Vargas: Traffic stop turns into a life or death struggle for North Little Rock, Arkansas officers

By Joe Vargas

North Little Rock Police Department officers made a traffic stop on a vehicle occupied by two men and 17-year-old Charles Smith Jr. at around 1:04 a.m. January 7, 2018.

During the encounter, officers asked the occupants to exit the vehicle so they could conduct further investigation. Two of the occupants sat on the curb while the teen was searched by two officers. In the video that was released, you can hear one of the officers engaging in conversational banter with Smith.

“You ain’t got nothing crazy on you do you? I’m going to check real quick alright,” he said.  He even asks about his tennis shoes and how he likes them. It’s then Smith begins to get “squirrelly” on him. The officer asks Smith three different times to quit reaching into his pocket.

Suddenly, Smith breaks away and attempts to flee.

Smith runs and is tackled in front of the two people sitting on the curb. As he falls to the ground, Smith cries out, “I can’t go to jail!”

He pulls a hand gun from his pocket, firing once in the direction of the people sitting on the curb and nearly hitting them, and then shoots again at the officers, narrowly missing  an officer. The officers returned fire, killing Smith.

A second handgun, this one stolen, was found in the car.

In the days after the shooting, there was outrage on social media and, more importantly, a false narrative was taking hold: Smith didn’t have a gun and was shot for no reason.

In an interview with the Arkansas Times the day after the shooting, Smith’s brother Juwaun Jordan said, “They say he resisted, but he wasn’t moving. He was talking. He wasn’t doing [anything],” he continued. “They were tussling him to the ground…When they were on the ground, one of them jumped up off of him, one shot went off, and [the officer] was like ‘he got a gun.'”

In response to the false rumors and threats against officers, North Little Rock Police Chief Mike Davis called a press conference to release the dash cam footage of the shooting. According to the chief, the video was presented to the family prior to the press conference.

“Misinformation gets out that says … the subject wasn’t armed, the subject didn’t shoot,” Davis said in a statement to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. “He was armed and we, in fact, had to take action because of that. I want people to see what happened.”

Police officers just never know. They take the precautions to safely do the job the public expects them to do. The officer’s instincts in this encounter were absolutely correct. There was something really wrong here, and it nearly cost them their lives.

In any scenario, a carload of young men driving around at 1 a.m. armed with handguns is a threat to public safety.

It’s not paranoia when the potential threats officers face are real. Telling suspects to keep their hands on the steering wheelout of their pockets, and to sit on the curb keep police officers alive. Compliance is critical in any police contact.

Why? Because that’s the reality of the world we live in. A 17-year-old had a gun in his pocket.

I recall one incident where an Anaheim Police officer saw a 12-year-old pull a handgun out of his pocket as he was breaking up an after-school yard tussle.

You see, you just never know. That’s what makes the job difficult.

Here is the link to the complete dash cam video of the stop.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.