Eugene Ellison (Killing of)
The 2010 “police-involved shooting” death of Eugene Ellison in his own apartment in Little Rock (Pulaski County) became a local touchstone for a growing movement for police reform, one that picked up steam with the emergence of Black Lives Matter in 2013. The killing resulted in the largest police shooting victims’ compensation in the history of Arkansas at the time.
On December 9, 2010, across the street from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, off-duty Little Rock Police Department (LRPD) officer Donna Lesher fatally shot unarmed sixty-seven-year-old Eugene Ellison, an African-American man, during her evening patrol as a security guard. Lesher had confronted Ellison because of his open front door and asked Ellison if he was okay. Ellison, who was sitting on his living room sofa, said he was fine, but he also requested that Lesher and her partner, Tabitha McCrillis (also an LRPD officer who was working off duty as a security guard), who had fully entered his apartment, leave.
Instead of leaving, Lesher stayed and interrogated Ellison about his coffee table’s broken glass. Ellison, described by his son Spencer as a “prideful guy” and a “trailblazer who fought for his country,” cursed the officers. McCrillis testified in a federal investigation that she made physical contact with a seated Ellison first. That push led to a two- to three-minute physical altercation.
In the audio capture from police cruisers the night of the shooting, McCrillis could be heard stepping away from that altercation and calling for backup. Also captured was the sound of LRPD officers Vincent Lucio and Brad Boyce arriving to help, subsequent tussling, and McCrillis yelling that Ellison tried to “steal her stick.” One officer said they were “fixing to shoot” Ellison, and soon after, Donna Lesher fired the shots that caused Ellison to fall dead in his living room.
Lesher phoned her husband, an LRPD sergeant, and told him she shot someone. She chose her husband as her trauma companion officer, and they left the complex together. When they reported to police headquarters, however, a lawyer suggested it would be better if another officer served as her companion. They agreed and another was assigned.
In an LRPD internal investigation, Lesher said she feared for her life; however, when Lesher shot Ellison, he was in the living room, and she was outside of his apartment, standing at the front door. In her federal testimony, Lesher said that she could have left during the fight but did not because she “wasn’t going to just give up.”
The City of Little Rock and Big Country Chateau Apartments eventually settled with the Ellison family for $1.4 million in a wrongful death lawsuit in May 2016, a suit filed by civil rights attorney Michael Laux. Laux had filed several “excessive use of deadly force” lawsuits against the LRPD before settling the Ellison case for $900,000. In certain situations, the LRPD can legally fire inside of a building, but Ellison’s shooting did not fit that scenario because Ellison was unarmed, and according to Lucio, Ellison was not a deadly threat. LRPD did not have a warrant to enter the home, and Laux argued that none of the four officers present gave Ellison proper warning before shooting.
Lesher’s LRPD internal investigation testimony differed from her federal testimony. Lesher and McCrillis reported that Ellison threatened them by waving his cane. But in sworn federal testimony, Laux asked Lesher if Ellison had enough room in his apartment to wave his cane. Instead of confirming her LRPD testimony, Lesher replied that she did not know. Furthermore, Lucio conceded in his testimony that he and the other three LRPD officers could have de-escalated the situation several ways without deadly force, and that they could have left Ellison’s home, as he had originally asked Lesher and McCrillis to do.
Laux’s federal investigation also revealed that Lesher had not been a recommended hire by then LRPD chief Stuart Thomas, whose reservations about her dated back to her days as a cadet in the academy. Thomas wrote that Lesher was an “unreliable employee and therefore a liability to the department.” Nepotism accusations against LRPD surfaced. Although Lesher’s husband did not participate in the investigation, he also supervised homicide detectives assigned to her case. In the end, she was legally absolved of wrongdoing, and the shooting was ruled justifiable homicide because she believed her life was in danger.
Eugene Ellison was a Vietnam veteran and father of two sons, Spencer and Troy Ellison, who were LRPD officers at the time of the shooting. Spencer Ellison left policing. In November 2016, the city erected a bench memorial for Eugene Ellison in MacArthur Park. Troy Ellison shared the difficulty of working side by side with those responsible for his father’s death and likened the internal investigation of the shooting to a “cover-up.”
Formal records of police killings of unarmed civilians were scattered until 2015, when the Washington Post began maintaining a tabulation following the previous year’s killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
For additional information:
Higham, Scott, and Kimbriell Kelly. “A Tragedy Plays out in Little Rock When a Police Officer Kills a Colleague’s Father.” Washington Post, May 6, 2016. Online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/a-tragedy-plays-out-in-little-rock-when-a-police-officer-kills-a-colleagues-father/2016/05/06/df77595c-ef6c-11e5-85a6-2132cf446d0a_story.html (accessed July 30, 2021).
Manley, Marci. “Fox16 Investigates: City Dedicates Bench to Man Shot and Killed by Police in 2010.” Fox16. November 4, 2016. https://www.fox16.com/news/fox16-investigates-city-dedicates-bench-to-man-shot-and-killed-by-police-in-2010/ (accessed July 30, 2021).
McVeigh, Karen. “Little Rock Shooting: Fresh Testimony Casts Doubt on Police Account.” The Guardian, December 6, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/dec/06/little-rock-shooting-testimony-police-account (accessed July 30, 2021).
Quinn, Paul P. “LR Door Ajar Leads to Deadly Encounter.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 11, 2010, pp. 1A, 4A.
———. “LR Officer Kills Man Hitting Her with Cane.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 10, 2010, pp. 1B, 6B.
“Son Reacts to Little Rock’s Monetary Settlement after Father’s Death” KATV, May 7, 2016. https://katv.com/news/local/son-reacts-to-little-rock-to-monetary-settlement-after-fathers-death (accessed July 30, 2021).
Taylor, Flint. “Dispatch From Little Rock: A Local Win in the Ongoing Fight Against Police Violence.” Truthout.org, December 3, 2016. https://truthout.org/articles/dispatch-from-little-rock-a-local-win-in-the-ongoing-fight-against-police-violence/ (accessed July 30, 2021).
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Last Updated: 07/30/2021