Detroit’s Bloody Month of May

Around midnight, on the morning of Sunday, May 16, 2010, members of the Detroit Police Department’s Special Response Team assembled in an East Side parking lot and received a safety briefing on the arrest warrant they were about to serve at 4054 and 4056 Lillibridge.

The target location was a duplex, consisting of upper and lower level units occupied by extended members of the same family.

The suspect, 34 year old Chauncey Owens, was wanted for the murder of 17 year old Jerean Blake earlier this month. Members of the Detroit PD’s Special Response Team, working in conjunction with the Homicide Unit, had monitored the house all Saturday evening, and established that Owens was staying at the Lillibridge residences. At 10:30 pm, the officers obtained the search and arrest warrants for both residences, and started planning their entry.

Chauncey Owens has a lengthy criminal history, including stealing cars, burglary, and escape from a penal institution. The police also had good information that Owens might be armed with an assault rifle and a handgun. Based on the available information and the violent nature of their suspect, the officers decided on a dynamic entry, which includes, as a matter of standard operating procedure, the use of non-lethal flash bang grenades, which, when detonated, generate a tremendous amount of light and noise, effectively stunning anyone unlucky enough to be in the room when they go off. At this point, no one said anything about the possible presence of children in the home.

By 12:40 am, the team was on the move. They rolled up to the front of the house in their armored vehicle, and the team split into two parts, one rushing the front door of the duplex, which led to the lower unit, and the other hitting a side door that led to the upstairs apartment. A flash bang grenade was tossed through a window and landed inside the residence, where it detonated as planned. At the same time, officers went through the front door.

An A&E film crew with the reality cop show “The First 48” was on scene and had their cameras rolling.

Veteran SRT officer Joseph Weekley, carrying a ballistic shield in one hand and a pistol in the other, was the first man through the door.

As soon as Weekley entered the home, he was confronted by a 49 year old woman named Mertilla Jones. Some sort of contact ensued between Weekley and Jones, and this contact allegedly resulted in Weekley’s pistol discharging.

As members of the household were put on the ground and the smoke cleared, the tragic path of Weekley’s bullet became clear.

Stunned, Weekley, walked outside and contacted his supervisor. His bullet, he said, had struck a sleeping seven year old little girl in the neck. He wasn’t sure, but he thought the little girl was dead.

Meanwhile, other officers had scooped up seven year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones’ limp body, placed her in a police car, and rushed her to St. John Hospital, where doctors were powerless to save her.

Amid all the turmoil, Chauncey Owens, who was found in the upstairs apartment and surrendered without incident, was led quietly away to be arraigned for murder.

The Larger Context

Aiyana’s death kicked off a firestorm of media coverage. In the wake of a white cop shooting a black little girl, civil rights groups wasted no time firing broadsides at the police. Black religious leaders spoke of both police brutality and the sickening cycle of black on black violence. Civic leaders issued pleas for cool heads even as they spoke of Detroit’s many problems. The police grieved over the tragedy and started the soul-searching process of investigating their own. Aiyana’s family wailed in lamentation for their loss. And even the media, which normally regards itself as beyond reproach, glanced in the mirror, questioning the role their film crews played in the shooting.

But one man, a Southfield-based attorney named Geoffrey Fieger, has yelled the loudest. Aiyana’s family sought out Fieger, who has a reputation for taking on high profile cases – his past clients include Dr Jack Kevorkian, defendant in a number of doctor-assisted suicides; Master Sergeant Jeffrey Sarver, who claims to be the inspiration for the main character in the Academy Award-winning film The Hurt Locker; and several people who have appeared on salacious talk shows such as The Jerry Springer Show and The Jenny Jones Show – and he has wasted no time in ramping up the PR machine.

Fieger has filed two civil suits in Federal court, and has tirelessly pursued every opportunity to get in front of the camera. Claiming that he has seen a video of the police serving the warrant – Fieger avoids calling the warrant a lawful procedure and has instead called it a raid, a home invasion, and has even compared it to the warfare in Afghanistan – he alleges the Detroit Police are involved in a cover up.

In Fieger’s version of events, Officer Weekley fired from outside the home. Weekley’s shot was not, Fieger claims, the result of Aiyana’s grandmother, Mertilla Jones, trying to keep police out of her home, but murder on the part of the police. The flash bang grenade, he claims, was not a non-lethal device used to reduce the likelihood of injury to both police and suspects, but a bomb. He has even gone so far as to declare himself the only real prosecutor in this case and the only person actively seeking justice for Aiyana Stanley-Jones.

But Fieger’s theatrics aside, there is one important fact that nobody can deny – Detroit is in the process of destroying itself. The month of May alone has proven to be a deadly one for the people of Detroit.

The turmoil began on May 3, when Detroit Police Officer Brian Huff was killed while responding to a shots fired call. Four other officers were wounded during the incident. One suspect is in custody for that shooting, and another is currently being investigated.

Six days later, a 15 year old was shot and killed while hanging out on a friend’s porch.

Things heated up after that. On May 12, a grandmother was shot and killed by a stray bullet from a nearby robbery. On May 13, a bicyclist shot a man in the head while he was pumping gas. On May 14, Jerean Blake was killed in front of a liquor store a few blocks from Aiyana’s house. On May 16, the warrant service at the house on Lillibridge resulted in the accidental shooting death of Aiyana Jones. And then, on May 22, a trooper from the Michigan State Police shot and killed a suspect during a shootout after a vehicle pursuit.

But gun violence is only one small part of the problem. Detroit has been suffering for many years from a variety of ills that don’t grab the headlines the way crimes of violence do.

