By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on July 2, 2023
An Editorial Opinion
In today’s self-centered and fickle society, so many individuals seek unearned fame and glory for doing nothing out of the ordinary. Then, there are the true heroes -- those who stand head and shoulders above the rest of us.
One of them is an unnamed Allen, Texas police officer. He is not seeking fame or glory. He is not paid hundreds of millions of dollars for throwing, catching, or running a ball in a football game. He has no fear of danger. He is kind and gentle, but he is also trained to kill active shooters.
This hero is paid a meager police officer’s salary to protect lives and promote public safety in Allen, Texas. He makes less than an equipment manager on an NFL team.
Without hesitation, this police officer ran towards an active shooter at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas on May 6, 2023, when everybody else was running away from danger. The shooter killed 8 innocent people and wounded 7 others before this officer stopped the killing spree.
In the span of three and a half minutes, this unnamed officer went from talking to a mother and her two little children in the mall's parking lot about the importance of wearing seat belts to taking down an active shooter. When he heard the first shots fired, this officer grabbed his long gun and ran toward the zone of danger. He killed the shooter while this cold blooded murderer was still firing his assault rifle at innocent victims.
What is more, we got to see this police officer in action, from start to finish, courtesy of a bodycam video that was released last week by the Allen, Texas police department. The video is gut-wrenching, emotionally draining, and inspirational at the same time.
This officer’s run towards danger was more valuable than any dash to the end zone during a Super Bowl game. Yet, he will not be showered with a parade, or a contract extension, or a visit to the White House. He will not get a salary hike or a big bonus check for doing his job that fateful day.
None of those things motivated this unnamed police officer to spring into action at the outlet mall on May 6th. Stopping the massacre motivated him.
This police officer makes me very proud to be an American. He represents the best among the nation’s police officers. He’s one of the “good ones.”
My Experiences with Police Officers Have Been Diverse and Impactful
My early experiences with police officers were very different from the one depicted at the beginning of the bodycam video of the Allen police officer. That officer was kind, warm, and gentle with the mother and her two children as he discussed the importance of seats belts.
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 young son.
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 been 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.
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 Williams’ 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 the dismissal of all charges in the remaining eight cases.
Throughout the Bernard Whitehurst, Sidney Williams, and Todd Road cases, I received a barrage of death threats. These paradigm-shifting cases produced positive changes within the MPD for two reasons.
First, former Montgomery County DA Jimmy Evans, who was white, was an exceptional prosecutor who exhibited tremendous courage and bravery by investigating and prosecuting crooked police officers. Unlike many gutless prosecutors today, Evans held police officers accountable for breaking the law.
Second, a cadre of good police officers, both black and white, covered my back, protected my family, and provided me with the vital evidence I needed to expose the widespread police misconduct in those cases.
Defending Police Officers
In 1982, I defended Uniontown police lieutenant Sammy Plummer, who is white, 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. 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 been accused of using deadly force against a black suspect. My defense of Lt. Plummer generated a lot of controversy and criticism against me in the state’s black political circles. I did not care because Lt. Plummer was a great person and a 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 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, the black and white MPD officers who helped me expose the Whitehurst and Todd Road police cover-ups, and the unnamed Allen, Texas police officer who took down an active shooter are the “good ones.” They acted to protect and serve our communities on an unselfish basis.
Police officers like Donnie Foster, the two Todd Road home invaders, and the ones who, in recent years, have senselessly killed unarmed, non-violent African-Americans during routine traffic stops and simple misdemeanor arrests fall into the category of “bad officers.” However, these officers represent less than one tenth of one percent of all police officers in America.
As a nation, we must value, protect, and support the “good ones,” while quickly repudiating and punishing the misconduct of the “bad ones.”
To the unnamed police officer in Allen, Texas, “Thank You!” Very few officers in America could have neutralized that deadly threat in three and a half minutes. Yours, was truly a remarkable act of bravery.