Donald V. Watkins
City of Hoover: Please Tell Us The Truth
By: Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on November 28, 2018
Every day, police officers across America don the uniform, leave home for work, place their lives on the line for our safety, and pray that they make it back home to their families unharmed. It takes a special person to risk his/her life every day to serve and protect people they do not know.
I am a firm supporter of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers when they act responsibly and fairly in the discharge of their official duties. On several occasions, I have had to expose the misconduct of police officers and other law enforcement officials who abused their authority.
On Thanksgiving night, a City of Hoover, Alabama police officer shot and killed the wrong man in an “active shooter” situation at the Galleria Mall. The City’s explanation for this police shooting keeps changing. With each mutating version, the City loses credibility.
A police officer rushing to an “active shooter” scene to save the lives of others has to make split-second decisions. Such an officer would probably lack a specific intent to kill an innocent but armed man on the scene who may have been trying to save lives, as well.
The City of Hoover has a unique opportunity to present the straight facts in the tragic police shooting of Emantic “E.J.” Bradford, Jr., on Thanksgiving night. The City should tell the truth about what happened that night because the truth will eventually come out anyway.
There is no need for the City to “spin” the truth in this situation. Mr. Bradford’s death is regrettable, but may be understandable.
What is inexcusable is the ever-present temptation to cover-up the truth in a police shooting situation. I have seen this happen many times in my legal career. A cover-up is an intentional act and it only makes matters worse.
My Experiences with Police Officers Have Been Diverse and Impactful
My early experiences with police officers were not pleasant. As a 12-year-old boy in 1960, I watched a white Montgomery police officer verbally abuse my mother during a routine traffic stop in our all-black neighborhood. The officer threatened to kill my mom for simply asking basic questions about this traffic stop. During his tongue-lashing, the officer told my crying mother that the “MUN” (which stands for “municipal”) preceding the numbers on the license plate of his motorcycle stood for “Murder U Niggers”. The officer did not care that he was abusing my mother in front of her son.
In 1974, I was the Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Alabama who defended and protected the “guilty” verdict on appeal for former City of Talladega, Alabama Police Lt. Jimmy Hurst, a white officer who murdered Charles “Cooter” Mann with a shotgun blast to his face in a rage of jealousy over a romantic relationship with Hurst’s girlfriend. During the course of the murder investigation, it became evident that Talladega’s mayor, police chief, and other officers in the police department were engaging in a small-scale "Watergate Cover-up". After the cover-up was exposed, the mayor resigned, the chief of police was forced out of office, and one Hurst’s fellow officers was suspended and subsequently indicted as an accessory after the fact.
From 1974 to 1985, my life was routinely threatened by white police officers because of my aggressive prosecution of landmark court cases that challenged excessive police violence against unarmed black citizens in cities across Alabama. The worst threats came during my handling of a wrongful death case against the Montgomery Police Department (“MPD”) involving the fatal shooting of Bernard Whitehurst.
On December 2, 1975, Whitehurst was shot and killed by Montgomery police officer Donnie Foster. The MPD claimed that Whitehurst was a fleeing felon who fired shots at Foster while facing him in a crouched position in the backyard of an abandoned house. My investigation revealed that Whitehurst was an innocent unarmed black man who had was actually shot in the back while attempting to climb over a fence. The pistol found beside Whitehurst’s body was a “throw down” gun that was “planted” by police after his death. Within minutes after the shooting, a voice on the police radio screamed, “We done shot the wrong nigger”.
The Whitehurst case evolved into a national police scandal that the Washington Post called “Alabama’s Watergate” in an April 3, 1977, two-page feature story. The scandal resulted in the resignations of the city's mayor and police commissioner, the indictment of three police officers for perjury, and the firing or resignation of eight others.
Thirty-eight years later, the City of Montgomery erected a plaque on the grounds of its police headquarters acknowledging, for the first time, the inappropriate use of deadly force in Whitehurst’s case and subsequent police cover-up of his wrongful death.
In 1975, I represented Sidney Williams, a black corporal in the MPD who sought a promotion to the rank of sergeant. His promotion was blocked by the MPD’s intentional use of racially biased promotional tests. Every officer above the rank of corporal was white. Corporal Williams sued the MPD to stop its use of discriminatory promotional tests. We won the case and the exams were scrapped for the next 10 years. This landmark court victory cleared the way for a wave of deserving black officers to rise through the ranks of the MPD all the way up to the rank of police chief. Williams retired as a major in the MPD and later served as chairman of the Alabama Pardons and Parole Board until his retirement in 2007.
In 1983, an out-of-state black family was mourning the death of their mother/grandmother on Todd Road in Montgomery when two white police officers mistook the Michigan and Ohio mourners' license plates as a gathering of out-of-state drug dealers. Unbelievably, these officers raided the funeral gathering on a no-knock basis and violence erupted in and around the home as the occupants “stood their ground”. The officers, who were believed to be home invaders, were shot and subdued during the ensuing melee inside the home. Eleven of the mourners were subsequently arrested and four of them were viciously beaten while in police custody. My investigation into this matter as a Montgomery city councilman resulted in the reduction of felony criminal charges to misdemeanors in four of the cases and dropped altogether in the remaining eight cases.
Defending Police Officers
In 1982, I defended Lt. Sammy Plummer, a white police officer with the Uniontown, Alabama Police Department. Lt. Plummer was sued in a wrongful death case brought by the family of David White, a black suspect who died in a 1981 shootout with Plummer during an attempted arrest. Lt. Plummer was shot several times during the incident. After a hard-fought and emotionally charged trial, a mostly black Perry County jury cleared Plummer and the City of Uniontown of wrongdoing in David White’s death.
Lt. Sammy Plummer’s case was the first time in Alabama history that a black civil rights attorney defended a white police officer who had used deadly force against a black suspect. My defense of Lt. Plummer subjected me to harsh criticism by some members of the local black community. I did not care because Lt. Plummer was a great person and fine police officer.
From 1985-1998, I routinely defended Birmingham police officers while serving as special counsel to Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr. During this period, I also worked closely with white and black police officers to solve a host of heart-wrenching violent crimes in Birmingham, including the 1994 execution-style murders of five innocent victims at the Changing Times Lounge. At the time, this massacre was the largest mass murder in Birmingham’s history.
Good Versus Bad Police Officers
During my five decades of very diverse and personal interactions with a multitude of white and black police officers in Alabama, I have learned that police officers fall into two distinct groups – good ones and bad ones. Police officers like Lt. Sammy Plummer, Major Sidney Williams, and the many black and white officers who helped to expose the Jimmy Ray Hurst, Bernard Whitehurst and Todd Road police cover-ups are the good ones. They acted to protect and serve the public interest on an unselfish basis.
Police officers like Jimmy Ray Hurst, Donnie Foster and the ones who perpetuated the cover-ups in the Hurst, Whitehurst, and Todd Road cases fall into the category of bad officers. They represent less than one percentage of all law enforcement officers in America.
Every profession has bad actors. Police departments are no exception.
Likewise, any good police officer can make a bad mistake in an “active shooter” situation when running towards danger in a crowded mall on a Thanksgiving night. This may have happened in Mr. Bradford’s case. We just don't know. However, this question will never get answered in a credible way if the City of Hoover engages in a cover-up of the Bradford shooting.
City of Hoover, please tell us the truth about what happened to Mr. Bradford. We can handle the truth.
PHOTO: The Galleria Mall in Hoover, Alabama on Thanksgiving night of 2018.