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Facts Are Clear: A Black Man Is Dead; but the Truth is Elusive : Oakland: Family and neighbors say an innocent man was killed protecting his home. Officers contend they fired in self-defense. They broke down the door during a credit-card fraud investigation, but they found nothing.

May 29, 1994|RICHARD LORANT | ASSOCIATED PRESS

OAKLAND — Nathan Roy Cosby is dead. He was shot in the back of the head by a police officer during a raid on his home. He was not a suspect in any crime.

Those are facts.

The truth is more complicated.

The truth, say Cosby's family and neighbors, is that an innocent black man was gunned down protecting his home.

The truth, says the Oakland Police Department, is that the officer fired in self-defense after Cosby aimed a loaded handgun at him.

The truth is about race. It's about a gulf of fear and misunderstanding that divides some American police departments and the communities they're sworn to protect and to serve.

The truth is that Roy Cosby, at age 32, is dead.

*

The officers who battered down the door of 9950 Longfellow Ave. on Jan. 6 weren't looking for Roy Cosby. According to court documents, they were looking for clothes they believed Cosby's wife, Melinda, had bought with stolen credit cards.

Twelve to 15 officers blocked off the quiet East Oakland street and surrounded Cosby's gray, one-story bungalow just after 7 a.m. They had a search warrant for the house and a car parked outside.

But there were no stolen goods there, just Cosby and his two Rottweilers. Melinda Cosby and the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Donita, were sleeping at a relative's house.

The night before, Cosby had worked until 10:30 p.m., his regular shift as an Oakland Unified School District janitor. His bedroom was in the back of the house; neighbors and family say he slept late.

A few minutes before 7:30 a.m., as neighbors prepared for work, the entry team moved in.

Karen Gill, Cosby's next-door neighbor, got out of bed to investigate a strange rumbling when a single gunshot came from the back of the house. As she ran to her son's bedroom, she heard men running and shouting. It seemed like they were everywhere.

"They were on both sides of my house. They were in my back yard. It sounded like they were on the roof," she said.

A little while later, she heard more shots.

Within minutes, more than 30 police officers and federal agents converged on the neighborhood, said Leo Bazile, an attorney and former Oakland city councilman who lives across the street.

The entry team members wore blue jumpsuits, bulletproof vests and knit hats. Some carried shields. Some had guns strapped to their chests with Velcro strips.

"They were just like you see them on television or in the newsreels," Bazile said. "These guys were dressed for combat."

What had happened? Oakland police say several officers knocked at the front door, identified themselves and announced they were serving a warrant.

They say Officer Eric Belker was in an adjacent back yard when Cosby opened the kitchen window 15 to 25 feet away. Cosby held his loaded semiautomatic handgun, police say.

"He looked at the officer, looked away. That's when he looked back, said something and pointed the gun," said Lt. Clyde Sims, whose homicide investigation found no evidence a crime occurred.

At that moment, the entry team broke down the front door and Belker fired a single shot from his semiautomatic pistol, Sims said. The bullet entered the back of Cosby's head and lodged in his brain.

"It's possible when that door went in, he turned to look and that's when Belker fired," Sims said.

Police say they then were attacked by one of Cosby's dogs. The animal was killed with three shotgun blasts.

The paramedics wheeled out Roy Cosby and took him to Highland Hospital. He was dead on arrival at 8:04 a.m.

*

The bottom line . . .

Lt. Peter Peterson, Oakland Police Department:

"We had no idea who Mr. Cosby was when he came to the window. . . . We had no idea who he was when he pointed a gun at the officer. . . . If he had just opened the door when we asked him to, if he hadn't had a weapon in his hand, you wouldn't be asking me all those questions. . . . The bottom line is, we had no idea who he was."

Roy's older brother, Robert Cosby:

"Sure, there are two ways of seeing everything: the police officers' way and the victim's way. . . . But there's a bottom line here. An innocent man was killed. That's the bottom line."

*

John Burris, the Cosbys' attorney, believes Roy Cosby slept through the warnings and was awakened by his dogs barking and police banging at the door: "He hears all this commotion, gets up, gets his gun, goes to the window. He can't see anything and he turns his head to go and he gets whacked."

That Roy Cosby had a gun is beside the point, critics say. The point, they say, is that police never should have launched the raid.

Burris and others say police would have handled matters differently in a neighborhood that wasn't overwhelmingly black.

If it had been elsewhere, Burris said, "Mr. Cosby would be alive and well. . . . He would have gotten the benefit of the doubt. There would have been efforts to communicate with him."

Critics say the shooting reflects a pattern of "blue-on-black" violence that continues, though Oakland's mayor and police chief are black.

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