Police cleared in slaying of teen near youth center
Two Marion police officers involved in the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old in front of a shelter for juvenile offenders in July were justified in using deadly force, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Officer Wesley Smith shot Aries Clark of Crittenden County outside the East Arkansas Youth Services facility on July 25 after Clark pointed what Smith thought was a handgun, according to reports. Officials later determined that Clark was armed with a BB pistol that looked similar to a semi-automatic handgun, said 2nd Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington of Jonesboro.
Smith shot his .40-caliber handgun four times, according to a letter Ellington wrote to Arkansas State Police Director Col. Bill Bryant, striking Clark three times. Marion police officer Brannon Hinkle shot at Clark twice with a .223-caliber Remington semi-automatic rifle but missed both times.
Clark was taken to a Memphis hospital where he died.
Smith and Hinkle were placed on paid leave while the state police conducted an investigation into the shooting. Lt. Freddy Williams of the Marion Police Department said the two officers could return to duty as soon as today.
Ellington said several officers and witnesses agreed that Clark raised a pistol toward officers. Video taken from a body camera on Smith also showed Clark pointing the weapon after officers told him numerous times to drop it.
“Clark’s actions that day brought about the circumstances that threatened the lives of at least four law enforcement officers had the gun he brandished been a firearm as was perceived by the responding officers,” Ellington wrote in his letter to Bryant.
“I cannot find that the officers acted criminally,” he wrote. “Therefore, I find the officers were justified under these circumstances and no criminal charges will be filed in this matter.”
Police arrived at East Arkansas Youth Services about 7 p.m. July 25 after the center’s employees called to report that Clark was trying to get inside.
The facility serves juvenile offenders and foster children for seven eastern Arkansas counties. The Arkansas Department of Human Services contracts with the center to provide residential care for some children in foster care and for others who are in the Youth Services Division’s after-care program.
The center is licensed to provide services to 20 youths. Twelve youths were living in the center when the shooting occurred, Department of Human Services spokesman Amy Webb said.
East Arkansas Youth Services Director Madelyn Keith did not return telephone messages Wednesday.
Clark was a resident of the facility who left without permission or court approval on July 23 and was considered “absent without leave,” Ellington said. The center is not a “locked-down” facility, meaning youths are not locked inside and are not prevented from leaving.
The center is locked, however, to prevent people from entering the building before police can search them and to prevent them from possibly carrying in drugs or weapons, the prosecutor said.
Ellington said Clark returned to the facility at 7:06 p.m. July 25, and workers inside called police, as is customary.
Officers arrived at the center at 7:11 p.m., Ellington said.
Four officers were wearing body cameras and captured audio of Clark’s confrontation with police. The views of three cameras were obstructed, but Smith’s camera captured Clark standing outside the center holding a gun by his side.
Smith repeatedly asked Clark to drop the weapon.
“Hey, I’m your buddy,” Smith can be heard saying to Clark on the video. “I’ve talked to you often. I’m here to help you.”
Smith called Clark by name several times.
At one point, Clark took off his shirt and T-shirt and faced officers. He rubbed his face often and appeared agitated, Ellington said.
After about 10 minutes, Clark raised his BB handgun toward officers.
Hinkle, standing on the southwest side of the building, shot his .223-caliber rifle twice but missed Clark.
Smith was standing behind a tree on the northwest side of the building. He stepped away from the tree and shot four times, hitting Clark in the head, back and buttocks.
It was getting dark at the time of the shooting, and in the video provided by the prosecutor, Clark’s BB gun, a 1911 model pistol, looked like a real firearm, Ellington said.
“I am sure it looked like a gun from the business end of that,” Ellington said.
He said officers discussed using Tasers on Clark, but he was too far away to be reached with the device.
While urging Clark to drop his weapon, Smith also gave directions to other officers to ensure that they would not be in the crossfire if anyone fired their weapons.
“He did what he was trained to do,” Williams said. “It’s always tough. We can’t call a timeout while it’s going on. You try to de-escalate the situation the best you can.”
Before July 25, Williams was the last Marion police officer to fatally shoot someone. In January 2003, he stopped a speeding motorist on a service road of Interstate 55 in the Crittenden County town. As he neared the car, the driver shot at Williams eight times with a .45-caliber handgun. One bullet hit Williams in the face.
He returned fire and killed the driver.
“You have to rely on your training in situations like that,” Williams said.
Williams said he has talked with Smith and Hinkle nearly every day since the July shooting.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I want to make sure they don’t go through some of the things I did, if I am able.”
Ellington said he has asked the state Crime Laboratory in Little Rock to provide toxicology results from samples taken from Clark to determine whether Clark had consumed drugs or alcohol before the shooting.