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James Hartsfield’s family sues city of Little Rock and police officer who killed him

On what would be James Hartsfield’s 30th birthday, his family filed a lawsuit against the City of Little Rock and the police officer who killed him.

Author: David Lippman, THV11 DigitalPublished: 9:55 PM CDT May 13, 2019Updated: 10:58 PM CDT May 13, 2019

James Hartsfield would have turned 30 years old Monday. Instead of celebrating with him, his family filed a lawsuit against the City of Little Rock and the police officer who killed him in 2017.

“Losing a brother,” Natasha Hamilton, his sister, said Monday, “is something I never saw happening or would wish on anyone. In simpler words, it’s hell on earth.”

According to a statement from the Little Rock Police Department, Hartsfield was suspected of being drunk when Gunn approached his vehicle in the parking lot of Local Union on October 7, 2017.

She approached him and got into the passenger’s side of his car, and as the drove away, she shot him before it crashed through a brick wall and ended up in the middle of N. University Ave.

Mike Laux, the family’s attorney, showed during a news conference to announce the lawsuit dash-cam footage from two of the other officers who responded to the scene and gave his criticism of Gunn’s statements about the incident.

“She says that she saw James driving in his car and that he had an open bottle of beer that she had noted,” Laux said of Gunn’s explanation. “From what I’ve heard from people who know James, he didn’t drink.”

Gunn was working an off-duty shift as a security guard at Local Union, a nightclub that stays open until 5:00 a.m. Laux said Hartsfield, who drove for Lyft, was there at 4:15 a.m. to pick up a rider.

Gunn had her patrol car there and was wearing her police uniform at the time.

“The point of this is that she should’ve had an NVR dashboard cam set up in her vehicle,” Laux explained. “We should be able to hear everything that was said between the two of them because she should’ve been mic’d up. She wasn’t mic’d up, and that’s another question mark and that’s another red flag.”

Laux showed video from the car of Officer Nicolas Smith, who Gunn called for as backup. It shows him run to the driver’s side to attempt to pull Hartsfield from the car while Gunn is in the passenger side.

At one point, Smith can be heard asking if the car is in park. “Is it in park?” Laux repeated. “They don’t even know what’s going on.”

Eight seconds later, the car starts moving, showing that it was not in park while the officers engaged with Hartsfield.

Another video from a dash-cam of a different LRPD officer shows the car breaking through the brick wall and onto University.

Laux highlighted that if Gunn had been more patient, additional help would have arrived a few seconds later.

“Everything that you see here,” Laux said, pointing to the video on a projector screen, “reflects, just a gross misunderstanding of the limits of authority for officers.”

Gunn was thrown from the car after it crashed. Officers rushed to check on her, but Laux said it took them eight minutes to check on Hartsfield, who was still in the car.

“Now, this investigation at this point is a criminal homicide investigation,” Laux said. “James is a criminal homicide victim. Gunn is a criminal homicide suspect, okay? That’s the in-house system here in Little Rock. That’s when they investigate themselves, right? So, when you investigate yourselves, this is what you get. Is James’s heart, is his heart beating? Is he alive right now? Does he need a tourniquet? Can he be saved?”

Several of Hartsfield’s relatives sat at a table during Laux’s presentation, often crying while he played the footage of the shooting.

“I have to trust and believe that whatever I go through, that my brother is guiding me through everything,” Lauren Hartsfield said. “And I just miss my brother!”

Laux claimed that Gunn was only partly to blame. He said her actions were part of a larger trend within LRPD to display reckless aggression while making traffic stops.

He showed video of multiple past incidents in which officers approached drivers with guns drawn. One of which, from 2005, ended with the driver starting a high-speed chase that resulted in his death.

Laux also showed part of a deposition from 2016 in which he asked the head of the training unit at the time about Officer Kelly Lepore’s actions in that 2005 traffic stop.

“They knew about this in 2016, before James was killed,” Laux added. “So, they knew about it in 2005. They watched that video when this went down; they watch all the videos for police-involved shootings, they knew what Kelly LePore did. They let her train Josh Hastings; we know what Josh Hastings did.”

Hastings lost a civil trial after shooting and killing Bobby Moore in 2012.

“We know how he deals with cars and deadly force, we know that really well, don’t we? So, 2016, tag, you’re it! You now know. If you didn’t know, now you know.”

Laux said several officers have been investigated and cleared after using deadly force or what he described as aggressive tactics. He painted a picture of a police department that does not adequately train or hold accountable its officers and said James Hartsfield’s death was the end result.

“If we’re [truthful] about using examples as training, as a basis to train going forward, I mean, we need look no further than this,” he stated.

“And this is something that they didn’t think about: how it affected us, and the fact that we have to go through our life and he’s not here,” Lauren Hartsfield added.

Spokespersons for LRPD and the City of Little Rock declined to comment about the lawsuit. Local Union did not respond to a request for a statement.