It was 3 a.m. on a dark stretch of rural highway, and 17-year-old Hunter Brittain and his cousin were test-driving the pickup truck they’d been tinkering with at a local repair shop all night. Brittain, a white teen from the tiny city of McRae, Arkansas, who dreamed of being a Nascar driver, worked all year to buy the old white GMC truck. But the transmission was a persistent problem.
The late-night spin was meant to see if his efforts to fix it had paid off. But according to an account from Michael Davis, a sergeant with the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office, the car rattled and had smoke pouring from it when he encountered it on the highway and attempted to pull it over. Robert Newcomb, Davis’ attorney, told The Daily Beast his client thought the car might’ve been stolen and damaged in the process. Davis flashed his lights.
Within seconds, Brittain would be shot and killed. And like so many police shootings in the United States, the accounts about what happened in those critical moments differ wildly.
Brittain’s uncle, Jesse Brittain, told The Daily Beast that after being stopped, his nephew got out of the truck, but only to get a jug of antifreeze he kept in the bed to place it behind the tires. The teen had trouble shifting the truck into park, and the vehicle often slipped backward, he said. Brittain explained that Jordan King, Hunter’s 16-year-old cousin who was in the car that night, told the family that no orders from Davis were ever given to Hunter about what to do in those key moments. Instead, Brittain was shot by Davis while he reached for the antifreeze, according to the slain teen’s family. He was unarmed and no guns were recovered from the scene.
“He never made it to the back tire,” Jesse Brittain told The Daily Beast. “He never was told to halt or stop or get on the ground or nothing.”
Davis wore a body camera, but it was turned off during the encounter, because, Newcomb said, it required two buttons to turn on and Davis didn’t get it going in the heat of the moment. “The camera just didn’t catch,” he said. “It was not a conscious decision on his part not to comply with policy.”
Newcomb said Davis yelled at Brittain to put his hands out the window when the car stopped, and feared the worst when it lurched backward and Brittain hopped out. “You got a vehicle moving, you got somebody reaching in the back of the truck to try and grab something,” he said. “If the young man had just stayed in the car like he was told to, or showed his hands like he was told to, or even told the officer, ‘My truck won’t stop, I have to block the wheels’—any number of things and he’d be alive today.”
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Brittain was taken to a hospital in North Little Rock after the shooting and later died, according to a statement from the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office. Davis was fired for breaking his employer’s body-camera policy. A special prosecutor is currently reviewing case details to determine possible criminal charges against Davis.
Nearly 100 people have been shot and killed by Arkansas police since 2015, according to a Washington Post database. More than half have been white in a state that is about 80 percent white, while a third have been Black, despite Black people making up less than 16 percent of the population. While there have been police shootings and deaths in custody that have attracted the occasional national news item, many residents who spoke to The Daily Beast said the shooting of Brittain has turned attention to the issue in the state unlike ever before.
It has also transformed many white, rural citizens who they say are normally silent about police violence into overnight advocates. It’s a shift that is both frustrating and potentially useful to their cause, one they can’t help but fear will lose its luster when a so-called perfect victim fades from the limelight.
“We see communities right now that aren’t normally vocal at all when it comes to someone being killed by the cops. They’re actually very silent. And now we see this beast awakening,” said Kwami Abdul-Bey, the political chair of the Jacksonville, Arkansas, NAACP, noting persistent protests by mostly white gatherers that have been ongoing at the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office. “Now we have a bunch of white, middle class, Trump-supporters and MAGA followers who have come to the same conclusion that we have already been at, which is that police violence must stop.”
Bey is among a handful of local and national Black civil rights leaders who have gathered in support of Brittain’s family. They include mega-attorney Benjamin Crump—who usually represents people of color and is representing the white teen’s family—and Al Sharpton, who spoke at Brittain’s packed memorial this month. Crump has explicitly said the white, unarmed teen’s is “one of the most significant cases” of police violence that could be used to create a multicultural coalition to push for police reform in the notoriously Republican state.
And maybe even the whole country.
“That is going to be looked at differently because he wasn’t a teenager who was a child of color,” he told CNN recently. “Because we’ve always said that our white brothers and sisters couldn’t fathom their child being killed by the police. That people are supposed to protect them. But that’s a reality that parents of children of color literally deal with every day of their lives.”
