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Federal civil rights probe begins into 3 officers seen beating a man on video

Randal Worcester departs from the Crawford County Justice Center in Van Buren, Ark. on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.
Andrew DeMillo
Randal Worcester departs from the Crawford County Justice Center in Van Buren, Ark. on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.

MULBERRY, Ark. — Federal authorities said Monday they have started a civil rights investigation following the suspension of three Arkansas law enforcement officers after a video posted on social media showed two of them beating a man while a third officer held him on the ground.

The officers were responding to a report of a man making threats outside a convenience store Sunday in the small town of Mulberry, about 140 miles (220 kilometers) northwest of Little Rock, near the border with Oklahoma, authorities said.

Arkansas State Police said the agency would investigate the use of force. State police identified the suspect as Randal Worcester, 27, of Goose Creek, South Carolina.

However, the attorney for the two deputies says Worcester attacked one of the deputies, giving him a concussion.

The video shows one officer punching the suspect with a clenched fist, while another can be seen hitting the man with his knee. The third officer holds him against the pavement.

In video recorded from a car nearby, someone yells at officers to stop hitting the man in the head. Two of the officers appear to look up and say something back to the person who yelled. The officers' comments could not be heard clearly on the video.

"The fight was escalating with those officers, and you hear that woman on that video yelling and whoever that is, I think she could have saved his life," said Carrie Jernigan, an attorney representing Worcester.

He was taken to a hospital, then released and booked into the Crawford County jail in Van Buren on multiple charges, including second-degree battery, resisting arrest and making terroristic threats, state police said.

Worcester was released Monday on $15,000 bond. When asked how he was feeling, he said "all right." An attorney who escorted him from jail declined to comment on his behalf. Worcester was pushing a bicycle as he left the jail.

Worcester's father declined to comment when contacted Monday by The Associated Press. He referred a reporter to a law firm representing the family. That firm said it was still trying to gather information and did not immediately have a comment on the video.

Two Crawford County sheriff's deputies and one Mulberry police officer were suspended, city and county authorities said.

Worcester is white, according to jail booking information, and the three officers involved also appear to be white.

A Justice Department spokesperson said Monday that the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Arkansas, the FBI's Little Rock Field Office and the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division opened a civil rights investigation into the incident.

"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," the Justice Department said in a statement. "The federal investigation is separate and independent from the ongoing state investigation."

Crawford County Sheriff Jimmy Damante said before Worcester was arrested, an officer asked if he had any weapons on him, and he handed one over to the officer. Damante didn't specify what type of weapon.

"They were about to take him into custody because of part of their investigation on the scene — that's when he became violent," Damante said.

The Crawford County Sheriff's Office identified the three officers as Crawford County deputies Zack King and Levi White and Mulberry police officer Thell Riddle.

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

In a statement released Sunday evening, Mulberry Police Chief Shannon Gregory said the community and the department take the matter "very seriously."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, told a news conference about the Justice Department's plans to investigate. He described the beating as "reprehensible conduct" and said the officers' actions were "not consistent" with the teachings of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy.

Arkansas State Police Col. Bill Bryant said his agency's investigation would "take some time."

"Once we get the facts and evidence, we'll prepare a case file and a summary and turn it over to the prosecutor," Bryant said.

However, Russell Wood, a Russellville attorney for the two deputies, said in a statement Monday that White was answering a report of a terroristic threat when he encountered Worcester, who he said matched the complainant's description of her assailant. At first, Worcester gave White a false identity.

As White was checking that identity, Worcester "became irate and viciously attacked Deputy White by grabbing him by the legs, lifting him up and body-slamming him, headfirst, on the concrete parking lot," Wood said. After White hit his head on the concrete, stunning him, Worcester climbed onto him and "began striking him on the back of the head and face," the attorney said.

After Worcester rained blows on his head, White said he saw the suspect turn his wrath on King and Riddle, Wood said. White then "re-engaged and used all force necessary to get the violent suspect under control and detained."

White suffered a concussion and continues to experience concussion symptoms, Wood said. The attorney called for the release of the full Mulberry police dash-cam video of the incident but has not yet received a response.

Jernigan said she had filed an excessive force complaint against one of the suspended officers on behalf of another client of hers about a month ago.

"To date, I had not heard anything back. But the description of what happened to my client in July versus that video seemed almost identical," Jernigan said. "And so we're just of the position it didn't have to even take place yesterday."

Cellphone video of often-violent police interactions has put a spotlight on officer conduct in recent years, particularly since the 2020 killing of George Floyd while he was being arrested by police in Minneapolis.

The resulting nationwide protests called attention to officer brutality that often targets Black Americans.

The front door at the building that serves as the Mulberry police headquarters and city hall was locked Monday. A sign on the door directed anyone with questions about "the police investigation" to contact Arkansas State Police.

It was unclear whether the officers were wearing body cameras.

Amid public pressure for transparency and the proliferation of videos exposing police misconduct, there has been some pushback against recording officers. In July, the governor of Arizona signed a bill that makes it illegal to knowingly record officers from 8 feet (2.5 meters) or closer without permission.

Mulberry is a town of 1,600 people on the southern edge of the Ozarks in western Arkansas, right off Interstate 40, which runs from California to North Carolina.

At Kountry Xpress, the convenience store and filling station where the beating happened, truck drivers stop frequently to fill up on fuel. Customers also buy meals, which include American and Indian cuisine.

Shasta Morse, a cashier at Kountry Xpress, said she was working when Worcester was arrested but she didn't know about it until a customer told her later.

"It's a little unnerving," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting.