JERICHO, Ark. – It was just too much, having to return to court twice on the same day to contest yet another traffic ticket, and Fire Chief Don Payne didn’t hesitate to tell the judge what he thought of the police and their speed traps.
The response from cops? They shot him. Right there in court.
Payne ended up in the hospital, but his shooting last week brought to a boil simmering tensions between residents of this tiny former cotton city and their police force. Drivers quickly learn to slow to a crawl along the gravel roads and the two-lane highway that run through Jericho, but they say sometimes that isn’t enough to fend off the city ticketing machine.
“You can’t even get them to answer a call because normally they’re writing tickets,” said Thomas Martin, chief investigator for the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Department. “They’re not providing a service to the citizens.”
Now the police chief has disbanded his force “until things calm down,” a judge has voided all outstanding police-issued citations and sheriff’s deputies are asking where all the money from the tickets went. With 174 residents, the city can keep seven police officers on its rolls but missed payments on police and fire department vehicles and saw its last business close its doors a few weeks ago.
“You can’t even buy a loaf of bread, but we’ve got seven police officers,” said former resident Larry Harris, who left town because he said the police harassment became unbearable.
Sheriff’s deputies patrolled Jericho until the 1990s, when the city received grant money to start its own police force, Martin said.
Police often camped out in the department’s two cruisers along the highway that runs through town, waiting for drivers who failed to slow down when they reached the 45 mph zone ringing Jericho. Residents say the ticketing got out of hand.
The frequent ticketing apparently led to the vandalization of the cruisers, and the department took to parking the cars overnight at the sheriff’s department eight miles away.
It was anger over traffic tickets that brought Payne to city hall last week, said his lawyer, Randy Fishman. After Payne failed to get a traffic ticket dismissed on Aug. 27, police gave Payne or his son another ticket that day. Payne, 39, returned to court to vent his anger to Judge Tonya Alexander, Fishman said.
It’s unclear exactly what happened next, but Martin said an argument between Payne and the seven police officers who attended the hearing apparently escalated to a scuffle, ending when an officer shot Payne from behind.
Doctors in Memphis, Tenn., removed a .40-caliber bullet from Payne’s hip bone, Martin said. Another officer suffered a grazing wound to his finger from the bullet.
Martin declined to name the officer who shot Payne. It’s unclear if the officer has been disciplined.
Prosecutor Lindsey Fairley said Thursday that he didn’t plan to file any felony charges against the officer or Payne. Fairley, reached at his home, said Payne could face a misdemeanor charge stemming from the scuffle, but that would be up to the city’s judge.
Payne remains in good condition at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis. He referred questions to his lawyer.
“I know that he was unarmed and I know he was shot,” Fishman said. “None of that sounds too good for the city to me.”
After the shooting, Martin said police Chief Willie Frazier told the Sheriff’s Department he was disbanding the police force “until things calm down.” The Sheriff’s Department has been patrolling the town in the meantime.