By: Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on February 14, 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. 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 who act responsibly and fairly in the discharge of their official duties. Occasionally, I have had to expose the misconduct of police officers who abused their authority.
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.
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 the 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 with distinction 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.
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 District Attorney Jimmy Evans, who is white, was an exceptional prosecutor who exhibited tremendous courage and bravery by investigating and prosecuting crooked police officers. Unlike many 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 police misconduct in these cases.
Defending Police Officers
In 1982, I defended Uniontown, Alabama 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. 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 black and white MPD officers who helped me expose the 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 Donnie Foster, the two Todd Road home invaders, and the FBI agents who participated in the Bureau’s infamous COINTELPRO program fall into the category of bad officers. They represent less than one percentage of all law enforcement officers in America.
All Americans, including President Donald Trump, should respect our federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. No American should seek to justify or defend the reprehensible misconduct of bad police officers. To do so greatly dishonors the valiant community service and accumulated goodwill of good police officers across America.
Every profession has bad actors. Police departments are no exception.
Law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and the court system must effectively “police” America’s police officers. They must protect and support the good ones while quickly denouncing and punishing the misconduct of the bad ones.