver tried to make a getaway. The passenger in the truck sued, mentioning the shooting in the suit and claiming her rights were violated when she was not arraigned within 48 hours. The suit was settled earlier this year for $30,000.

The sheriff played a taped conversation for county dignitaries of two police chiefs maligning him. Both chiefs sued, contending that playing those recordings was illegal, and settled this year for $8,000 apiece.

The sheriff encourages his deputies to take their wives on patrol. One deputy had his wife riding with him the night Grantham was injured.

At a closed meeting Dec. 21, the Quorum Court recommended by a 5-4 vote that all three deputies in the Grantham case be fired, though the justices of the peace acknowledged that they can't force the sheriff to do that.

Martin said he is the victim of political sniping and an attorney for the county who is too willing to settle, even when his office has done nothing wrong. "I told them I would not fire my deputies. They haven't proved to me they did anything wrong."

"They [the Quorum Court] have only heard one side. None of them have come to my office to talk to me or looked at the file we have [on the Grantham case]."

Martin took over the sheriff's office in January 1997. He's a large man, and his office is decorated with homemade signs letting everyone know it isn't Burger King -- you don't get it your way. Nor is it Federal Express, nothing is happening overnight. A singing Big Mouth Bass rests on his desk, waiting to reel out country tunes.

Martin said he trusts his deputies. He has his own theories about why Grantham was so badly injured.

"I think he was trying to commit suicide by police that night," Martin said. "I also think he did those injuries to himself, struggling while he was being arrested."

The bone disease made Grantham so delicate that his bones broke just by being handling the way anyone else resisting arrest would have been handled, Martin contends. The sheriff's office internal affairs investigation indicated no wrongdoing. The FBI investigated and determined that there was not enough evidence to prosecute.

"Understand, I got my deputies in here and told them, 'If you made a mistake and used excessive force, tell me now. If I find out later you lied, I will fire you.'

"One of the deputies told me, 'I think I may have broken his arm. I jerked back on his arm and I heard a snap.' "

Martin disagrees with the settlement. "Anytime a jerk can shoot over an officer's head and get $ 300,000, that's wrong. When do you take a stand? When do you stop and say, 'This is bull****'?"

Justice of the Peace Kenny Ridgeway is one of the more reserved critics of the sheriff. While not calling outright for the deputies to be fired, Ridgeway said he has questions about their actions.

"I want to find out what happened. I'm doing some work with some of the other JPs to find out. If they [the deputies] did something, I want to see some disciplinary action," Ridgeway said.

He said he has been talking to lawyers and to Grantham about the incident.

"I just don't feel good about the answers the sheriff has given at this point," Ridgeway said. "I would like to see a lot better management skills [from the sheriff]. I think they're subpar. Forty years ago, you could get away with being a good ol' boy."

Justice of the Peace Larry Odom said the whole Grantham incident has been covered up. "I feel like the whole thing has been swept under the tablecloth all along. I don't think that there has been a proper investigation into the thing."

The size of the settlement should tell people that something that happened that night was wrong, Odom said. "$300,000 should tell you something."

Odom points out that the night the Grantham incident happened, one deputy had his wife riding with him, something Martin said he encourages in light of the high divorce rate in law enforcement, but which Odom thinks is highly irregular.

Justice of the Peace Bill "Pete" Pederson is the man the sheriff claims is his biggest political enemy. Pederson lost the last election and will be replaced in January. Until then, he has made a point of making sure the Grantham case won't go away.

Pederson spoke to Grantham in hospital before he spoke with Martin or his deputies. He also went to Dewayne Graham, a reporter at ABC affiliate KATV, back in 1998.

"As far as I was concerned, they were just bullies with badges," Pederson said. "It's horrible what happened to this gentleman. It's sickening."

"We've got a sheriff who wants to act like it's the Dukes of Hazard and this is Hazzard County and he's Boss Hogg."

Justice of the Peace Norman Walker voted against the recommendation to fire the deputies and plans to raise the issue again to see if the court can reverse itself. "My whole thing is that Amendment 55 to the state constitution doesn't give us that authority. It's the sheriff's responsibility. We set salaries and numbers of people in each department and that's it."

The vote became confused, and some court members may have voted for the recommendation by accident, others just to get out of there, Walker contends. Two members of the court left before the closed session began, he added.

"My feeling is something should be done," Walker said. "But it's not our authority to do that. We can pass a recommendation to do anything we want, but it's setting a bad precedent."

Grantham's attorney, Scott Lancaster, served as a deputy in Jackson County before becoming an attorney at Little Rock law firm Friday, Eldredge & Clark. He considers himself pro-law enforcement.

"I don't think Charlie [Martin] is a mean or evil person. I just think he's as dumb as a goose in a whirlwind," Lancaster said. "He doesn't think that his deputies can do any wrong. I just wish he would stand up and say, 'I'm going to do something to make sure this doesn't happen again.' "

He takes issue with Martin's interpretation of what happened that night.

"I don't believe you can shatter your hips in the process of a struggle," Lancaster said. "Having [Deputy Jimmy Don] Slayden, who's 380 pounds, with his knee in your back -- I don't see how you can even struggle."

