Police shooting aggravates racial tensions in Ky.
Latest such case spurs outcry over the use of force
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Days after being sworn in as the first black police chief in the city's history, Robert White met with activists protesting the deadly police shooting weeks earlier of a handcuffed black man.
That was a year ago. Now White is facing questions about a fatal shooting that happened on his watch.
The killing of a young black man by a white officer a few days into 2004 is raising racial tensions and threatening efforts by White and the mayor to ease resentment in the black community over police use of force.
"I am concerned that we took one step forward and now have gone two steps backward," White said last week after demonstrators broke his office windows at the police station around the corner from a planned center that will honor native son Muhammad Ali.
Civil rights leaders and black community members, along with some whites, are demanding answers after Michael Newby was shot in the back Jan. 3 by an undercover officer. Newby, 19, was the seventh black man shot by police in Louisville in the past five years. Police have said that the officer was trying to buy drugs and that there was a struggle before the policeman fired. Police said a gun and drugs were found on Newby.
Hundreds of people have gathered in two protests, one that ended with young people tipping over trash cans and newspaper racks. The demonstrations are some of the biggest protests in Louisville since those following the December 2002 shooting of James Taylor, who was handcuffed but holding a box cutter. A grand jury eventually cleared the white officers involved.
"I think with this case, we could see a turning point," said Anne Braden of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racism. "I think this whole community has reacted to this case, people calling from all over town -- white, black, Latino -- asking, `What can we do? This has got to stop.' "
City Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, who represents the part of the city where Newby was shot, said: "Right now it's got a lot of young people upset, and they're more impatient. They're not willing to let this continue to happen. They're scared they're going to be the next victim."
Louisville has not seen the kind of widespread violence that rocked Cincinnati, less than a two-hour drive away on the other side of the Ohio River, after a white officer shot and killed an unarmed black man in 2001.
Louisville's new chief was brought on board from Greensboro, N.C., by Mayor Jerry Abramson, elected in a landslide to head a newly merged Louisville and Jefferson County government. About 20 percent of the new municipality's 690,000 residents are black, as is 15 percent of the 1,200-member police force.
Like other cities, Louisville saw unrest in the 1960s over civil rights and in the 1970s over busing. But historian Tom Owen, who also serves on the Metro Council, called Louisville's history of race relations unremarkable.
"I don't think there's been any thing very special on the very good or very bad side," said Owen, who is white. The problem, he said, is that "there is a sense in which the opinion, real or perceived, is that the police are trigger-happy -- especially when in comes to black males. I think there are some steps in place to try to help that."
In fact, one of White's recent predecessors as chief had been fired in a controversy over another police slaying of a black man.
White took office just a month after the Taylor shooting. He met with activists at the time, and seemed to win their confidence, or at least their best wishes.
"This is a capable individual, but we'd like to say he is a Daniel going into a lion's den," the Rev. Louis Coleman said at the time.
The chief followed words with deeds: Within the past year, the department adopted a requirement that all officers carry a nonlethal weapon, such as Mace or a nightstick, in addition to a gun. Training on the use of force was updated. And the department set up a Public Integrity Unit to investigate cases like this latest shooting.
"We have new mechanisms and procedures in place in terms of investigating a police shooting that ends in homicide," the mayor said. "Now we'll see if the procedures work."
Prosecutors are awaiting a police investigative report before deciding whether to pursue charges. The FBI is investigating whether Newby's civil rights were violated.
The officer involved, McKenzie Mattingly, initially refused to speak to police investigators. But his attorney said the officer will cooperate.
Like the mayor, the police chief has appealed for patience, pledging that the shooting will be thoroughly investigated and justice will be served.