The Mayor of Jackson Wants to Hold Its Police Accountable. Easier Said Than Done.
Since Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s 2017 election, at least five people have died at the hands of the law enforcement in Mississippi’s capital city.
George Robinson, 62, pulled up to the house where he had been renting a room in the Washington Addition neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi. That morning, the second Sunday of 2019, a preacher had been shot and killed while opening the doors of his church just a two-minute walk from where Robinson lived part-time, and police were scouring the neighborhood for suspects.
Officers from the Jackson Police Department’s K-9 unit approached Robinson while he was still sitting in his car. He had become slow-moving since having a stroke around Christmas. Witnesses say the officers pulled Robinson out of the car and slammed him to the ground.
In a police report, the detective wrote that he observed a woman leaning into the window of Robinson’s car and saw what he said could have been “a hand to hand transaction.” When he exited his car and approached, he said, Robinson reached toward the middle console area in his car. In response, the officer said he loudly asked to see Robinson’s hands, and “unholstered duty weapon” after asking him to step out of the car—commands the detective says Robinson ignored.
Detectives removed him from the vehicle and placed him on the ground, the report says, and his face was scratched as they attempted to handcuff him. He was treated at the scene for minor injuries but declined further treatment. Robinson left with a charge for failure to obey/resisting arrest and went to meet his girlfriend at a nearby inn where the couple had been staying.
A few hours after he arrived, Robinson’s girlfriend found him unresponsive in their hotel room. Two days later, doctors at an area hospital pronounced him dead.
The Hinds County coroner ruled Robinson’s death a homicide: He had suffered blunt-force trauma to the head. His family alleges it happened during the police encounter; the police are still investigating what happened.
The Jackson Police Department has yet to confirm how many officers approached Robinson in January, and the police report obtained through a public records request does not list the reporting officer or the officer’s badge number. But after the coroner’s report came out, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba confirmed that the officers involved were immediately placed on administrative leave pending a decision from a Hinds County grand jury about whether they would be charged. City officials and Police Chief James Davis held a press conference at headquarters in late January to release a timeline of events leading up to when Robinson died. Davis left abruptly without answering questions when the five-minute event ended.
His actions didn’t surprise advocates pushing for police accountability in Jackson. There have been at least five deaths at the hands of the city’s police in the past two years, and the department has been slow to share details.
Lumumba vowed to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.”
Mayor Lumumba hoped to change things when he took office in July 2017 as the youngest mayor in the city’s history. The son of Chokwe Lumumba, a prominent lawyer and activist-turned-mayor who died in office in 2014, the younger Lumumba vowed to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.”
Police reform was high on his agenda. The mayor was a criminal-defense lawyer before running for office and represented several families in police brutality and use-of-force cases. His father, he recalled, represented even more. In an interview on Democracy Now’s daily news show soon after his win, the mayor-elect described the country’s criminal justice system as “entirely out of hand” and said “what we want to do is be ahead of the curve in the city of Jackson.”
But observers say he has hit roadblocks since then. One of Lumumba’s key police reforms—a push to reveal the names of officers involved in shootings—was met with major opposition from police and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which he asked to investigate such shootings. Even now, after he issued an executive order enacting the rule, its scope and future remain unclear.
In some ways, Lumumba acknowledges, policing poses a balancing act for him. He openly supports releasing names of officers who overstep, but as mayor, he does not want to govern as an autocrat.
“In this role, not only do I represent the family of the person who got shot, and they’re not only constituents of mine, but I represent all of the city,” he said in an interview. “I am the manager of the police department. I am the mayor who has to make certain that the community sees an open process and that means I have to weigh a number of things.”
As Lumumba took office, Jackson had a string of police shootings. In November 2017, an officer shot and killed a man who allegedly approached her with a knife. And in the first two months of 2018, officers shot and killed a 21-year-old mother during a traffic stop and a 37-year-old man during a foot pursuit. Under growing pressure to release the names of officers involved in such shootings, the police department refused. Lumumba says he considered issuing an executive order to push for the names, but as soon as the department under interim Chief Anthony Moore learned of the plan, officers tried to block it.
In late March, Moore hosted a public meeting at police headquarters, where officers and the leader of Jackson’s police union said releasing the names of officers involved in shootings could endanger their safety and that of their families, especially in a small city. The union leader said “100 percent” of the department was against releasing names, and everyone in attendance agreed with him. At the close of the meeting, officers encouraged attendees to condemn the impending policy by addressing the City Council at the body’s meeting later that night. Only one woman did.
In what struck some critics as a concession to the police department, Lumumba opted not to issue an order and instead assembled a task force, composed of lawyers, activists, and police officers, to decide if and how Mississippi’s capital city would disclose names of officers who shot people in the line of duty.
We're not saying he was right. We're not saying he was perfect. But we want justice...Tetrina Blalock, cousin of Lee Edward Bonner, who was killed by police
In September, after nearly six months of biweekly meetings and friction among members, the task force reached a decision: The city must release names of officers 72 hours after police shootings, unless a judicial panel determines there are credible threats to the officers in question. When the mayor announced he would accept the plan, he promised to retroactively release the names of officers who had shot people since he took office in July 2017.
In November, Lumumba signed an executive order to put the 72-hour policy in place, but it does not appear to be retroactive. Candice Cole, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said Lumumba is still committed to releasing the names of officers involved in shootings since the start of his term.
Although the names of 12 such officers were recently released, it was only as a result of a Jackson Free Press public records request. Lumumba told The Appeal that he did not intend for the names to come out that way, and that he seeks a proper medium for disclosing them in the future.
He still faces strong headwinds. Last spring, Lumumba invited the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to investigate police shootings in Jackson following three fatal cases. His goal, he said at the time, was to prevent the police department from investigating itself. But when the task force released its decision to release officers’ names, MBI refused to cooperate. In October, MBI reneged on its plan to investigate police shootings in Jackson, a move Lumumba immediately condemned as “political in nature.”
That’s not the only political fight he’s facing. This month, Mark Baker, a lawmaker in a predominantly white Jackson suburb who is running for state attorney general, introduced the Law Enforcement Identity Protection Act. The legislation could impose fines and jail time for anyone who released names after officer-involved shootings. In a recent floor debate, he reportedly told fellow lawmakers that releasing the officers’ names would “throw them to the wolves.”
Tetrina Blalock has been closely following the mayor’s every step when it comes to policing decisions. Last February, Jackson officers shot and killed her cousin, Lee Edward Bonner behind an abandoned house, saying Bonner fired at them first. She made herself known to the mayor and City Council by issuing a fiery address at a council hearing not long after her cousin died.
“We’re not saying he was right. We’re not saying he was perfect,” Blalock said then. “But we want justice, and we want to find out what happened by legal standards.”
To her, the task force, which she referred to as a “secret-society meeting,” missed its mark because people like her, who had been directly affected by fatal police violence, weren’t at the table. Early on, the task force tabled a discussion of adding such a person. Cole, the mayor’s spokesperson, said having no one on the task force directly impacted by an officer-involved shooting was meant “to ensure neutrality in the process.”
We never intended to have to investigate our own cases.Chokwe Antar Lumumba, mayor of Jackson
The mayor’s executive order is far from a perfect fix, advocates say. George Robinson’s case doesn’t fall under the 72-hour rule because officers didn’t shoot him, according to the mayor’s office. The mayor said he plans to reconvene his task force to consider whether to release names of officers involved in use-of-force violations and police-brutality cases as well.
“In an officer-involved shooting, we’re not questioning whether the officer shot or not,” he said. “We’re questioning whether the merits of the shooting was justified.” In police-brutality cases, he said, there is far more to consider, including whether a use-of-force violation took place at all.
Lumumba said he and the district attorney will consider asking the FBI to assist in the Robinson case.
“We never intended to have to investigate our own cases,” he said, “and we would like all of the resources and institutions available to us to make sure we’re giving as independent and thorough of a look at it as possible.”
The modest house where Robinson lived recently served as a backdrop for a press conference on his death. Robinson’s teary-eyed mother stood on the lawn, cloaked in her grief; he was the second son she had lost this year. Robinson’s sister, Bettersten Wade, pleaded for justice.
“We did not get protected, we did not get served, we did not get justice—not yet,” she said. “I feel that the officers that were involved in this, they should be just like any other citizen—they should be in jail because they brutalized my brother.”
As the sun shined on his back, attorney Dennis Sweet IV, who is representing the family, promised to fight for Robinson’s constitutional, civil, and human rights, and declared that he wanted the officers prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
“You all are not at a press conference today,” Sweet said. “We are at a crime scene.”
Sweet and his father are no strangers to these types of cases. Last summer, they represented John Knight III, a standout basketball player preparing to play at Utah State University, who was assaulted by a police officer during a traffic stop. In a rare act of transparency, the police department swiftly identified Vincent Lampkin, the officer involved, who was terminated and later sentenced to a year in jail.
You all are not at a press conference today. We are at a crime scene.Dennis Sweet IV, attorney for George Robinson's family
Sweet believes police should be held accountable when they abuse their power, but he doesn’t necessarily think releasing names will change police culture. Nor does he believe the Lumumba administration shoulders the blame for the 10 officer-involved shooting incidents since July 2017.
“I think it’s unfair to pinpoint it on any person or administration,” Sweet told the Appeal. “This is a systematic problem that has been a problem for hundreds of years. I want to be clear on that.”
Goff, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity, specializes in trust-building between law enforcement and communities. Goff said police officers were “not just reasonably but rightfully concerned” about preserving their safety. But releasing names of officers in excessive force incidents helps build accountability, he said. The community could learn whether officers had been involved in more than one use-of-force violation, for example.
Still, releasing the names alone isn’t enough, he said. If I learn “the names of people that are never convicted for summarily executing people, I don’t think you trust me more,” he said. “Releasing the names is not a cure-all for community trust at all.”
Goff said individual communities should set time frames to release such information in a way that works for them. “You can have a police department that says, ‘We’re going to give you a week and then we’re going to release the names,’” he said. “And if they have earned the trust of the public, you’re fine.”
While the media often latches onto police brutality cases that fit a specific mold—white officer versus Black victim—Lumumba warns against reducing critiques about police strictly to race. In a predominantly Black city with a police force that reflects those demographics, he wants to make sure he also addresses “occupational cultures that allow brutality to take place.”
For Sweet, part of that culture is regional. “I think that Jackson doesn’t get the national attention because it’s Jackson,” he said. “One, Mississippi kind of has a stigma of hangings, and lynchings and people dying at the hands of excessive force from either the government or the Klan, or the Klan [members] who were secretly in the government. … It’s like saying it’s cold in Chicago—it’s just par for the course.”