Chavis Carter case: Police chief’s past causes skepticism among black Jonesboro residents August 3, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Race, Racism.
Tags: alexis garrett stodghill, chavis carter, Civil Rights, jonesboro arkansas, justifiable homicide, michael yates, police racism, police shooting, Race, racism, roger hollander
Roger’s note: this is nothing new. It has been open season since Reconstruction for racist police and others murdering Afro Americans. Let’s wait and see what happens. It will not surprise me if at the end of the day the killing or Chavis Carter whose hands were cuffed behind his back is confirmed as a suicide (if Houdini could have done it, why not Mr. Carter?); or, if it turns out it was a cop who shot him, justifiable homicide.
Twenty-one-year-old Chavis Carter was visiting the town of Jonesboro, Arkansas when he died from a gunshot wound to the head, while seated in the back of a police cruiser. Police ruled Carter’s death a suicide, but the fact that his hands were cuffed behind him during the incident has raised doubts about the officers’ account. The controversy surrounding the case has caused the local black community in Jonesboro to question police chief Michael Yates — already unpopular with African-Americans — about his department’s explanation, and to unearth disturbing details from Yates’ past.
“How does a person who is handcuffed — when the police found him he still had his hands cuffed behind his back — commit suicide? That’s been the big question,” Rev. Perry Jackson, the president of the Jonesboro NAACP, told theGrio.
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“So to add to the stigma he has of being unfair to the minority population,” Jackson added of Yates’ reputation, “people are really questioning what’s really going on. That’s the mood in the black community.”
Jackson said Carter’s parents denied that he was suicidal. “I’ve met with the mother and I’ve met with the father, Teresa Carter and Charles Douglas,” Jackson said of visiting them in Carter’s native Mississippi. “As far as their reactions, they don’t believe that their son committed suicide. According to his mother, he’s just not that type of person who would kill himself. His father said it as well.”
These perspectives reinforce the lack of trust that many in Jonesboro’s African-American community have in Yates, who Jackson says has done little to reach out to them. “I personally think that if Chief Yates would do more as far as community relations, Jonesboro would probably be a better place to live, but I don’t think he’s really willing to work with the public,” he said.
Black leaders in Jonesboro also attest to Yates ignoring calls to increase diversity within the police force; a dismissal that stings more sharply now that an African-American man has died while under arrest and under unusual circumstances.
The Jonesboro police department has confirmed to theGrio that of the 149 officers on the force, only three are African-American. Dr. George Grant, co-chair of the Diversity Coalition of Jonesboro, has been working to change that for over a year. ”Our position was that this was not satisfactory,” Grant told theGrio. “That is not representative of the diversity in the community.”
Jonesboro has about 68,000 residents. Census data shows that the city experienced a population growth of 21.2 percent between 2000 and 2010, many of whom Rev. Jackson says were African-Americans. As of 2010, the city’s black population was 18.4 percent of the total. Currently, blacks make up only 2 percent of the police force.
“Last September, we addressed the city council in Jonesboro about the lack of diversity in the police and fire department,” Grant said. ”We made presentations to the city council, and we came back and made recommendations on ways to improve access to those jobs in the police and fire department, and they have not responded.”
Yates responded to emails from theGrio requesting comment, by sending a summary of applicants, test results and potential new hires to the department, dated April 2012, but did not directly address the Diversity Coalition’s allegations. Civil rights leaders in Jonesboro see the dearth of people of color among police as a potential source of problems, which Carter’s death might be evidence of.
“I think it’s a problem because of the lack of diversity within the police department, and the fire department,” Rev. Jackson added. “But the chief of the fire department — we’ve been a little bit better able to work with him than Chief Yates. Our Hispanic population is also growing in this area. We need to get more minorities in the police department. Not just being secretaries and things like that, but working the streets.”
