In recent months, the Drug War Chronicle has reported on apparently unjustifiable police killings of civilians in Columbus, Georgia; Louisville, Kentucky; and Oakland, California. The past couple of weeks has seen movement toward holding the police shooters to account in all three cases. As students of drug policy are aware, police officers seldom face even departmental disciplinary actions in these cases; winning an indictment is even more rare, and a conviction rarer yet. But in Columbus, Louisville, and Oakland, community activists and elected officials are working to ensure that justice is done.
On the face of it, all three killings appear shocking and uncalled for. On December 10, Kenneth Walker, a 39-year-old black professional and family man, was riding in an SUV with friends when their vehicle was pulled over by police doing a drug investigation (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/316/columbus.shtml). Walker ended up dead with a bullet wound to the head. No drugs or weapons were found in the vehicle.
Three weeks later, on January 3, 19-year-old Michael Newby, a black resident of Louisville's predominantly black West Side, was killed by a Louisville police officer during an undercover drug buy (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/319/threeshots.shtml). Officer McKenzie Mattingly said he shot Newby in self-defense during a scuffle, but the fact that Newby was shot in the back has raised numerous questions, as well as tempers in the black community -- some of whose members engaged in a mini-riot, breaking the windows of the police chief's office and tangling with riot police, a week after the shooting.
Then, on February 17, Oakland resident Rudolfo Cardenas was and killed by a California narcotics officer attempting to serve a parole violation warrant (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/326/wrongman.shtml). But Cardenas wasn't the man the cops were looking for. The 43-year-old ex-con just happened to pass by the house targeted by police and fled for unknown reasons. Police chased him in vehicles and then on foot. Cardenas died in an alleyway, shot in the back repeatedly. No drugs or weapons were found, although police initially claimed he pointed a digital scale at them.
All three cases have generated heated local controversy, angry protests, and racial tension, and now they are generating concrete results. Last Friday, Officer Mattingly was indicted on murder charges. He was arraigned Monday and remains on paid administrative leave with the Louisville Police Department.
"This is the first time a police officer ever been indicted in Louisville for shooting and killing someone," said the Rev. Louis Coleman, a civil rights veteran who heads the Louisville Justice Center. "In the past five years, seven black men have been shotand killed, including one who was killed while he was handcuffed in a police car, but the commonwealth attorney had not seen fit to bring an indictment against a police officer," he told DRCNet. "This is not a new issue in Louisville. The community here has taken issue with the police department and its lack of accountability since the 1970s," he said. "We've been protesting every week in front of the mayor's office and the police chief's office for the last 74 weeks," he added.
"Just because you have a badge on your chest doesn't give you the right to just shoot anybody," said prosecutor David Stengel said at a news conference announcing the indictment. The fact that Newby was shot in the back while fleeing raised concerns, he said. "It's a very difficult situation, being out there and making a split-second judgment," Stengel said. "The fact that he (Mattingly) was indicted for murder doesn't necessarily mean it will end up as murder. But that gives us the full range of options to look at when we try the case."
"It's a small victory," said Alice Wade, 65, coordinator of the Louisville-based Kentucky Alliance Against Racism and another veteran of the civil rights struggles. "The real victory will come if and when they find him guilty and convict him," she told DRCNet.
Coleman gave credit to demonstrations and public pressure for forcing prosecutors to bring an indictment. "They knew they had to do something," he said, especially after two nights of street violence in January. "I guarantee you that if the grand jury hadn't indicted that police officer, we would have had some serious issues on the street. A lot of the young adults who knew Michael Newby are just enraged," he said.
It's not just young adults and veteran activists who are upset. "I have a real problem anytime someone is shot in the back," said City Council member Cheri Bryant Hamilton, who represents Newby's district. "I have a problem with the placement of the bullets," she said, adding that the indictment of Mattingly was a step forward. "We will be able to hear the evidence, and that is a good thing," she told DRCNet. "So many of these investigations are closed and there is no input from the public."
