Anger, accusations fly at NAACP meeting

Anger, accusations fly at NAACP meeting

August 19th, 2009 by Jacqueline Koch in News

What started as a relatively calm NAACP meeting Tuesday ended with angry accusations of police cover-ups, passionate cries of racism, hostile questions to authorities and outright skepticism at police statements about recent officer-involved shootings.

At one point, Chattanooga resident Eziekel Jones asked Chattanooga Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Jerri Weary how she, as a Christian, could work as a lying mouthpiece for the department.

Sgt. Weary responded by yelling, pointing fingers and crying and had to be restrained by a fellow officer.

"It seems like the answers the police give are scripted," Mr. Jones said after the meeting. "I was appalled that (Sgt. Weary) got as upset as she did, shaking and even tears. It frightens me what can happen (with officers) out in the field."

After the meeting, Sgt. Weary said she anticipated an emotional crowd and personally came to answer whatever questions she could about the investigations into the shooting deaths of Alonzo O'Kelley Jr., 15, who was shot in the back by a Chattanooga Housing Authority officer July 1, and Alonzo Heyward, 32, who had 43 bullet wounds after being shot at by six Chattanooga officers on July 18.

"It has nothing to do with my faith," Sgt. Weary said. "It has everything to do with my position as a public information officer in providing the information available to me to the community."

For more than an hour, more than 200 residents, including Chattanooga City Councilmen Peter Murphy and Andraé McGary, gathered in the Glenwood Recreation Center, listening to residents' complaints, opinions and anger. Chattanooga Housing Authority representatives were not in attendance.

2009 officer-involved shootings

March 14 -- Randy Crisp, 43, Meigs County

June 24 -- John Curtis Coates, 34, shot by Walker County deputy in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

July 1 -- Alonzo O'Kelley Jr., 15, shot by Chattanooga Housing Authority officer in Chattanooga

July 18 -- Alonzo Heyward, 32, shot by Chattanooga officers in Chattanooga

Aug. 8 -- Richard LaMark Dunn, 21, shot by East Ridge officers in East Ridge

NAACP investigation

Local chapter President Valoria Armstrong said NAACP members await information as authorities continue the investigations into the police shootings. She said NAACP members met with Chattanooga Housing Authority Police Chief Felix Vess and Chattanooga Police Department Chief Freeman Cooper and were assured they would receive information regarding the shootings. The NAACP also announced its new rapid report system, which allows people to report any police brutality they experience or witness.

"We may not be able to answer all your questions tonight," said Valoria Armstrong, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. "But we want you to have a venue in which your concerns are heard."

In another recent shooting, Richard LaMark Dunn was shot twice in the back by East Ridge police on Aug. 8. While his mother and other family members were at the meeting, East Ridge police were not.

But after the NAACP-hosted meeting, many said they don't expect much to change.

"It's past time for a change," the Rev. Dwight Harrison from Mount Canaan Baptist Church said during the meeting. "(Mr. Heyward) wasn't killed. He was murdered. And it's an insult for you all to tell us that it took more than five bullets to bring the threat down."

Chattanooga resident Wayne Ammons said some in the black community fear police will target them next. He thinks racism "without a doubt" played a role in the shootings.

"I don't think that what happened (with Mr. Heyward) was justified," Mr. Ammons said. "You don't even shoot an animal 43 times."

Holding a sign that read "The largest gang in Chattanooga is the CPD," Chattanooga resident Kevin James said he wants to see police brutality end in black neighborhoods, but knows that violence within neighborhoods needs to end, too.

"We need to put an end to the police brutality that has taken over black neighborhoods," Mr. James said. "(But) if we don't respect ourselves, nobody else is going to respect us."

The family of Mr. Dunn held and distributed posters featuring Mr. Dunn's picture.

"How could you not come?" asked Mr. Dunn's mother, Christine. "Why should we have to defend who Mark is and why he was shot?"

Family members said they want to see the officers who shot Mr. Dunn tried in court the same way a murderer would.

"The officer that shot him is more of a criminal than my brother ever will be," Brandon Dunn said.

Mr. Heyward's family sat near the front of the room, next to members of Mr. O'Kelley's family.

"It is very tragic that my son had to die like this," Mr. Heyward's father, James Marine, told the crowd. "I want his death to become a model for the police department and community to come together."

Many in the crowd snickered as Sgt. Weary explained that 43 bullet wounds on Mr. Heyward's body could be caused by less than 43 bullets since bullets sometimes enter the body and "ping pong" around, creating multiple wounds. They snickered again when she talked about how the officers perceived a threat on the porch on July 18.

Sgt. Weary also said the police department realizes that the families of those victims are hurting.

"But contrary to popular belief, police officers don't get up and walk out into the community with a loaded gun asking themselves, 'Who are we going to shoot today?'" Sgt. Weary said.