When the deputies came to his door, Grantham answered the door stooped over. He can't straighten his back.

By the time he had been handcuffed on the ground and was told to get to his feet, Grantham said he couldn't stand. The deputies tried to pull him to his feet twice. He fell back to the ground both times.

That's when he told the deputies: "I think you broke my dadgum leg." He said his foot was facing the wrong direction.

The $300,000 settlement will make an obvious difference to his life, Grantham said. But more important was his desire to see the deputies disciplined.

"It should've never happened. I wanted them fired. Heck, I just don't want this to happen to no one else," Grantham said. "People like that don't need to be wielding power."

Lancaster questions how the incident was handled and the follow-up investigation.

The 911 tape he requested from that night had been taped over. Martin acknowledged the tape may have been erased. It is standard practice at the Lonoke sheriff's office to reuse tapes after a few months have passed.

Martin also said the calls might not have been recorded that night, as the department had had trouble with the recording machine. There have been several occasions when the machine did not record as it should have, the sheriff said.

Martin feels the county is going to become a target for lawyers who know the insurance company will settle cases which could be fought in court.

He points to Little Rock attorney Robert Newcomb's latest case against the Lonoke County sheriff's office. James Lovett is suing, claiming a Lonoke County deputy beat him up during an arrest.

"What he doesn't know is the game warden [present during the arrest] had a tape recorder," Martin said of the case. "I talked to the insurance company and said, 'You better not settle. I told you we got a tape.' "

Martin said the case is completely bogus.

Newcomb sued on behalf of Allison Beckham and got a $30,000 settlement from the county's insurance company earlier this year.

Beckham was riding in a truck with a man sought by the Lonoke County sheriff's office. The deputies and Carlisle Police Chief Brent Cole had just searched the driver's mobile home and were waiting for him when he pulled up.

The driver backed up, directly at Mike Coffman, who was Lonoke County chief deputy at the time. Coffman has since moved to narcotics.

Coffman stepped aside and fired with a shotgun at the passenger side of the van. One burst hit the rear side panel, and another blew out the passenger side window and left two other holes near the door frame, Newcomb said.

Martin said it was night, and things got chaotic after Cole fired at the truck's front tire. Coffman was just caught up in the chaos.

Newcomb points out Coffman had stepped aside and was no longer in danger from the truck and that the sheriff's office policy dictates that deputies should not fire on a moving vehicle.

Martin did not discipline Coffman. "I have discussed with my deputies that we need to use more discretion -- as in: 'Where is this going? We know who he [the driver of the truck] is, we can get him later.' "

Newcomb also sued on behalf of Cole and Hazen Police Chief Scott Strong on the grounds that the sheriff illegally disclosed an intercepted conversation.

The sheriff had access to recordings of the Carlisle police department's phone line through a system set up in 1983. Martin said he heard the conversation by accident when he was looking up a recording of one of his dispatchers to check on a complaint made against the dispatcher.

"They called me an inbred, that sort of thing," Martin said of the tape of Cole and Strong. He played it for the Lonoke police chief and other local officeholders. Martin said he played the tape for people so that he could find out why the two chiefs were talking about him in such a derogatory way.

Cole said all Martin had to do was call him and ask. Newcomb said that there were suspicions Martin played the tape to damage Cole's chances if he decided to run for sheriff. Asked about the relationship between the Carlisle Police Department and Lonoke sheriff's office, Cole said: "There is no relationship."

Martin disputes all the settlements. "I guess you'll always wonder about Troy Grantham. Troy Grantham got hurt," he said. "I'm more inclined to believe Troy Grantham got hurt fighting deputies than the deputies just beating him.

"Allison Beckham -- I think the insurance companies are just wrong. I think they're wrong on Brent Cole, too."

Brian Albright, who represented the county in these cases, said they are all very different.

According to Albright, the Beckham case was settled because the sheriff's office had violated her rights by not having her arraigned within 48 hours.

The Cole case is a straightforward matter of the sheriff breaking the law, Albright said.

In order to disseminate the recordings, at least one party to the conversation has to know that it is being recorded.

The potential cost could be $10,000 per person the tape was played to. "We got up to $120,000," Albright said, before settling for $18,000.

And with the Grantham case, there was no admission of wrongdoing. The risk of losing more money than the county could afford was just too great, Albright said. The deputies were also named in the suit and could have been hit with hefty penalties, he added.

Added to this were Grantham's injuries.

"He would've presented a very sympathetic plaintiff."

Though the case is over, there are few signs that tension will dissipate.

During the Dec. 21 Quorum Court meeting, a heated exchange took place in which Pederson said Martin yelled at him, calling him a "lying piece of s***."

The sheriff said he was not proud of his behavior, but he had enough of his critic's attacks.

County Judge Carol Bevis said she felt the court was simply trying to send a message when they called for the firings.

"It was more or less, 'Let's think about the future.' I think they were trying to stress the fact that they didn't feel it was handled right," said Bevis of the court's vote. "To make him [Martin] think they need to be real careful."

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