MULBERRY, Ark. (AP) — Federal authorities said Monday they were opening 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 to the ground.
The officers were responding to a report of a man making threats outside a supermarket on Sunday in the small town of Mulberry, about 220 kilometers northwest of Little Rock, near the Oklahoma border, authorities said.
The 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.
The video shows how one officer beats the suspect with a clenched fist, while another beats the man with his knee. The third cop holds him against the sidewalk.
On video recorded from a nearby car, someone yells at officers to stop hitting the man on the head. Two of the officers appear to look up and say something back to the person who yelled. The officers’ comments were not clearly heard on the video.
“The fight escalated with those officers, and you hear that woman screaming in that video and whoever that is, I think she could have saved his life,” said Carrie Jernigan, a lawyer representing Worcester.
He was taken to a hospital, then released and admitted to Crawford County Jail in Van Buren on multiple charges, including second-degree battery, resisting arrest and making terrorist threats, state police said.
Worcester was released on Monday on $15,000 bail. When asked how he was feeling, he said “good”. A lawyer accompanying him from prison declined to comment on his behalf. Worcester was pushing a bicycle as he left prison.
Worcester’s father declined to comment when approached by The Associated Press on Monday. He referred a reporter to a law firm representing the family. That company said it was still trying to gather information and had no immediate response to the video.
Two Crawford County Sheriff’s officers and a Mulberry police officer have been suspended, city and county authorities said.
Worcester is white, according to prison booking information, and the three officers involved also appear to be white.
A Justice Department spokesman 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 have opened a civil rights investigation into the incident.
“The FBI and the Arkansas State Police will gather all available evidence and 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 from and separate from the ongoing state investigation.”
Crawford County Sheriff Jimmy Damante said that before Worcester was arrested, an officer asked if he had any weapons on him, and he gave one to the officer. Damante did not specify what type of weapon.
“They were about to take him into custody because of part of their on-the-spot investigation — then he turned 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 action in this matter,” Damante said.
In a statement released Sunday night, Mulberry Police Chief Shannon Gregory said the community and the department are taking the matter “very seriously”.
Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, spoke at a news conference about the Justice Department’s plans to investigate. He described the beating as “despicable behavior” and said the officers’ actions “were inconsistent” with the teachings of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy.
Arkansas State Police Colonel Bill Bryant said his agency’s investigation would “take time.”
“Once we have the facts and evidence, we will prepare a file and summary and turn it over to the District Attorney,” Bryant said.
Jernigan said she filed a complaint of excessive force against one of the suspended officers about a month ago on behalf of another client of hers.
“Until now I have heard nothing more. But the description of what happened to my client in July and that video seemed almost identical,” Jernigan said. “And so we’re just in a position that it shouldn’t even have happened yesterday.”
Mobile video of often violent police interactions has put the spotlight on cops’ behavior in recent years, especially since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 while he was arrested by police in Minneapolis.
The resulting nationwide protests drew attention to the brutality of officers often directed at black Americans.
The front door of the building that serves as Mulberry’s police station and town hall was locked on Monday. A sign on the door directed anyone with questions about “the police investigation” to contact the Arkansas State Police Department.
It is not clear whether the officers were wearing body cams.
Amid public pressure for transparency and the proliferation of videos exposing police misconduct, there has been some resistance to recording agents. In July, Arizona’s governor signed a law making it illegal to register officers from 8 feet (2.5 meters) or closer without permission.
Mulberry is a city of 1,600 residents on the southern edge of the Ozarks in western Arkansas, just off Interstate 40, which runs from California to North Carolina.
At Kountry Xpress, the supermarket and gas station where the beatings took place, truck drivers regularly stop to refuel. Customers also purchase meals, including American and Indian dishes.
Shasta Morse, a cashier at Kountry Xpress, said she was at work when Worcester was arrested, but she didn’t know until a customer told her later.
“It’s a little unnerving,” she said.
This story has been corrected to correct Randal Worcester’s spelling. The authorities initially gave an incorrect spelling. The story also corrected the location where Worcester was taken. He was held in Crawford County Jail.
Associated Press writers Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas, Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, and Terry Wallace in Dallas contributed to this report.