Fatal police shooting opens old wounds in Montgomery, Ala.
Growing up in Montgomery, Ala., Gregory Gunn was raised with a healthy respect for law enforcement. His father was one of the first black men to be sworn into the city’s police force.
All of which makes his death — fatally shot by a white police officer as he walked to his mother’s home on a recent morning — that much harder for those who knew him to accept.
His family and former neighbors in Mobile Heights, a tightknit African American neighborhood in Montgomery, said they were struggling to make sense of his death, and the case is being investigated by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
On Monday, state Rep. Alvin Holmes, whose district is in Montgomery, said he and the Gunns’ attorney were drafting a letter to send to U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch, requesting that the Justice Department assign a special investigator to conduct a full inquiry.
“We want police officers to maintain peace in the community, not shoot someone down simply because they are walking down the street,” Holmes said. “We don’t think the state of Alabama is going to do anything other than whitewash.”
Holmes said he thought the officer should be brought before a grand jury and indicted on a first-degree murder charge.
At about 11 p.m. Wednesday, Gunn walked to a friend’s house for a neighborhood game of cards after his shift at a grocery store, said Tyrone C. Means, the Gunn family’s attorney. Sometime after 3 a.m. Thursday, he headed to his mother’s home about 600 feet away, Means said.
For the Record, March 3, 11:25 a.m.: In an earlier version of this story, an attorney speaking for Gunn’s family said the man worked at a Winn-Dixie grocery store. The grocer says he did not.
A lone officer, A.C. Smith, who was conducting a routine patrol in the neighborhood, pursued him. Police officials said there had been an upsurge in burglaries – 23 in just two months—in the Mobile Heights neighborhood.
According to a Montgomery police statement, Smith “approached a suspicious person and a struggle ensued.”
Means said he had not been told the nature of the suspicious activity.
According to Means, witnesses reported that at the time of the shooting, Gunn was knocking on the window of a neighbor’s house, pleading for help.
“His neighbor said he called out four or five times,” Means said. “He could hear the fear in his voice.”
The neighbor instructed his wife to call police and then opened his front door, Means said. “He saw the police, and he saw his friend on the ground.”
Gunn was pronounced dead by 3:35 a.m.
Smith, who has worked for the Montgomery Police Department for four years, had no prior record of misconduct. He has been put on administrative leave, a routine procedure.
“We don’t believe that there was any justification for the police officer to even engage Mr. Gunn, let alone get out of his car and chase him and take his life,” Means said.
Witnesses reported hearing five shots, Means said. Montgomery officials did not say how many shots had been fired, noting that the case and evidence had been turned over to the State Bureau of Investigation.
Some in the community, however, are suspicious of local and state officials.
In 1975, Montgomery police officers shot an African American man named Bernard Whitehurst, mistakenly believing he was the suspect in the robbery of a grocery store. Officers then reportedly planted a gun on him and claimed he had fired shots.
The shooting death ignited a scandal that roiled the city, ultimately causing the resignation of the mayor and police chief. Last year, Montgomery officials erected a marker in Whitehurst’s name on the street where he was gunned down, and formally apologized.
Gunn, 59, was recently divorced and living with his 87-year-old widowed mother, providing care and financial support. “She is taking it very badly,” Means said. “Her son was suddenly snatched from her.”
At a news conference Monday, Mayor Todd Strange urged the community to have patience.
“We pledge to you that we … will do our best, and that the full truth, and nothing but the truth, comes out,” Strange said. “Wherever that truth leads to, whatever factual situation it presents, we will in fact act as strongly and as judiciously as we can.”
During the news conference, Gunn’s brother, Franklin Gunn, requested five minutes of silence for his brother before angrily calling on the mayor and police chief to resign.
Another speaker, who identified himself as one of Gunn’s friends, urged the Police Department to withdraw all white police officers from black neighborhoods.
“We want all white police officers to be taken out of our community,” he said. “We don’t trust them. We don’t trust you all.”
Strange, who is white, tried to convince the crowd that the city had changed, distinguishing between the “Montgomery of yesterday and Montgomery of today.”
“This is our Montgomery,” Strange said. “We’re better than erasing tapes. We’re better than trying and convicting someone in their frontyard. Let’s not tear down the bridges we’ve built. This is a defining moment for us.”
Jarvie is a special correspondent
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