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Louisiana shooting puzzles witnesses

Family and friends watched as an elderly man was shot by police at a cookout. They say he was killed without justification. State and federal officials are on the case.

March 17, 2009|Howard Witt

HOMER, LA. — On the last afternoon of his life, Bernard Monroe was hosting a cookout for family and friends in front of his dilapidated home in this small northern Louisiana town.

Throat cancer had left the 73-year-old retired electric utility worker unable to talk, but family members said he clearly was enjoying the commotion of a dozen of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren cavorting in the grassless yard.

Then the Homer police showed up, two white officers whose arrival caused the participants at the black family's gathering to fall silent.

Within moments, Monroe was dead, shot by one of the officers as his family looked on.

Now the Louisiana State Police, the FBI and the Justice Department are swarming over this impoverished lumber town of 3,800, drawn by allegations from numerous witnesses that police killed Monroe without justification -- and then moved a gun to make it look like he had been holding it.

"We are closely monitoring the events in Homer," said Donald Washington, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Louisiana. "I understand that a number of allegations are being made that, if true, would be serious enough for us to follow up on very quickly."

Monroe's friends and relatives say they still don't understand why the neighborhood patriarch ended up dead.

Four witnesses said he was sitting outside his home in the late afternoon on Feb. 20 -- clutching a large sports-drink bottle -- when two police officers pulled up and summoned over his son, Shawn.

Shawn Monroe, who has a long record of arrests and convictions on charges of assault and battery but was not wanted on any warrants, reportedly ran into the house.

One of the officers, who had been on Homer's police force only a few weeks, chased after him and reappeared moments later in the doorway, the witnesses said.

Meanwhile, the elder Monroe had started walking toward the front door. When he got to the first step on the porch, the witnesses said, the rookie officer opened fire, striking Monroe several times.

"He just shot him through the screen door," said Denise Nicholson, a family friend who said she was standing a few feet away. "After [Monroe] was on the ground, we kept asking the officer to call an ambulance, but all he did was get on his radio and say, 'Officer in distress.' "

The witnesses said the second officer picked up a handgun that Monroe, an avid hunter, always kept in plain sight on the porch for protection. Using a latex glove, the officer grasped the gun by its handle, the witnesses said, and ordered everyone to back away. The next thing they said they saw was the gun next to Monroe's body.

"I saw him pick up the gun off the porch," Marcus Frazier said. "I said, 'What are you doing?' The cop told me, 'Shut the hell up, you don't know what you're talking about.' "

Homer police maintain Monroe was holding a loaded gun when he was shot, but would not comment further.

The shooting took place amid long-standing tensions between police and the residents of Monroe's crime-plagued neighborhood.

"People here are afraid of the police," said Terry Willis, vice president of the Homer branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. "They harass black people, they stop people for no reason and rough them up without charging them with anything."

That is how it should be, responded Homer Police Chief Russell Mills, who noted the high rates of gun and drug arrests in the neighborhood.

"If I see three or four young black men walking down the street, I have to stop them and check their names," said Mills, who is white. "I want them to be afraid every time they see the police that they might get arrested.

"We're not out there trying to abuse and harass people -- we're trying to protect the law-abiding citizens locked behind their doors in fear."

--

hwitt@tribune.com

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