Despite all the high rhetoric about the possibilities of working together, other Black community leaders and families in the state who have lost loved ones to police violence are not so optimistic. They wonder if all the attention on the issues they’ve been marching and protesting about for years will result in real change—or if the same level of goodwill shown toward Brittain will be shown toward the next victim of police violence who looks like them.
“Hunter is a good person to point at and say that the police had no right to shoot him,” Hadiyah Cummings told The Daily Beast.
An activist from Conway, Arkansas, Cummings has protested deaths of Black men by the police that she said never received any attention, due, in part, to the victims having a history of drug use or prior criminal convictions. “You shouldn’t have to be a perfect victim to not be killed by police,” she said.
In the decade that Osyrus Bolly, a Little Rock activist, has been advocating for Black victims of police violence in Arkansas, he said he’s never noticed this much attention placed on a victim as Brittain—particularly from white residents.
“Will the white community respond and be just as upset and want justice for somebody that doesn’t look like them?” he asked. “Will we get the same media coverage the next time it happens?”
Like others, he said he thinks Brittain deserves all the attention, and called his death a “tragedy” that needs to be investigated. Still, he said he can’t help but also notice the narrative about the teen has focused squarely on the loss for his family and his goals for the future, which he says is different for Black victims who are often dismissed because of their “lifestyle” or past criminal history.
The most recent police shooting in Arkansas he can recall getting an ounce of the exposure Brittain’s death has involved 30-year-old Bradley Blackshire Sr., who was killed by a Little Rock Police officer in February 2019. Like Brittain’s case, it involved an officer suspicious about a car being stolen, a lurching car, and the alleged threat of being shot at.
According to released body-camera footage and the Pulaski County prosecutor Larry Jegley, Blackshire was stopped by Little Rock Police officer Charles Starks while driving a car that had been reported stolen. Blackshire’s family said the car had been borrowed by him.
Starks confronted the car in a parking lot with his gun drawn and demanded Blackshire come out. In response, Blackshire asked, “What you gonna shoot me for?" and refused. The car began to lurch slowly away from Starks, with the driver apparently attempting to flee. But Starks did not move out of the way and instead shot repeatedly through the windshield, killing Blackshire.
According to a letter declining to file charges against Starks written by Jegley, the prosecutor, Starks said he feared Blackshire might be reaching for a gun during the encounter. There was never any proof that Blackshire brandished a weapon nor even an account from Starks saying as much, but Jegley said Blackshire’s car was the “same as as if Mr. Blackshire were pointing a gun at him.” And a gun was in fact recovered in Blackshire’s car, along with ammunition, according to the prosecutor’s office.
Starks did not respond to a request for comment.
After the shooting, Starks was fired from the police department for breaking policy by remaining in front of the oncoming car, making deadly force a probable outcome. Department policy said Starks should have moved out of the way rather than fire into the car. He was reinstated after the charges against him were declined, but in September 2020, he resigned.
Bolly said that after the shooting, which he believes only got attention because many in the community pushed for body-camera footage to be released, there was little sympathy for Blackshire outside of a tight group of family and community leaders, even though the officer broke protocol. “A lot of the reaction to Bradley Blackshire’s murder was, ‘Oh, he brought that on himself,’” he said.
Rizelle Aaron, an uncle to Blackshire’s son, and the vice president of the North Little Rock NAACP, was among many in the Little Rock area calling for justice. In particular, he said, he and other family members demanded an independent investigation by the Arkansas State Police, as well as a special prosecutor to be appointed in the case so that Jegley, the Pulaski County prosecutor who he said works frequently with the Little Rock Police Department, would not have any conflict of interest. But in both cases, the requests were denied. “When they investigate themselves, they always come out on top,” Aaron said.
Blackshire’s family currently has a federal lawsuit pending against Starks. Jegley did not respond to a request for comment. The Little Rock Police Department also did not respond to a request for comment.
The contrast to Brittain’s case, Aaron said, was striking to him.
Immediately after Brittain’s death in June, Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley turned the investigation over to the Arkansas State Police, according to statements he released on Facebook. On July 1, he said there was a lot of “noise, misinformation and downright lies on social media” about the case, but said it isn’t his job to find out if Davis acted legally. “I have nothing to do with it, nor should I. That is the whole point behind an independent investigation.”
According to a spokesman for the Arkansas State Police, independent investigations of police shootings or police-custody deaths are only conducted when requested by the head of an agency.