And while figures like the Rev. Coleman and Alice Wade have been lonely in their fight for justice over the years, the killing of Michael Newby has mobilized a new generation of activists. "There have been big marches and they've drawn a very mixed crowd," said Hamilton. "Lots of high school students, both black and white, along with college students, people in the community, and others," she said.
"If it hadn't been for the street heat by the people, this wouldn't have happened," said Wade. "Michael was 19, well-known by his peers, and the young people turned out. When they were hurting after his killing and their adrenaline was high, there we were. Now we have the kids. They've started coming to our Friday meetings, and each time we see one or two new faces. We keep telling the young people that we're old, and now it is their turn to pick up the baton and show leadership," she said.
Anger over the shooting crosses the color line. "We already knew something was wrong; we were already out there," said Wade, "but now the white people have started coming. And the Hispanics. We had a Hispanic guy who was shot and killed by the head of the Fraternal Order of Police. We've been contacting ministers of all races and telling them they need to get their people out, and we see more and more each week."
While the aftermath of the Newby killing is bringing blacks, whites, and Hispanics together to some degree, it has also exposed deep divisions in the community and revealed the need for better policing, said Council Member Hamilton. "We have called the chief in and asked him to explain policies and procedures," she said. "There is community pressure for a citizen review board of police, but I don't think we have the votes for that on the council yet."
"The department puts police in the neighborhoods who know very little about the community," said Rev. Coleman. "We told the mayor we need some drug prevention programs and we need some community policing. The vast majority of people here want the drug issue addressed, but we have to look at it as a health problem, not a criminal problem. If the police are out there trying to catch our young men and mistreating everybody in the community, they are going to create people who are anti-police. We don't want to be anti-police; we want to be anti-police criminals," he said. "Some of these police are Vietnam vets or Gulf War vets, and I wonder how stable some of them are. They think they're still in a war."
Changes in drug policy would help, said Council Member Hamilton. "We are wasting a lot of valuable talent with these drug laws," she said. "And there is discrimination in sentencing, such as the crack and powder cocaine disparities. That must be corrected. And there is not enough treatment. More treatment would go a long way."
In the meantime, Officer Mattingly awaits a trial date, and continues to draw a police paycheck while he does so. "We want this officer fired," said Rev. Coleman, who, along with the Kentucky Alliance Against Racism's Wade, vowed to continue protests until that happens and during the trial as well.
A few hundred miles to the south, in Columbus, GA, events have played out a little differently. After the killing of Kenneth Walker on the side of Interstate-185 in December, authorities were slow to respond to public pressure for more information, refusing to release a videotape of the incident or, for more than two months, even the name of the officer involved.
But as pressure mounted, primarily from black religious and political leaders, authorities have begun to respond. On February 20, Sheriff Ralph Johnson named Deputy David Glisson as the shooter -- and fired him. Glisson, a 20-year veteran of the department and member of its SWAT-style Special Response Team, got the ax because of the "totality of facts revealed in the [in-house] administrative investigation," said sheriff's spokesman Capt. Joe McCrea. What that apparently means is that he was fired for not cooperating in either the sheriff's department's investigation of the shooting (now completed), the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's inquiry, or the US Justice Department's investigation of whether Walker's civil rights were violated.
While Glisson has been fired, the incident has yet to come before a grand jury as prosecutors wait for the completion of the GBI investigation. And that is keeping tempers high in the city's black community and beyond. The city has already seen an emotional, packed funeral, a series of protest marches and meetings, attention from civil rights groups nationwide, and even an appearance from the Rev. Al Sharpton, who warned that the nation was watching.
"A lot of my constituents are concerned about it," said state Rep. Carolyn Hugley (D), who represents a Columbus district. "African-American moms want to know what they can do to keep their sons safe," she told DRCNet. "I knew Kenny Walker. He was a model citizen, a model son, a married professional man from a respectable family. If he is not safe on the streets of Columbus, then who is? This shooting raises that issue in the hearts and minds of African-American mothers everywhere."
