Far beyond legal outcomes, Shumpert impact felt in community

2017-11-12 | Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

Nov. 12--TUPELO -- It was a scorching hot July day, the Mississippi heat even thicker than the crowd of hundreds jostling at his elbows, and attorney Kenneth Mayfield had traded out a necktie and jacket for a loose fitting, short-sleeved Hawaiian style shirt, leaving behind pens and paper in favor of a bullhorn clutched in his hands.

It was July 30, 2016, almost six weeks since the shooting death of local man Antwun "Ronnie" Shumpert during an altercation with a Tupelo police officer. The grassy field in front of Tupelo's City Hall swelled with protestors. Handmade signs and chants filled the air.

Pushing to the front, Mayfield raised the megaphone.

But something caught his eye, something above the crowd. On a flagpole in front of City Hall where the Mississippi flag customarily flies, the Mississippi flag with its rebel cross of the Confederate cause, on this flagpole, Mayfield saw only a blue flag emblazoned with the city seal of Tupelo.

It was a moment that filled Mayfield with optimism that a city known for its non-violent navigation through school integration in the 1960s could successfully tackle the controversies of race and policing confronting communities across 21st century America.

Now, nearly a year-and-half later, a federal judge has thrown out the civil lawsuit alleging excessive force in the death of Shumpert. An appeal remains likely, but the dismissal closes at least one chapter of a tumultuous episode in Tupelo's history.

But other chapters remain open. Mayor Jason Shelton and the Tupelo Police Department have promised an expanded commitment to the philosophy of community oriented policing. A civilian advisory board now exists to liaison between law enforcement and the public.

The story of how these open chapters come to be written, the story of Tupelo's future, will be the story of how the hot summer of 2016 impacted the self-understanding of a city that has long prided itself as a bastion of racial progress in the Deep South, a place with a vibrant commitment to civic improvement and progress for its people.

An All-America City in conflict

Speak with Tupelo's leadership class much, and you'll often hear the legacy of the past invoked as a vision for the future.

This legacy finds itself summed up as the "Tupelo Spirit." It takes many examples: The recovery from a catastrophic 1936 tornado, the early adoption of electrification, the pioneering leadership of men like Jack Reed Sr. and George McLean.

And perhaps foremost among this constellation of Tupelo history, the city's memory of itself turns predictably back to the transition through the Civil Rights era.

Segregated and pockmarked by racism like any other Mississippi community, moderate factions nonetheless steered the city away from reactionary violence and integrated schools became the norm. The private academies that flourished elsewhere and sucked resources of money and volunteerism away from the public school system never took root in Lee County.

But Tupelo has never been free of racial controversy, with the protests that followed Shumpert's death last year taking their place in a line of incidents that have rattled the city's comfort in its own achievement.

This darker history begins with a jailhouse beating in the late 1970s that brought the city, a decade late, face to face with the conflicts that roiled the South across the 1960s, including economic boycotts and standoffs between black protestors and the Klu Klux Klan.

Much later, across the first decade of the 21st century, the city began to face an accumulation of challenges, including stagnant population growth, an aging housing stock and a series of racial controversies in the police department and City Hall.

Efforts to deal with these latter controversies often backfired. A consultant was hired to thoroughly investigate the city's hiring and promotion practices, as well as its environment of racial inclusiveness.

Serious questions about the honesty and credibility of the consultant ultimately sunk the endeavor, and the costly study went into the drawer.

In another instance, serious discord over the departure of the police department's black deputy chief, Robert Hall, eventually prompted his return, which in turn only led to a fresh round of divisions and his exit from the post a second time.

Speaking of his decision to seek political office during this period, Mayor Jack Reed Jr. once told the Daily Journal he feared that the Tupelo Spirit "was on the wane."

"A path to improvement"

Against this backdrop, Shumpert, a black man, fled from a traffic stop and eventually tangled with a while police officer, Tyler Cook, last year. The altercation left Shumpert shot dead in what Cook has testified was an act of self-defense. State and federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have declined to bring criminal charges.

But even from the beginning, Shumpert's death came to mean more. A faction of activists and clergy from the black community banded together and dubbed themselves the Coalition of Concerned Pastors and Leaders.

This group focused more on allegations of systemic issues within the Tupelo Police Department than on Shumpert's death more narrowly. These allegations included racial profiling, excessive force and a willingness to let so-called "bad apples" fester.

Tupelo's mayor, the city's first Democratic mayor in nearly three decades, stood by the police department but quickly sought to rally all sides toward a common cause. Invoking the legacy of the Tupelo Spirit, Shelton convened a roster of committees, featuring citizen volunteers and city employees.

These committees eventually spearheaded a number of recommendations, including an expansion and renewal of community oriented policing programs and the creation of a citizens advisory board to boost communication between law enforcement and the public.

These efforts have thus far avoided obvious quagmires, if not quite winning universal adulation.

The advisory board, for example, prompted praise upon its creation but has conducted minimal outreach to the public. The board's time has been mostly given over to training and education in police policy and procedure, with board chairman Bill Allen describing this as a necessary first step before a pivot to a more public role.

Advocates offer differing evaluations of it.

"I feel that we're on a path to improvement," said the Rev. Charles Penson, a one-time member of the now dormant CCPL. "For the city to do a police advisory board, we're heading in the right path."

Mayfield, also a CCPL member, offered a grimmer opinion, highlighting recent comments by one board member calling for police to use more aggressive tactics.

"I thought we had an opportunity to really develop an independent review committee, thinking that really would bring a semblance of justice in our committee," Mayfield said. "What was established, some would say it's better than nothing, but it's so close to nothing that I'm not too complimentary."

"Just having a conversation"

Within the police department itself, leaders continue to walk a fine line between defending its integrity and openness to criticism.

Deputy Chief Allan Gilbert recently went out of his way to tell the citizens advisory board that the administration "supports Tyler Cook 150 percent."

However, the department also continues to tout its commitments to community oriented policing services (usually called COPS by TPD members).

"For me, the COPS philosophy has to be a way of life. It's not just a program," said Tupelo police spokesman Capt. Chuck McDougald. "Before any officer is allowed to put on the uniform and hit the streets on their own, they must complete an 8-hour course on the TPD COPS philosophy. Part of that philosophy is how the officer interacts with the people. A smile and a good attitude can go a long way in diffusing a situation."

TPD community oriented policing coordinator Lt. Katarsha White echoed these comments and described the broad range of programs offered.

These range from the casual Coffee with a Cop to the structured, multi-week Citizens Police Academy. In between are a variety of things, including self-defense and crime prevention courses. Officers also speak to neighborhood associations and citizens can even ride along with an officer on patrol.

These programs haven't seen an uptick in participation in the 15 months since Shumpert was killed.

However, like McDouglald, White emphasized that community policing goes beyond programs.

"It's who we are and what we try to get across to the community," said White. "When I go to a convenience store, I look around and look at things differently.

"When I see posters in the windows, I will mention to the clerk that they block the view. I will point out that an officer riding through the parking lot might not be able to look inside and check to see if the clerk is alright. At the same time, they won't be able to see anyone lurking around outside.

"Sometimes community-oriented policing is as simple as that -- just having a conversation."

William Moore contributed to this report

caleb.bedillion@journalinc.com Twitter: @CalebBedillion