Chuck Graham, county prosecutor for Lonoke County, told The Daily Beast that the investigative file on Brittain’s shooting was delivered to him on July 9. One day before that, he filed a motion to appoint a special prosecutor in the case, writing that Davis has a “very close working relationship with most of the members of the prosecutor’s office.” He also referenced protests that had been taking place at the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office, writing that it was “in the best interests of all parties... that a fair and impartial assessment by an independent prosecutor” take place.
Jeff Phillips, a prosecutor for a district on the west side of the state, has been named to fill that role. In a statement to The Daily Beast, he said he expects to receive the investigative file next week and declined to comment further.
Aaron said he credits Graham and Staley for doing what he said is the right thing in Brittain’s case, and conceded that whether an independent investigation or a special prosecutor is appointed could have more to do with the local officials in charge rather than race.
But Abdul-Bey, of the Jacksonville, Arkansas, NAACP, said he and other Black community leaders in the state have long been calling for the state legislature to make it mandatory that independent reviews and special prosecutors be assigned to police shootings and in-custody deaths. Although there have been some instances where both steps are taken in cases involving Black victims killed at the hands of police, Abdul-Bey said it is not applied evenly across the board.
“We have been asking for that,” he said, adding that there has been little to no traction. “But guess what happened when Hunter Brittain died? Exactly what we have been asking for.”
While the disparity is frustrating, Abdul-Bey is among the hopeful that the way Brittain’s case has been handled and the attention it is getting will set a benchmark that can be cited for future cases.
“Now we have precedent to demand that this happens every single time,” he said. “If they don’t do it from now on, then they’re going to get a lot of flack from us. Because then they’re going to demonstrate that, oh, you only do that in certain cases when certain people from certain communities die.”
Jesse Brittain, who told The Daily Beast he’s been overwhelmed the last few weeks while fielding national television interview requests instead of tending to his farm in rural Arkansas, said he wants his nephew’s death to contribute to those larger changes.
He admitted that before Hunter’s death, he wasn’t aware of how pervasive police violence was in the United States and how frequently officers are cleared of wrongdoing. But after the shooting, he said, he’s been bombarded with messages of support from other families, as well as statistics and research he’d never looked at before. “There are so many more cases and people across this state and others that have reached out,” he said. “Everytime anything happens, it's just swept under the rug.”
Brittain said he hopes to pass a law in his nephew’s name requiring all law-enforcement officers in the state to have body cameras and have them on at all times during their shift. Crump, speaking at Brittain’s memorial on July 6, invoked Brittain’s name along with those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, saying his death was another reason why the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in February but hasn’t been taken up by the Senate, needs to be acted on.
Although local activists in Arkansas, like Cummings, criticized Crump for “swooping” into the state now but not after the shootings of people like Blackshire, Crump defended his taking on the Brittain case in a statement to The Daily Beast. "The unfortunate truth is that police violence against Americans of all colors, but particularly Black Americans, is rampant,” he said. “Clearly, I can only represent a small number of cases overall. But I am very hopeful that the Hunter Brittain case will be a turning point for policymakers. It highlights that unchecked use of excessive force by police threatens white children, too."
Jesse Brittain, for his part, said he believes “all people” who suffer from police violence should rally for what he now believes are needed reforms. “We must stand together and rise up and vote and do whatever has to be done to get things changed so we can trust in the people that we pay to protect and serve us not to kill us,” he said. “People need to be aware. This could be any one of their kids next.”
Despite this talk, he said he’s nervous that all the interview requests he’s gotten have come from media organizations like CNN and MSNBC, which he says don’t have as much relevance in conservative Arkansas, particularly among white voters. He’s been waiting for a call from Fox News, but said he hasn’t gotten one. “There are a lot of viewers here that watch Fox and don’t watch CNN and MSNBC,” he said. “The more awareness we can get, the more help we can get when it comes time to vote, and get these things changed.”
Bolly, like other Black community leaders in the state who spoke to The Daily Beast, said he is hopeful Brittain gets justice in the form of charges and a conviction for Davis. He’d like to believe the optimistic tone about a multicultural coalition coming together in a sustained way around the issue of police violence in Arkansas, but history has taught him otherwise.
“If we had a united group and coalition who always sought justice no matter what the color of the person was, the gender of the person, the lifestyle,” he said, “we would have more traction by now.”
“That’s the wish that the Black community has always had,” he said. “It’s just fallen on deaf ears a lot of times.”