Lady Justice in the Eye of the Storm
My coffee was cold and my Wheaties were a soggy clump.
My stomach was tied up in knots as I read the headline in the Kansas City Star:
Preliminary Hearing Today In Officer Involved Shooting.
The hearing was to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to charge the officer with second-degree murder.
The officer was my partner and good friend, Ox, and his life and career were on the line because of me.
The nightmare had begun a week ago.
Ox and I were patrolling the Northeast neighborhood when we heard a broadcast from dispatch that a convenience store a few blocks away had been robbed at gunpoint. The perps were described as two African-American males wearing black hoodies. The two, one large and the other of average build, had fled the scene on foot.
As we headed to the crime scene, we spotted two young men that were a perfect match to the description that had been broadcast. One was huge, well over six feet tall and at least two-hundred and eighty pounds. His companion was of average build and they both wore black hoodies.
We pulled to the curb, stepped out of our vehicle and informed the two that we needed to ask them some questions. We fully expected them to run and were somewhat surprised when they didn’t.
Instead, the big one lashed out that he was sick and tired of being hassled by the cops and wasn’t going to take it anymore.
I responded that we only wanted to ask where they had been and where they were going.
He informed us that it was none of our damned business and turned to walk away.
I reached out to grab his arm, not realizing that the series of events that would follow would change all of our lives forever.
He whirled and charged at me.
I heard Ox bellow, “KNIFE,” followed by the report from his .45 automatic.
As the big man fell at my feet, his companion scrambled to his side. Ox was on him immediately. When he rolled him off of his fallen friend, he was clutching a knife in his hands.
Two squad cars came screaming around the corner. Evidently, someone had called 911.
When they arrived, they found one young man in cuffs and the other dead in the street.
The altercation had taken place in a primarily black neighborhood and soon the sidewalk was filled as curious onlookers poured out of their homes.
Seeing he had a sympathetic audience, the young man in cuffs wailed, “They done shot Tyrell! We wasn’t doin’ nothin’ but walkin’ down the street.” He pointed at Ox, “He shot him in cold blood. Tyrell wasn’t even armed.”
Poor Ox was almost in shock. He pointed to the knife that another officer had bagged. “He had that knife, and he was coming at — ”
Before he could finish, the man shouted, “That weren’t Tyrell’s knife. That was my knife, and I only pulled it after he shot my friend.”
You could sense the unrest in the growing crowd.
I heard people muttering, “Another black boy shot down by cops.” and “How many innocent kids gotta die before we do something?”
Detective Derek Blaylock out of the Homicide Division arrived on the scene and sensing the growing unrest, quickly cordoned off the area.
Barriers were erected to keep the crowd at bay and give the crime scene guys room to work.
Ox and I were escorted to a paddy wagon and were quickly whisked away to police headquarters where we were placed on administrative leave as is the normal procedure in all officer involved shootings.
A grim-faced Captain Short called us into his office. “Give me the whole story — every detail. We’ve got a bad situation brewing out there and we need to get on top of this thing fast.”
After Ox had finished giving the details from his perspective, the captain turned to me. “Is that how you saw everything?”
“Then you actually saw the knife in Tyrell Jackson’s hand as he was coming at you?”
I hesitated, knowing full well how my answer would sound. “No, I didn’t see the knife, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have one. Look, the guy was twice my size and a fourth my age. When he turned on me, I was in ‘save my ass’ mode. I was trying to get out of his way but he caught me flat-footed. If he did have a knife, Ox’s shot was the only thing that kept me from being skewered.”
“Shit!” the captain muttered. “We’ve got a problem. Tyrell’s friend, Cleavon Fowler is claiming that the knife was his and that Tyrell was unarmed.”
“But that’s an outright lie!” Ox protested. “He picked up that knife after Jackson hit the ground.”
“That may be,” the captain replied, “but since Walt didn’t see it, it’s your word against his.”
