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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Our Watchdogs Do Not Bark, Bite, or Write

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on October 19, 2018

On November 13, 1979, I was sworn-in to a four-year term as the youngest city council member in Montgomery, Alabama’s history.

The next day, Frank Mitchell, a white Montgomery police officer, shot Love Mae Lawson in the face with his 357 Magnum pistol during his response to a domestic assistance call. Ms. Lawson, who was unarmed at the time, was critically wounded in the shooting.

A week later, I launched an independent inquiry into this shooting. My investigation revealed that Mitchell had engaged in an excessive use of force.

The Murder of Bernard Whitehurst

The voters in my city council district elected me as a council member with 70% of the vote because I had aggressively challenged widespread police violence against Montgomery’s black residents, including the infamous 1975 shooting of an unarmed and innocent black man named Bernard Whitehurst. The police planted a pistol at the death scene to make it appear that Whitehurst was armed and had engaged in a shootout with the officer who murdered him.

Within days of the shooting, Ms. Ida Mae Whitehurst, Bernard’s grieving mother, hired me to investigate his death. What I uncovered over the next sixteen months was startling and would rock the very foundation of the police department for years to come. During this period, the Whitehurst case grew into the largest police scandal in Alabama’s history. This scandal was headlined in the April 3, 1977, edition of the Washington Post as “Alabama’s Watergate”. More recently, this shooting was featured in a December 19, 2015, edition of the New York Daily News in an article titled, “Innocent Alabama man murdered by cops 40 years ago, police heard saying 'We done shot the wrong n-----'”.

In the aftermath of the Whitehurst shooting, both James Robinson, Montgomery's mayor, and Colonel Ed Wright, its top cop, were forced to resign. Eight other police officers were either fired or had to resign because of their roles in the massive police cover-up of Whitehurst’s murder.

Lying in Wait for Frank Pinkerton

On June 12, 1982, a Montgomery police officer shot and killed Frank Pinkston, an unarmed black burglary suspect, during an attempted burglary of a local drugstore. My investigation revealed that the police (a) had advance warning of the burglary from an informant; (b) were waiting for Pinkston inside and outside the drugstore; (c) shot Pinkston inside the store as he attempted to flee the scene; (d) refused to let paramedics administer medical assistance to Pinkston; and (e) waited for Pinkston to die.

Unfortunately, Pinkston was another victim of a cold-blooded police murder. I presented my investigative report to the city council.

Violence Upon Funeral Mourners

On the evening of February 28, 1983, out-of-state members of the Taylor family were mourning the death of Annie Bell Taylor, their beloved mother, grandmother, and family matriarch, in Madison Park, a small black community in Montgomery. Two white Montgomery police officers in plain clothes and an unmarked police car mistook the gathering of mourners as a gathering of drug dealers from other states based upon the many license plates from Michigan and Ohio. For no apparent reason, officers Les Brown and Eddie Spivey angrily confronted 21-year-old Christopher Taylor, one of Ms. Taylor’s grandsons, outside the house. Unaware of their status and frightened, Christopher ran from them. Without provocation, the officers shot Christopher as he was running toward the house. When a wounded and bleeding Christopher made it through the front door of the house and told family members what had just occurred, they were shocked, afraid, and very angry.

Unbelievably, the officers took it upon themselves to raid the funeral gathering by entering the front door without knocking and without identifying themselves as police officers. The mourners believed they were under a violent home invasion by two white intruders. The men inside the Taylor home instinctively tried to protect their children, wives, and other family members from two strangers brandishing guns, while simultaneously nursing and protecting a wounded family member. The family "stood their ground" and called for police help once they subdued the home invaders.

When responding police officers arrived on the scene, more shots were fired. The original two officers were rescued from the house. The Taylor family members surrendered to police.

Each of the 23 mourners in the Taylor home was taken into police custody. Eleven of them were subsequently arrested, and some of the men were brutally beaten while in police custody. The arrested family members were charged with felony robbery, kidnapping and attempted murder in connection with the incident.

My investigative report into this incident was provided to the city council and Montgomery District Attorney Jimmy Evans. The report, along with the brilliant work of the Taylors' defense team, resulted in the dismissal of all charges against seven family members and all kidnapping and robbery charges against the other four. The attempted murder charges against the remaining four family members were reduced to simple misdemeanor assault charges. After they pleaded “no contest” to these charges and paid a small fine, the case was over.

Shooting Bobby Joe Sales in the Back

On April 9, 1983, Ralph A. Connor, a white Montgomery police officer, shot Bobby Joe Sales, a 23-year-old black male. Sales survived the shooting.

Connor later claimed that he mistook Sales for a jail escapee. My investigation of the shooting revealed the following: (a) Sales had committed no crime in Connor’s presence; (b) Sales was unarmed at the time of the shooting; (c) Sales was not threatening Connor in any way; and (d) Sales was shot in the back. I reported to the city council that Connor was a danger to himself and the citizens of Montgomery. I knew that Connor, who left the MPD for another police department, had a propensity for violence that would one day lead to the death of an innocent person.

My premonition about Connor was confirmed on October 15, 2013, in Eufaula, Alabama, when Connor and fellow officer John Phillips murdered Cameron Massey during a highly questionable traffic stop.

There is no “Watchdog” Today

It had been 35 years since I wrote my report on the Bobby Joe Sales shooting, which was my last city council report. All of my investigative reports were spread across the official minutes of Montgomery City Council meetings and became a part of those minutes.

When I left office in November of 1983, I thought, perhaps naively so, that the black elected officials who came after me would pick up the baton and assume the “watchdog” role I had performed for holding law enforcement officers accountability for police violence. I thought these elected officials would continue to question, investigate, and prepare written reports on the police violence within their jurisdictions. I was wrong.

As I reviewed news reports of police shootings around the nation since 1983, I have found nothing but the voice of silence. In the 35 years since I left public office, I have not found one instance in which a black elected official has used the authority of his/her public office to (a) investigate the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers against African-Americans, women, and/or other citizens and (b) issue written reports to his/her government entity regarding these incidents.

This is one of the reasons why police violence is out of control across America. All too often, no public official is policing the police. Too many of our black public officials have failed us miserably on this issue (and a host of other issues, as well). Our votes elect these officials, but they have become too afraid, too complacent, and too compromised to speak out against the epidemic of police violence that is sweeping through black America. In effect, our black elected officials have become useless “watchdogs” that will not bark, bite or write.

We deserve so much better.

PHOTO: In 1976, Attorney Donald V. Watkins (right) exhumed the body of Bernard Whitehurst in his search for the truth about this police murder. The subsequent autopsy revealed that Whitehurst had been shot in the back and not in the chest, as police had claimed. After Whitehurst was executed, police planted a "throw-down" pistol next to his body to justify the shooting.

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