Grant, who is also an active member of the NAACP in Jonesboro, is disturbed by what he calls Yates’ lack of action in addressing the alarm of the black community over Carter’s death, as well as the silence of the mayor and other city officials. TheGrio reached out to the two African-American members of the Jonesboro city council, Rev. Renell Woods and Dr. Charles Coleman. Rev. Woods did not respond to an email, while Dr. Coleman declined to comment. Jonesboro mayor Harold Perrin did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
“We want to take the city to task when things like this happen. We need to understand why a young man who was 150 pounds, who was handcuffed, would shoot himself — could shoot himself — with a gun, after he’s been searched twice. It’s just not logical. And it’s not physically possible,” Gates asserted. “We’re trying to figure out how that could happen, and how they could expect us to accept that it has happened. This has to be dealt with so that people can start to feel safe in those communities.”
Yates confirmed to theGrio that FBI is reviewing the Carter case.
Distrust of chief stretches back to previous tenure
Grant and Jackson explained that part of the black community’s distrust of Yates stems from allegations that arose when he was the police chief in Americus, Georgia. ”Things that have happened before in his administration of a police department are starting to happen here,” Gates said about Yates’ previous position. “That suggests something for the future. We need to deal with it.”
Yates was the police chief in Americus from May 2001 through April 2004, according to that city’s Human Resources department. Yates voluntarily resigned from the position, but his tenure and departure were both mired in controversy.
John Marshall, who was president of the NAACP while Yates was Americus’ police chief, says he found the leader of the force to be a negative influence. “He is a rogue police chief,” Marshall told theGrio. “We did everything to get him out of here, and it’s been a great relief to have him away from here. But he left a lot of his men that were abusive and violent. And that’s his nature. He’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen.”
Marshall’s strong feelings result from a scandal which pitted the Americus NAACP against Yates when he was chief. Marshall, who is also the owner and publisher of the black newspaper, The Americus Sumter Observer, says the NAACP was working at the time to expose abuses he says Yates’ officers were perpetuating against the black community.
“Basically the conflict we had with him was this. We had an NAACP vice president that used to go to the city council meetings and complain about Yates’ behavior. He was being rough with our citizens. Several of his police officers were beating guys unnecessarily — a lot of abuse,” Marshall alleges.
Yates used unsavory means to return fire, Marshall believes. ”In order to get back at my vice president, [named Craig Walker], he did an illegal background check on this young man and found out that when he was 17 he had [been involved in a robbery],” Marshall told theGrio, adding that Yates “did not follow the proper steps to do that. You are not supposed to do that unless there is a real cause for that kind of search.”
In response, the local NAACP launched a campaign to have Yates removed. Instead, the chief voluntarily stepped down. “They really let him resign and get on out of here, which we were glad of,” Marshall related about the conclusion of the incident.
Nelson Brown, currently an Americus city council member, served under Yates as a commander. “I don’t want to rehash any old wounds. We are trying to move forward,” Brown told theGrio about his time working for Yates.
Yet, Brown believes that he “had some issues with race. He was not good for the department,” Brown said. “When he left the department, it was in worse shape than when he got there, and we managed to recover. He came to our department like he was on a mission. And that mission was not for the growth of the department, nor the community, as a whole.”
Grant and Jackson are among those who say they know Yates left Americus amid serious charges of racism and abuse of power. Yates’ history in Americus has filtered into Jonesboro in the form of rumors among that city’s black inhabitants. TheGrio has requested comments from Yates regarding his side of the story, but so far has not received comment.
Yates’ alleged dismissal of the Diversity Coalitions’ findings have not helped to illuminate his past for skeptical members of Jonesboro’s black community. Now, Carter’s death has worsened already negative feelings about him among some residents.
“So, he comes to Jonesboro and imposes his attitudes on Jonesboro,” Grant said of his perception of Yates’ management style.
Jackson cannot say for certain whether Chavis Carter’s death is an outgrowth of Yates’ leadership, or simply a tragic confluence of mistakes unrelated to his decisions. “I’m still looking into that, so I can’t really answer that,” Jackson said.
For now, the president of the Jonesboro NAACP is focused on the future, and how to help a community and a family that needs support.
The executive board of the NAACP met last night to map out a plan to assist the city and Carter’s family. “There are still problems in terms of race relations in the city. We want to bring it to the forefront, and try to come together as a community, because it’s about speaking out in a non-violent way to make people aware of the issues,” Jackson said.
A vigil is planned for Monday in Jonesboro, which will be co-organized by the NAACP and other area religious and civic groups.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb