Toward the end of this past Thursday’s NAACP press conference on the recent spate of police shootings of minorities, member James Morris had just one thing he wanted to say. He had stayed quiet nearly the entire meetingthrough branch president Ludye Wallace’s rambling briefing, through one of the victim’s parent’s fiery demands for justice, through a frustrating series of questions from the media. But finally, just when many reporters were tucking away their notebooks, a visibly angered Morris unexpectedly spoke out and gave those in attendance a stern challenge. ”If you can find any case in which a white person was killed by a black officer, come get us,“ he said.
That was not the kind of emotional, racially charged message the NAACP leadership wanted to send. Wallace, for example, urged moderation. ”We’re not looking for anyone to blame,“ he said. But while he tried to persuade others to be patient as the investigations into each of the shootings proceed, Wallace himself muddled his own organization’s message. Reading from a press release, he compared the shootings in Nashville to nationally publicized killings in New York City. That observation seemed to jump to conclusions, displaying exactly the kind of reaction he warned against.
In the aftermath of three shooting deaths of minorities by white police officers, as well as the recent death of an African American autistic man who was being detained by police, local leaders have struggled to balance their emotions with their better judgment.
The same day as the NAACP’s press conference, Police Chief Emmett Turner had one of his own. Turner called it ”coincidental“ that all the victims were minorities, while at the same time promising thorough investigations. Considering Turner’s knee-jerk defense of his officers, it’s natural to be skeptical about the credibility of the investigations.
Not surprisingly, Turner’s comment outraged some members of the NAACP. ”He’s not in any position to make that kind of statement. That’s not reasonable,“ says Edward Isibor, the president of the Coalition for the Success of the African American Male and a lifetime member of the NAACP. ”How can he make that assessment when the investigation is not even finished? That’s why the blue wall of silence goes on.“
The distrust of the Police Department has spread outside the black community. Chong Hwan An, a Korean shopkeeper in Madison, was shot and killed by police officers last month. Police say the officers shot An as he himself was shooting at two robbers fleeing his store. Korean-American leaders and family members have criticized the officers for acting rashly.
”They made a decision to shoot before they knew what was going on,“ says Sandy Baek, An’s sister-in law. Asked by the Scene whether An’s race might have played a role in his death, she says, ”There may be a chance. I don’t have any proof but we have been asking ourselves some hypothetical questions. Would this have happened to a white male?“
Baek says the family is looking into filing a civil lawsuit and has been talking with attorneys. Some of her claims, if true, are explosive. For example, Baek says her brother-in-law didn’t shoot at the robbers once they left the store. She says there are no bullet holes outside the store entrance.
A few of the police officers involved in the recent shootings do have questionable backgrounds. John Nicholson, one of the two officers who shot and killed An, has five disciplinary items in his record. Most of those involve driving offenses, but two years ago, he was suspended for two days without pay for writing a crude message to a supervisor. According to memos in his personnel file, Nicholson left an unsigned note on a picture of a child on a sergeant’s desk. The note contained profanity, made a reference to child pornography on the Internet, and referred to an adult female posing in the nude.
Scott McGonigle was one of the officers who shot and killed Larry Davis, who was stopped for speeding on Ellington Parkway early last month. Police say McGonigle and Officer Jeff Bauer, who had arrived as a back-up, fired on Davis in self-defense after he tried to run over Bauer in his car. Davis was later found to have had $30,000 in cash and four pounds of cocaine in his car, police say.
In January 1998, McGonigle was charged with knowingly making an inaccurate written report about how he injured his hand while on duty. He later acknowledged that the injury occurred while he was making an arrest.
That charge was dropped, according to his personnel file, but he was nevertheless reprimanded by Assistant Chief Debbie Faulkner for ”poor judgment.“ In a memo to one of McGonigle’s supervisors, she suggests that for McGonigle, ”some refresher topics would be in order including the use-of-force policy.“ Wrote Faulkner, ”He needs proper training regarding the appropriate way to get a non-compliant arrestee handcuffed.“
If Davis’ family files a civil suit, look for their attorneys to suggest that McGonigle has a history of failing to show due restraint.
And if the level of emotion is any indication, civil suits might well be forthcoming. This past March, robbery suspect Timothy Hayworth was shot and killed by police after being tracked down in a south Nashville apartment complex. Police say Hayworth was driving a Ford Escort that had been taken at gunpoint in a car-jacking the previous evening. Hayworth tried to run over his pursing officers, and they shot him in self-defense, police say.
At the NAACP’s press conference last week, an anguished Timothy Forsythe, father of the slain Timothy Hayworth, told reporters, ”I don’t want an apology from the police chief or the mayor. I want justice.“
Forsythe’s fury is understandable, especially considering that all four of the officers involved in the shooting death of his son were returned to active duty within a week of his death. But at some point, calmer voices need to prevail. Says NAACP member Edward Isibor, one of the more measured voices during this controversy, ”We can’t make a judgment right now. Everybody should wait [until] all the facts are out there.“
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