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Police Killings Trigger Concern

Law: Deaths of four minorities at the hands of Nashville officers are raising questions of abuse. Corruption scandals also have rocked department.

August 02, 2000|From Associated Press

NASHVILLE — A motorist dies after a police stop. A suspected robber is shot dead in his car. A store owner dies in a barrage of police bullets. An autistic man dies under police restraint.

This famous city of the South is having an uneasy summer following a bitter spring. In one four-week period, four people died after confrontations with Nashville police--all of them minorities.

"We should be standing up and saying this is enough," said Timothy Forsythe, the father of 18-year-old Timothy Hayworth, the robbery suspect fatally shot in March.

Public outcry against deadly force by police has recently hit fever pitch in New York and Los Angeles. Philadelphia's police also came under scrutiny after the videotaped arrest of a suspected carjacker.

Now Nashville residents are questioning whether their police force is adequately trained and monitored. They also fear the deaths aren't coincidental.

"It seems like there is a pattern going on where innocent people of color are being killed," said Brendolyn Randolph, whose son Larry Davis was killed after he was pulled over for speeding.

Police Chief Emmett Turner, who became the city's first black chief in 1996, said the department is reviewing its policies and training.

"I'm committed to having a professional Police Department, and will do whatever is necessary to bring that about," he said.

The first police-related death was March 30, when a man matching Hayworth's description tried to rob a jewelry store. Detectives said he attempted to run them over and they opened fire. A pistol was found in Hayworth's pants, police said.

Davis, 25, was shot April 9 after two officers stopped him for speeding. They fired two shots as he drove away, hitting him in the head and shoulder. Davis had no gun.

On April 21, Chong Hwan An, 49, was shot by two officers when he allegedly ignored their orders to drop his gun. He was shooting at two people who had just robbed his beauty salon.

And Calvin Champion, 32, died April 30 after police used pepper spray and pulled him face-down on the ground. A caregiver from Champion's group home had complained the autistic man was becoming too aggressive toward her 3-year-old child. He later died.

Along with the four deaths, a coach for a police-sponsored sports league for children was charged in July with molesting boys, and three officers are under investigation for allegedly mistreating Latino residents when moonlighting as apartment security guards.

In the past six months, officers also have been punished for statutory rape, falsifying traffic tickets, brokering off-duty security jobs, drunk driving, sexual assault, drug use and running a downtown sex club.

"There is too much scandal in a police department of this size," said Ray Winbush, director of Fisk University's Office of Race Relations. "Something is wrong and has to be corrected."

Turner recently hired the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based consulting firm, to help the department regain the public's confidence. Consultant Tony Narr said officers and the community want to work together to bring about positive changes.

"Sometimes you don't see that. Sometime there's a lot of suspicion," he said.

A grand jury investigated all four deaths and found in each case that the officers were justified in using deadly force. The officers involved have since returned to patrol duty.

A new civilian-led office of professional accountability, established after the Latino harassment was reported last fall, is still investigating one of the deaths.

Known as "Music City USA," "the Athens of the South" and "the buckle of the Bible Belt," Nashville is home to the Southern Baptist Convention, the Grand Ole Opry and Al Gore's campaign headquarters.

The city has grown in the last decade to a population of 530,000 that is 25% black, 2% Latino and 2% Asian, according to U.S. Census projections.

However, only 189 of the Police Department's 1,251 officers are minorities and only about a dozen are fluent in a language other than English, police spokesman Don Aaron said.

Turner says recruiting minorities is difficult because of the tight labor market and better-paying, less dangerous jobs in the private sector. But, he said, a graduating class of 48 recruits in June included eight blacks and one Korean.

Mayor Bill Purcell said personnel problems were unavoidable "in a department of this size, in a city that is growing in the ways that ours has."

Victims' relatives, meanwhile, say they are resorting to lawsuits and political pressure for justice.

Ludye Wallace, a city councilman and president of the NAACP's Nashville chapter, says blacks have long had problems with white officers and the most recent incidents are "a reminder of possible sickness that might be within our city."

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