Detroit’s public schools are facing numerous lawsuits and protests. The students, meanwhile, are paying the price of bankrupt schools. Last Thursday, Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public School system announced that the 4th through 8th Graders under his care scored dead last in a national standardized reading test.

Detroit’s businesses are in a downward spiral with absolutely no sign of a possible recovery. Everywhere you look you see abandoned buildings and factories. Large industrial giants such as Ford and GM, long the icons of Detroit’s industrial might, are hurting.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, a former NBA star-turned politician, has pointed out that he “doesn’t know how to stop” the recent wave of violence afflicting his city. Faced with that violence, which has, frankly, been mounting since the late ‘60s, businesses are fleeing Detroit. Why should they stay? How can they feel confident in a city government with a penchant for self-serving leadership and for perpetuating self-destructing union deals? Detroit’s political infrastructure is rotten, and, quite possibly, doomed to implosion.

Violence and shaky leadership have resulted in a depressed economy and unemployment not seen since the Great Depression. The cycle becomes self-perpetuating because the schools that depend on that economy can no longer turn out a properly educated workforce.

Yes, Detroit still has a large number of hard working, honest people. But the numbers are dwindling. The population has shrunk dramatically in recent years as more and more people become fed up with the violence and the poverty and flee the city for opportunities elsewhere.

Amid all the racial and economic tensions, it seems that everyone has an interest in some specific aspect of the overall problem. And in the wake of Aiyana Jones’ senseless and tragic death, nearly everyone is shouting out to be heard.

A Call to Action

Aiyana Jones was laid to rest on Saturday, and the Reverend Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy.

Predictably, Sharpton’s role in the service brought a great deal of media attention. Many feared Sharpton would use Aiyana’s death to spread his vitriolic and self-aggrandizing nonsense about police corruption and misconduct, thereby inciting violence on the order of the 1967 Detroit Riot.

Well, the riot didn’t happen. Sharpton did deliver his standard spiel on police corruption, as expected, but he went a step further and condemned the black on black violence that has torn Detroit apart over the past few decades.

Sharpton went on to say that Aiyana’s death was a turning point – not just for Detroit, but for all of us.

Implied in his eulogy was a message of hope, but as much as I applaud his sentiments (it was, after all, the only decent thing to say when memorializing such a beautiful young child as Aiyana), I can’t help but ask how realistic that message of hope really is.

Any student of Detroit’s numerous problems cannot help but come away with the same doubts. With drugs, gangs, unemployment, economic depression, failing schools, and violence spiraling out of control, will a single death, even one as tragic as this, be enough to turn the tide? Would a hundred? A thousand?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Detroit has reached a turning point, but I fear it is a turn akin to a nosedive. I would love to see Detroit regain its former glory. I would love my dire predictions to be proven wrong. But I don’t think they will be. The destructive forces at work in Detroit have made far too many people numb to the possibility of redeeming the city.

But What of Aiyana? Can There Be Justice?

It is a cold hard fact that the police respond to violence with violence. A police officer who is getting shot at is not going to politely ask the shooter to reconsider his behavior. He’s going to shoot back. I don’t think that any sensible person would expect the officer to do otherwise.

Now take that example one step further. A police department confronted with a violent, and largely antagonistic populace, is far more likely to get into violent encounters than a department patrolling some sleepy little country town. I’m not condoning police brutality. Far from it. If the police engage in unethical behavior, they deserve to be punished by the same laws they are sworn to uphold.

That said, I don’t believe Aiyana Jones’ death is the result of police brutality. Bombastic publicity hogs like Geoffrey Fieger can make all the unsupported accusations they want, but in the end, those accusations will be weighed by the evidence. And I think that evidence will show that while the Detroit Police Department bears some of the blame, they don’t deserve it all.

The lion’s share of the blame has to lie with Aiyana’s family. After all, as a seven year old, Aiyana had no power over who lived in her home. Her family chose to allow a known felon and murderer to live in their house. To expect that the police would shrink from doing their duty to arrest a murderer simply because there were children in the house is, frankly, offensive to those of us who make it a point to obey the law.

Raising a child is the highest responsibility any of us can undertake. And it seems, in this case, that Aiyana’s parents fell dreadfully short of the mark. Consider, for example, that the family has continued to block the Michigan State Police’s investigation by refusing them access to the scene of Aiyana’s death. The MSP was forced to obtain a warrant and employ a locksmith to enter the residence. And when they did finally gain access, they found two stolen cars in the backyard.

Michigan State Police Captain Harold Love went on to say that, “We’ve been trying to get cooperation from the family to come in and do this [participate in the investigation], but for 24 hours we have not had that cooperation.”

When MSP officers finally did obtain access to the home, they were able to determine that the bullet that killed Aiyana did not come through either a wall or a window. The evidence suggests that the shot was fired from inside the home. If subsequent investigation bears this out, it will go a long way toward refuting Mertilla Jones’ assertions that she never came into contact with Officer Weekley when he entered the home.

Will there ever be justice for Aiyana Stanley-Jones? The matter seems up in the air at the moment. There is still a great deal of investigation to do, and there are many questions that remain unanswered. But I am doubtful of any real resolution. Yes, the facts will come out. And yes, we will eventually get a full account of what happened. But in a larger sense, I suspect that the evidence will fail to answer the deeper questions. Just as Detroit will never know peace until its numerous problems, especially illegal drugs, are addressed, so too will Aiyana Stanley-Jones be denied justice so long as her family refuses to address their part in her death.

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