At that moment, an officer poked his head in into the room. “Captain, you might want to turn on the TV.”
The captain punched the remote and the screen was filled with angry protestors pressing against the police barricade.
The media had gotten wind of the situation and descended on the scene like vultures on a fresh road-kill.
The camera panned to a middle-aged woman sobbing and being held on her feet by two men. According to the reporter, Lakesha Johnson, the mother of the victim, had collapsed as she saw the body of her son loaded into the coroner’s van to be transported to the morgue.
The reporter obligingly offered her microphone to members of the restless crowd eager to get their faces on TV and offer their assessment of the situation.
Without exception, the opinions expressed echoed the same themes, horrible tragedy, racial profiling and police brutality.
A middle-aged man shoved his way through the crowd and grabbed the mike from the reporter. He identified himself as Tyrell Jackson’s uncle, and his demand sent chills down my spine. He wanted to know the names of the officers involved in the incident.
At that moment, a murmur went through the crowd. The camera panned to the far side of the street and focused on a figure making his way toward the bank of reporters.
The Chief of the Kansas City Police Department had arrived on the scene.
The crowd hushed, straining to hear the words of the highest ranking officer in the city.
“Ladies and gentlemen, citizens of Kansas City, a terrible tragedy has occurred here today. The life of a young man was lost and as with any incident such as this, my department will conduct a thorough investigation to determine what actually occurred. Let me say from the outset, that even though two officers from my department were involved, our investigation will be thorough and justice will be served.”
A voice from the crowd shouted, “Who were the officers? What are their names?”
I held my breath, hoping to remain anonymous, but it wasn’t to be.
“I’ve been informed,” the chief continued, “that the officers were George Wilson, a twenty-five year veteran on the force and Walter Williams, a five year veteran. Both men have been placed on administrative leave pending our investigation.
“My appeal to you today is to remain calm and not let this tragic incident escalate as it did with our neighbor city across the state. Let’s show the world that the citizens of Kansas City respect the law. Again, my pledge to you is that justice will be served.”
The captain pressed the remote and silence filled the room.
Finally, the captain spoke. “I’m truly sorry. You are two of my finest officers, but the chief had no choice. After the tragic events that took place across the state, the chief called a meeting and outlined the city’s position should a similar incident occur here — and now it has. Terrible mistakes were made there that led to rioting, looting and even more deaths. He was determined not to make the same mistakes here.”
I understood what the captain was saying. A similar incident in which a young black man was shot by a white officer had escalated to epic proportions. The handling of the incident by the police department smelled of ‘cover-up’ from the get go. The name of the officer involved was not revealed until days later and only after angry rioters threatened more violence. While I hated that our names had been broadcast to the entire city, I understood why he had to do it.
There were other major differences between our situation and the other unfortunate event. In that small town, 67% of the citizens were black, yet only three officers in their fifty-three man force were black. The police chief was white as was the mayor.
By contrast, 59% of Kansas City’s population are white and 30% are black. While our police department is 70% white, we have a black chief and a black mayor.
I was thankful that our chief was doing everything possible to avert the violence that had brought the other city to its knees.
The captain’s next words were of little comfort. “Now that the two of you have been identified, I think it would be prudent to have a black & white parked outside your homes. It’s just a matter of time until the whole city knows where you both live. Ox, I’m putting Judy on administrative leave as well. As soon as it gets out that you’re married to another cop, she wouldn’t be of much use to us anyway. I’ll have an escort follow you both home. Stay put and I’ll be in touch with you tomorrow.”
As we pulled out of the parking garage, the sidewalk was already filled with people carrying placards with hastily drawn messages, Justice for Tyrell and Police Brutality Must Stop! But the one that frightened me the most read, An Eye for an Eye.
There was no doubt that the dark, angry clouds that had covered the small city across the state had been blown by a malevolent wind to our town, and Ox and I were in the eye of the storm.