Phillips, et al. v. Weeks, et al.

Phillips, et al. v. Weeks, et al. was a sweeping lawsuit in federal district court at Little Rock (Pulaski County) alleging that the municipal police engaged in systematic discrimination against African Americans, including illegal detention, physical brutality, verbal abuse, and segregation in jail. The class-action suit was filed in January 1972, and the trial lasted two and a half months in 1974–1975. The case languished in the court for another eight years before all the issues were finally settled, with only a partial victory for the class of people for whom the suit was filed. U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele eventually ordered an end to jail segregation and to the illegal detention of blacks, an infamous system in which they were held indefinitely in jail without charges with the docket explanation of simply “S.” It meant “acting suspiciously.”

The suit arose from the experiences of Richard L. Mays, an African-American civil rights lawyer who had spent two years as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Pulaski County, often prosecuting black men, and then as a private attorney who often defended young African Americans arrested in civil rights protests in eastern and southern Arkansas and also in criminal cases in Pulaski County. Mays and his law partner, Zimmery Crutcher, were the attorneys for men who contended that misconduct by the police violated their civil rights. The lawsuit named as defendants Little Rock police chief Gale F. Weeks and other high-ranking officers of the police force.

Originally, the lawsuit accused Weeks and his lieutenants of ordering systematic brutality against black people, who were arrested and kept in the jail, and other forms of misconduct. For much of the trial, witnesses recounted needless force by police against blacks and the use of racial slurs. Mays sought to establish the right of minors to have their parents present when they were detained and questioned, but Judge Eisele ruled that the law did not give youths an absolute right to have their parents present. Eisele pushed both sides to agree to a consent decree that would end some of the practices, but the agreement never materialized.

When he finally ruled on June 21, 1983, Judge Eisele said Mays and Crutcher had proven isolated examples of abuse but stated that they had failed to establish a systematic policy or pattern of police brutality that would justify his finding that Chief Weeks and his top men were guilty of official misconduct. But he said the “S docket,” in which young black men were held indefinitely without charges on a vague suspicion that they might be doing something wrong, was clearly unconstitutional, and he ordered that it be ended. He also ordered an end to the racial segregation of prisoners. He took notice that the lawsuit and the trial had produced some changes in police practices, including a procedure for citizens to file complaints about police conduct and have them adjudicated. Eisele issued his final order in the case in February 1984, settling the issue of whether Mays and Crutcher, since they won only a partial victory, were entitled to attorney’s fees for the 600 hours they had devoted to the case. He awarded them $13,660.75.

The suit and trial led to more litigation and turmoil, as well as major changes in the police department, which attracted the state’s attention for a decade.

In a related case, Simpson v. Weeks, in 1975, Lieutenant W. E. “Sonny” Simpson, a rising star in the police department and former public information officer for the force, filed suit in federal court. He alleged that Chief Weeks, Assistant Chief John C. Terry, and Lieutenant Forrest H. Parkman had demoted him to jailer and conspired to destroy his career because they believed he was secretly leaking information to help Mays prove his case against Weeks and his top lieutenants. Simpson denied he had helped Mays in any way.

Simpson and other officers had been subpoenaed to be witnesses in the brutality trial in 1974. His suit said Weeks, Terry, and Parkman became convinced that Simpson was undermining their defense by giving Mays leads about brutality and discrimination, and they began harassing and demoting him. The testimony in the trial of Simpson’s suit, which occurred while Judge Eisele was pondering the evidence from the first trial, was sometimes spectacular. One policeman who said he feared that he was about to be punished as the snitch testified that Weeks announced that he need not worry because Simpson, whom he called a “tumblebug,” had been identified as the snitch, adding: “I can assure you this lieutenant is gone and his career will go no further.” A sergeant testified that Parkman told him that Simpson was “the redheaded son-of-a-bitch who has been giving information to Richard Mays.”

U.S. District Judge Terry Lee Shell issued an order on February 28, 1977, restoring Simpson to his job and excoriating Weeks, Parkman, and Terry, the third man having retired a few days earlier. Shell said the tactics of the officers often shocked the conscience of the court. The police department had paid a private detective who was employed by Mays to leak them information about how Mays was preparing for the brutality trial. Shell said the men had engaged in a willful conspiracy to destroy Simpson’s career and had violated the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1871. He ordered Weeks to restore Simpson to his previous rank and position and the three officers to pay Simpson three dollars in compensatory damages and $6,000 in punitive damages and to pay his attorney’s fees.

Weeks retired after the decision, and the city elevated Simpson to chief. He was chief for nine years and made major reforms in the department. He ended segregation of the jail, halted brutality against inmates, ended the practice of arresting people on “suspicion” so they could not go free on bond, and began the procedure for people to lodge complaints about police misconduct—all reforms that Judge Eisele eventually formally approved. Simpson also started a popular Crime Stoppers program, allowing people to call anonymously with tips about crime.

Judge Shell died a year after his ruling. John I. Purtle, who subsequently was elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court, represented Weeks, Parkman, and Terry. The attorneys for Simpson were William R. Wilson Jr., who became a United States district judge, and Kaneaster Hodges Jr. of Newport (Jackson County), who a few months after the trial was appointed United States senator upon the death of Senator John L. McClellan. Mays was appointed to the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1979 by Governor Bill Clinton.

For additional information:
Eisele, G. Thomas, U.S. District Judge. Phillips, et al., v. Weeks, et al. 586 F. Supp. 241 (E.D. Ark. 1984).

Shell, Terry Lee, U.S. District Judge. Simpson v. Weeks, 530 F. Supp. 196 (E.D. Ark. 1977).

Trimble, Mike. “Systematic Harassment of Blacks Charged in Suit Against LR Police.” Arkansas Gazette, January 27, 1972, pp. 1A, 2A.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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