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Let’s Go To the Tape: Audio of Surgeon General Arrest Sheds New Light on Case

Updated: Apr 13

Last week I posted about Surgeon General Joe Thompson’s arrest by Little Rock police officers, suggesting Thompson was arrested essentially because he was behaving obnoxiously, but not illegally, and that he might have grounds for a civil suit against the city.

After that post was published, I was contacted by Jacksonville businesswoman Partne Daugherty. She had realized that the interaction between Thompson and the arresting officers would likely have been recorded; she requested the audio and video records under a Freedom of Information Act requested and provided me with the files. You might be surprised, as I was, to learn that in Little Rock both officers and police cars are routinely miked and recorded.

Daugherty took the video file provided by LRPD, identified the first portion in which police interacted with Thompson, enhanced the volume and converted it to an audio file. The audio file Daugherty provided is here:

Audio of Thompson Confrontation with LRPD (click link to play in browser window; right-click to save as MP3 file)

The fuller video version is available in the YouTube clip at the top of the page.

After listening to it, I realized I had been mistaken to assume that Thompson had created a problem by behaving obnoxiously. Instead, my revised judgment – based on this recording – is that Thompson by and large behaved appropriately before he was arrested. I owe him an apology for suggesting otherwise.

Even after you listen to this recording, you still won’t know precisely what happened that night – but in my judgment, the recording suggests a very different narrative than what is presented in either the police report or the use of force report. The more likely narrative is that Thompson first attempted to end his conversation with police multiple times, and only after being repeatedly prevented by police from ending that conversation did Thompson do anything that might be blameworthy.

A reasonable interpretation of what happened that night, based on this recording, is that Thompson attempted to move into or stay inside of his own house and attempted to end the conversation (and perhaps attempted to close a door between him and the police), but that the police made it impossible for him to do so. (One might, of course, come up with more than one reasonable interpretation of what happened, based on this recording; my own view is that there are several reasonable interpretations that would exonerate Thompson.) My guess is that a criminal conviction for Thompson’s actions would necessarily fail, assuming a reasonable judge or jury were to listen to this recording.

Much of the recorded confrontation apparently takes place at Thompson’s front door, while Thompson was standing either just inside his house or just outside his door. The contrast between the recording and the two police reports is striking.

An inexact transcript of the audio recording follows at the jump:

Rough transcript of audio recording

What follows is my attempt to transcribe the essential parts of the interactions between Officers Johannes and Kinsey and Dr. Joe Thompson. The times, which correspond to the audio file, are approximate. I have placed a few question marks and brackets in the text where what is said may be less than clear.

0:00 Two police officers approach Thompson’s house and ask him if there had been a problem earlier in the evening.

0:15 Thompson complains that there was a “private security force in the neighborhood,” parked in front of his house. Officers explain to Thompson, at some length, that security guards are entitled to park on the street when they are monitoring their employers’ property.

0:45 Someone indistinctly says something like “Back off. Back off,” but it is unclear who is addressing whom. Officer: “Sir, I am asking if there’s a problem.” 

1:15 Thompson complains to police officers that the security guard, earlier that night, had pushed against him, and furthermore that the security guard had blamed the pushing on Johnson. An officer replies to Thompson’s complaint by saying that shoving is a more serious matter.

1:30 Thompson: “Can you turn your flashlight off?” Officer: “No.” Thompson: “OK, then I’m going inside my house. If you want to make a difference …” (Sounds of scuffling, followed by rapid talking.) Not clear who says the following: “Hey! Hold up! No! Uh-uh! I’m sorry, sir! I’m sorry, sir!” Officer: “You hit the door on[?] me! [ALTERNATE INTERPRETATION: You ignored me!]. Thompson: “You’re coming [?] close [?] to me.” [ALTERNATE INTERPRETATION: “You two are accosting me.”[?]]

1:45 Officer: “Don’t get into his face, please.” Thompson: “You know what? I am sorry about this, but I have neighbors out here who will support me on this issue.” Police ask Thompson to “step out here so we can talk.” Thompson: “No, I’m not going to step out there. Because this is my house and I have done nothing wrong.”

2:00 Indistinctly, one officer says something like “You were up in my personal space and that’s when I had to hit you [?] … (raises voice to interrupt Thompson’s indistinct response, which is something like “No, you’re shining it in my face[?]” or “No, you’re swinging it at my face[?]). Officer (raises voice): “Hey! Listen to me! Listen to me! This is a safety issue! I need to see you! This is a safety issue! And if I – I’m not putting it in your face, I’m putting it on you! So I can see your face, I can see you! (Crosstalk from other officer: “I’m stepping in[?]”) I think you’re a threat, then I will handle it!”

2:15 Thompson: “Sir, sir, I am the surgeon general for the state of Arkansas. (Crosstalk from officer: “Congratulations.”) If you want to tell me I’m a threat to you (Crosstalk from officer: “I didn’t say you were a threat.”), and if you keep shining that light in my face…” (Crosstalk from officer: “It’s not in your face, sir. It’s on your body.”) Thompson [continuing]: “Sorry, I’m going in my house.”

2:30 Officer: “I’m stepping within [?]. I need to get your information real quick from you, and then I’ll let you go. Get your ID, sir?” Thompson: “Back off. And turn that light off my face. Turn that light off my face.” Officer: “Be reasonable. It’s not in your face.” Other officer: “We have come to talk to you about a problem. I’m not yelling at you.”

2:45 Thompson (raises voice): “You know what? You have a private security force who has established a problem, which nobody in the neighborhood says there’s a problem. Nobody in the neighborhood says there’s a problem.” Officer: “Quit yelling at me. You are in [?]…” Thompson: “No!”

3:00 Officer: “You’re under arrest. For disorderly conduct. Do not resist. You will go to jail. Very tired. You’re under arrest. For public intoxication, disorderly conduct.” Thompson: “I’m in my own house!” Officer: “No, you’re on your own front porch.”

3:15 Scuffling and heavy breathing. Thompson: “Guys? Guys?” Officer: “Put your hands behind your back (repeated). Stop resisting.” Thompson (repeated): “I’m not resisting.”  Officer: “Don’t make me have to do this … You’re under arrest for resisting arrest … I got a fight up here … (responding to Thompson’s statement that he wasn’t resisting arrest) Yes you were.”

3:45 Officer: “If you don’t cooperate, [indistinct] it’s going to be worse.” Thompson “On my front porch.” Officer: “Sit up.”

4:00 Thompson: “I’m taking the grass out of my mouth.” [Thompson had been forced to the ground previously.] Officer: “You made this more complicated than it had to be by yelling and screaming. At any point in time, did I yell and scream? You going to walk, or am I going to carry you?”

4:15 Thompson: “Can I just – can we talk for a second?” Officer: “No. You’re done. I am tired of being, you know, super nice to you. It’s over.” Sound of car door.

4:30 Officer: “Have a seat. This is ridiculous, you act this way. If you had let me further explain things to you, you’d have been more than understanding. But instead you want to yell and scream. Watch your head.” Sound of car door. “You got your ID on you?”

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