(MSNBC) 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.
Crittenden County sheriff's Investigator Thomas Martin said of the Jericho, Ark., police department: "You can't even get them to answer a call because normally they're writing tickets."
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 Office. “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 firedepartment 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.
Camping out along highway
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.
“When I first moved out here, they wrote me a ticket for going 58 mph in my driveway,” 75-year-old retiree Albert Beebe said.
The frequent ticketing apparently led to the vandalization of the cruisers, and the department took to parking the cars overnight at the sheriff’s office eight miles away.
It was anger over traffic tickets that brought Payne to city hall last week, said his lawyer, Randy Fishman. After failing 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.
Bullet also hit another officer
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, pending the outcome of an investigation. No charges have been filed, and it’s unclear if the officer has been disciplined.
Crittenden County prosecutors did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Payne remains in good condition at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis. Payne 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.
A call to a city hall number listed as Frazier’s went to a fax machine. Frazier did not respond to a written request for comment sent to his office.
Alexander, the judge, has voided all the tickets written by the department both inside the city and others written outside of its jurisdiction — citations that the department apparently had no power to write. Alexander, who works as a lawyer in West Memphis, did not return calls for comment.
Meanwhile, sheriff’s deputies want to know where the money from the traffic fines went.
Martin said that it appeared the $150 tickets weren’t enough to protect the city’s finances. Sheriff’s deputies once had to repossess one of the town’s police cruisers for failure to pay on a lease, and the state Forestry Commission recently repossessed one of the city’s fire trucks because of nonpayment.
City hall has been shuttered since the shooting, and any records of how the money was spent are apparently locked inside. No one answered when a reporter knocked on the door on Tuesday.
Mayor Helen Adams declined to speak about the shooting when approached outside her home, saying she had just returned from a doctor’s appointment and couldn’t talk.
“We’ll get with you after all this comes through,” Adams said Tuesday before shutting the door.
A white Ford Crown Victoria sat in her driveway with “public property” license plates. A sales brochure advertising police equipment sat in the back seat of the car.