Hugley is afraid she now doesn't have a good answer to that question. "Before this, we could stay to our kids, stay out of trouble, go to school to become a productive citizen, and everything will be fine. Now, we have to rethink that. I have a 21-year-old son. Now, I have to ask myself: Have I told him the right things to do?"
"This has been a very divisive issue," said Father Tom Weise, who holds services at two churches, one predominantly white and the other predominantly black, just across the river in Phenix City, Alabama. "We have a mayor in Columbus who is trying hard and he is very popular in the black community, but feelings are running high there," he told DRCNet. "People have been restrained -- we haven't seen any violence -- but there is real concern in the community because of past history."
But while the black community has been outspoken, said Weise, some supporters of Glisson have played the race card as well. "There has been some awful stuff on the local talk shows," he said, "but the majority of people in town are exercising reasonable moderation."
Weise held out hope that in the long run, the killing of Kenneth Walker will bring the community together, he said. "In the long run, if this is handled properly it could help race relations and improve policing," he said.
The Rev. Jerry Sauls of the University Avenue Assembly of God is doing his part, he told DRCNet. "Our congregation is small and we have few blacks in our church, but we have taken up an offering and sent it to Mrs. Walker," he explained. "I've attended some meetings with the black community, and the Muscogee County Clergy Association has sent a letter to the black community. And last Friday, the Interracial Ministerial Association met with the Black Ministerial Association. There was a lot of camaraderie and interaction there," he said.
"The sheriff has been slow to respond, and there are some people who are very upset. There is a real restlessness about the way this has been handled," he said. "But the community has handled this well and is waiting to see what happens."
Handling it properly will have to include putting Deputy Glisson before the bar of justice, said Rep. Hugley. "There needs to be a trial. If it is shown that the deputy was indeed guilty, he should receive the same sentence any other citizen would receive," she said.
There is no sign of that yet, as local prosecutors are busy handing off the case as if it were radioactive. But the incident has left Rep. Hugley wondering about how the police are enforcing the drug laws. "If we are going to have this punitive drug policy, then it is incumbent on the police to go above and beyond the call of duty and figure out who they are dealing with. Just because there are four black men in a grey SUV does that mean the police don't even check before they stop them? The man who was driving is a high school coach. Why didn't they bother to run the plates? They might have recognized the name."
Hugley would also like to know why there were no black officers involved in the drug investigation that night. "There were no black men on that drug team that night," she said. "There was a real lack of diversity. Had there been a black cop on that team, he might have known the driver was the coach, and this might have turned out different."
In Oakland, the site of the most recent police killing little more than two weeks ago, activists and family members of Rudy Cardenas are still waiting for justice. But pressure resulting from public outcry and angry demonstrations led the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office to take the unusual step Tuesday of seeking an open grand jury hearing into Cardenas' death at the hands of California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement Officer Michael Walker, the San Jose Mercury News reported this week. "The public deserves and needs to hear all the facts surrounding the shooting," Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu said Monday.
Grand jury reviews of police shootings are usually confidential, but District Attorney Lane Liroff, who would conduct such a hearing sometime this spring, told the newspaper a closed hearing in this case "could lead to great distrust. "Somebody has been shot in the back by a police officer," Liroff said. "There are a variety of things that can explain that -- or not."
But even an open grand jury hearing is not enough for Cardenas' family and friends and local activists. At a Tuesday appearance before the executive committee of the county's Human Relations Commission, family members asked for a coroner's inquest, an open evidence hearing regarding cause of death. They told the commission a grand jury hearing might not be impartial, the Mercury News reported.
And so it goes. Three men killed for no apparent good reason, one police shooter charged with murder, another fired from his job, and a third facing a grand jury investigation. No police officer has been found guilty yet, but given the track record in the United States, the fact that these cases are getting as far as they have may be a sign of progress. It also shows the power an aggrieved community can wield if it chooses to exercise it.