Friday, April 10, 2009

Black Man's Killing by Police Shakes Louisiana Town

Black man's killing by police shakes La. town

Associated Press Writers

HOMER, La. – For 73 years before his killing by a white police officer, Bernard Monroe led a life in this northern Louisiana town as peaceful as they come — five kids with his wife of five decades, all raised in the same house, supported by the same job.

The black man's shooting death is attracting far more attention than he ever did, raising racial tensions between the black community and Homer's police department.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped organize a massive 2007 civil rights demonstration in Jena after six black teenagers were charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate, planned to lead a Friday afternoon rally in Homer to protest Monroe's killing.

"The parallel here is that the local community cannot trust law enforcement and cannot trust the process to go forward without outside help," Sharpton said.

Rendered mute after losing his larynx to cancer, Monroe was a 73-year-old retired power company lineman who was in his usual spot on a mild Friday afternoon in February when events unfolded: A chair by the gate led to his Adams Street home. A barbecue cooker smoked beside a picnic table in the yard. A dozen or so family members talked and played nearby.

All seemed calm, until two Homer police officers drove up.

In a report to state authorities, Homer police said Officer Tim Cox and another officer they have refused to identify chased Monroe's son, Shaun, 38, from a suspected drug deal blocks away to his father's house.

Witnesses dispute that account, saying the younger Monroe was talking to his sister-in-law in a truck in front of the house when the officers arrived.

All agree Shaun Monroe, who had an arrest record for assault and battery but no current warrants, drove up the driveway and went into the house. Two white police officers followed him. Within minutes, he ran back outside, followed by an unidentified officer who Tasered him in the front yard.

Seeing the commotion, Bernard Monroe confronted the officer. Police said that he advanced on them with a pistol and that Cox, who was still inside the house, shot at him through a screen door.

Monroe fell dead. How many shots were fired isn't clear; the coroner has refused to release an autopsy report, citing the active investigation.

Police said Monroe was shot after he pointed a gun at them, though no one claims Monroe fired shots. Friends and family said he was holding a bottle of sports water. They accuse police of planting a gun he owned next to his body.

"Mr. Ben didn't have a gun," said 32-year-old neighbor Marcus Frazier, who was there that day. "I saw that other officer pick up the gun from out of a chair on the porch and put it by him."

Frazier said Monroe was known to keep a gun for protection because of local drug activity.

Despite the chase and Tasering, Shaun Monroe was not arrested. He and other relatives would not comment afterward.

Monroe's gun is being DNA-tested by state police. The findings of their investigation will be given to District Attorney Jonathan Stewart, who would decide whether to file charges.

The case also has led to FBI and State Police investigations and drawn attention from national civil rights leaders.

"We've had a good relationship, blacks and whites, but this thing has done a lot of damage," said Michael Wade, one of three blacks on the five-member town council. "To shoot down a family man that had never done any harm, had no police record, caused no trouble. Suddenly everyone is looking around wondering why it happened and if race was the reason."

Homer, a town of 3,800 about 45 miles northwest of Shreveport, is in piney woods just south of the Arkansas state line. Many people work in the oil or timber industries. In the old downtown, shops line streets near the antebellum Claiborne Parish courthouse on the town square.

The easygoing climate, blacks say, masked police harassment.

The black community has focused its anger on Police Chief Russell Mills, who is white. They say he's directed a policy of harassment toward them.

The FBI and State Police said they received no complaints about Homer police before the shooting.

Mills declined interview requests, saying he retained a lawyer and feared losing his job.

Hours before Friday's scheduled rally, music blared from Azzie Olds' home, where the 53-year-old schoolteacher and her neighbors enjoyed a cookout. Olds, who is black, said she expected a peaceful march despite the anger many were feeling.

"You've got a lot of people upset about what happened, not just the black folks," Olds said. "I hope the national attention can help the town realize that something really needs to be done about the situation."

Elsewhere in Homer, some white residents expressed concern that Sharpton's visit could enflame tensions.

"I just hope everybody behaves and don't use it as an excuse to start trouble," said Vanessa Efferson, 49, whose bookstore is one of the shops ringing the courthouse.

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