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Justice Department investigating Arkansas officers' use of force in arrest caught on video

“First of all, that is reprehensible conduct in which a suspect is beat in that fashion,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Monday that the U.S. attorney general's office and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division will investigate a viral video that shows law enforcement officers holding down and beating a man Sunday morning outside a convenience store in Mulberry, Arkansas.

The three officers were suspended Sunday following widespread outrage over the video, in which one of the officers repeatedly punches a shoeless man's head and smashes it into the pavement, while another knees him and a third holds him down.

It is not clear what took place before the recording, which was shot from a vehicle at the Kountry Xpress market in Mulberry, about 137 miles northwest of Little Rock.

According to NBC affiliate KARK of Little Rock, the Crawford County Sheriff's Office said the officers came upon the man, Randal Worcester, after a clerk at a retailer reported to another police department that a person had spat on him and threatened him. The sheriff's office did not respond to inquiries Monday.

"First of all, that is reprehensible conduct in which a suspect is beat in that fashion," Hutchinson said at a news conference. "We saw a glimpse of that. It is under investigation. We don't have all of the details, and certainly that suspect had a history of concern that was legitimate for the officers, but what that response was was not consistent with the training that they receive as certified officers with the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy."

He added: "I understand that the U.S. attorney and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice will be conducting a separate investigation."

Charlie Robbins, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office for Western Arkansas, said a separate federal investigation is underway.

"The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Arkansas, the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, and the FBI Little Rock Field Office have opened a civil rights investigation into the August 21st incident in Crawford County involving Randal Worcester," Robbins said. "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. As this is an ongoing investigation, we are not able to comment further at this time."

The three officers were identified Monday by their bosses as Crawford County sheriff's deputies Zack King and Levi White and Thell Riddle of the Mulberry Police Department, where he has worked since March 2017. Mulberry police said Riddle was on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, and the Crawford County Sheriff's Office said its deputies had been suspended with pay. White and Riddle did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday at numbers listed for them. King could not be reached for comment. It is not clear whether they have attorneys.

Crawford County Sheriff Jimmy Damante described the deputies as veteran officers at a news conference Monday, saying: "None of them are rookies. They've been officers for some time."

Mulberry Police Officer Thell Riddle.
Mulberry Police Officer Thell Riddle. Mulberry Police Dept.

According to Damante, none of the officers was wearing a body camera, but the Mulberry officer's police car had a dashcam that he said "put a little more light" on things that "weren't caught on the citizen's camera."

Asked whether he would have known about the incident had someone not posted the video on social media, Damante responded: "Probably not."

He said that Arkansas State Police were investigating the incident as "a criminal act" and that the sheriff's department was also looking into it to determine whether the officers violated any policies. He declined to give an opinion about the officers' actions and pledged to hold them accountable once the investigation is complete.

State police said their investigation "will be limited to the use of physical force by the deputies and the police officer."

Authorities said Worcester, 27, is from Goose Creek, South Carolina. Damante said at Monday's news conference that one of the officers had asked Worcester whether he had any weapons on him. "He said he did, and I believe he at one point handed it over to the officer," Damante said. He said it appears Worcester became violent when the officers tried to take him into custody.

Worcester was charged with second-degree battery, resisting arrest, terroristic threatening, second-degree assault, criminal mischief, possessing an instrument of crime, refusal to submit and criminal trespass.

The nature of Worcester's injuries was not immediately clear. State police said he was treated at a hospital and then jailed.

Carrie Jernigan and David Powell, who are among the attorneys representing Worcester, said his right ear was swollen and purple, he complained of pain to his head, and he had abrasions to his knees when they visited him. At one point during the incident, his eye was gouged, Powell said.

"Lots of things happened to him that should not have happened," Powell said. 

Reporters asked Damante on Monday whether Worcester, who was wearing a hoodie in his booking photograph, was made to do so to conceal his injuries.

"It's not to hide anything. I'm not trying to hide anything," Damante said. "We will not hide anything. We'll be very transparent with everything."

Worcester was released from the Crawford County Jail on Monday after he posted a $15,000 bond.

Hutchinson condemned the officers' actions at his news conference Monday.

"I did want to say this is not what our law enforcement community represents, it's not the proper response, and they will be reviewed and appropriate action taken consistent with what the investigation we learn from that and what the results are," he said.

Jernigan and Powell applauded the bystander who recorded the video, saying that without it, they might not have had any understanding of what occurred.

"I think it's safe to say he is just thankful," Jernigan said. "We do not know what would have happened if that person had not been recording. That woman, whoever she is, I think she could've saved his life."