Police shooting recalls previous tensions in Montgomery

2016-03-03 17:32
Murder accused policeman Aaron Smith.  (Montgomery County Sheriffs Office via AP)

Murder accused policeman Aaron Smith. (Montgomery County Sheriffs Office via AP)

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Montgomery - Colvin Hinson, his wife and their 13-year-old daughter were asleep when a neighbour started banging on his front door and calling his name in the middle of the night. Hinson got out of bed, but a barrage of gunshots sounded before he could even turn the door knob.

Opening the door, Hinson was confronted by a ghastly scene: Next-door neighbour Gregory Gunn lay dying in the grass. Empty shell casings were on the ground, fired by what city officials say was a young police officer working an overnight shift.

Initially, Hinson wondered whether the shooting meant police had declared open season on blacks in a city known as the "Cradle of the Confederacy." It seemed eerily reminiscent of a time in the 1970s and '80s when tensions ran high in Montgomery over a series of confrontations and shootings involving white police and black residents.

But authorities seemed to answer Hinson's questions on Wednesday as they filed a murder charge against 23-year-old Officer Aaron Smith and began the process of firing him over Gunn's killing.

"I will do everything in my power to protect a police officer who is operating within the law," District Attorney Daryl Bailey said. "I will also use every ounce of my power to prosecute a police officer who is acting outside of the law."

An attorney for Smith, Mickey McDermott, said the officer is innocent and that Gunn was to blame for what happened. Gunn used "deadly force" against Smith and threatened his life, McDermott said at a news conference Wednesday. He didn't provide details.

'Political witch hunt'

McDermott called the arrest a "political witch hunt" meant to "quell public unrest" and said fellow officers from across Alabama helped fund Smith's $150 000 bail.

"This is on the back of a 23-year-old police officer working by himself in a high crime area, with a larger man who ran," said McDermott, with Smith seated silently beside him at a news conference. "We're sorry for the loss of this man, but he brought it on himself."

Mayor Todd Strange said Montgomery values its law enforcement officers, but has changed in the decades since it seemed like a hotbed of police violence. Gunn's death shouldn't be a setback for police-community relations at a time when the nation is grappling with the use of lethal force in minority communities, he said.

"Those incidents occurred many, many, many, many years ago on other peoples' watch in other sets of circumstances in different times," Strange said at a news conference.

Smith comes from a multi-generation law enforcement family, McDermott said. His father retired as a major from the Montgomery Police Department and then went to work for the state alcohol control board and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. Smith's mother is a former cadet with the Montgomery Police Department.

Oddly, Gunn's late father was one of the first blacks hired as a police officer in Montgomery, Hinson said.

"You know I tip my hat to [police] because we do need them," Hinson said. "I just want to know if the protocol is to shoot an unarmed man down dead in front of somebody's house anytime they feel like it."

Authorities said Smith shot and killed Gunn around 03:20 on February. 25. Police Chief Ernest Finley said on Monday that Smith deemed Gunn "suspicious", left his car and approached Gunn on foot. Authorities have not said what Smith found suspicious about Gunn.

Walking home

The Gunn family's attorney, Tyrone Means, said Gunn was walking home at the time from a regular card game with friends. Hinson's wood-frame home, where Gunn was shot to death, is just yards from the small brick house where Gunn lived with his mother.

Gunn's death comes amid a national conversation about law enforcement's use of guns and other legal methods. Yet the quick move to charge a white officer with murder in the shooting of a black man stood in contrast to past episodes of police violence dating back decades in Montgomery.

A cover-up after a deadly police shooting of a black man in 1975 led to the resignation of the mayor, police chief and multiple officers. The city has erected two monuments in memory of the victim, Bernard Whitehurst, the most recent of which was unveiled by Strange in December.

In 1983, with memories of Whitehurst's killing still fresh, months of unrest followed a confrontation in which two plainclothes police officers burst into a home full of funeral mourners believing something suspicious was going on. The mourners turned on the men, saying they didn't realise they were police.

Some of the 11 people who were arrested later claimed officers beat them during questioning, and the mourners were acquitted after contentious trials.

Today, Strange said, the police force is about 45% black and has a black chief who is active in the community and oversees multiple outreach programmes to engage the community. He urged residents to stay calm and left the legal system work.

"I believe that we have established over the last number of years a better working relationship with this community whether it be Hispanic or whether it be white or whether it be black," the mayor said.

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