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White Police Officer In Alabama Charged With Black Man's Death


We have the story now of another white police officer charged with killing an African-American man. This time it happened in a city known for its role in the civil rights movement, Montgomery, Ala. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Gregory Gunn was an African-American man in his late 50s. Neighbors say he was walking home from a card game in the wee hours last Thursday morning. According to Montgomery police, white officer Aaron A.C. Smith was alone on patrol in Gunn's predominantly black neighborhood, which has seen a rash of burglaries. The 23-year-old policeman approached a, quote, "suspicious person." And officials say a struggle ensued. Gunn was shot to death in front of his next-door neighbor's home. And now the young patrolman faces murder charges.


TODD STRANGE: In the history of Montgomery, this is not one of our great days.

ELLIOTT: Mayor Todd Strange has been calling for patience to let the justice system play out. But earlier this week, the victim's brother, Franklin Gunn, confronted the mayor at city hall.


FRANKLIN GUNN: He was judged, he was tracked and he was hung right here at his home.



ELLIOTT: Since the shooting, a small group of protesters has disrupted a City Council meeting and demonstrated at police headquarters. Mostly people are asking how it happened. Attorney Tyrone Means represents Gunn's family.

TYRONE MEANS: Is he suspicious because he's walking in his neighborhood at 3 o'clock in the morning? Is that what it is? If you can't walk in your own neighborhood, where can you walk?

ELLIOTT: Authorities have not said what evidence they have against Officer Smith, including whether there is police camera footage. Means says the Gunn family intends to sue. He says Gunn was unarmed and there was no justification for the use of deadly force.

MEANS: If you're walking on the sidewalk, the penalty for walking on that ain't being accosted by a police officer and ending up dead in front of your next-door neighbor's home hollering for help.

ELLIOTT: The case threatens to break an already fragile relationship between police and African-Americans in Montgomery, Ala. There's a mistrust here that dates from slavery and through Jim Crow. And it lingers because of high-profile police misconduct cases involving white officers and black victims in the '70s and '80s. The city has been trying to rebuild trust by having cops walk their beat, partnering with black clergy and training officers how to police this historic city, at once the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the civil rights movement. Mayor Strange, who is white in a majority-black city and now in his second full term, calls this a defining moment.


STRANGE: We have made great strides. We have built great bridges. And what we don't want to have happen is an event like this, as tragic and as unfortunate as it is, to tear down those bridges.

ELLIOTT: A.C. Smith is out on bond and on paid leave. His attorney, Mickey McDermott, calls the arrest a political witch hunt to quell unrest.

MICKEY MCDERMOTT: Because it keeps the fires from burning. The reason Montgomery is not burning right now may be this arrest.

ELLIOTT: He says Smith was doing what he was trained to.

MCDERMOTT: There's only two people on this dark street - this officer and Mr. Gunn - and a fight starts. Mr. Gunn runs. Mr. Gunn turns and starts fighting this officer. This officer fights for his life, and he uses deadly force just like we pay him for.

ELLIOTT: McDermott says outrage over the way police shootings have been handled around the country should not rest on this one Montgomery officer. But that context is very much on the mind of Karen Jones, leader of the local Black Lives Matter.

KAREN JONES: I want to see him convicted.

ELLIOTT: Jones agrees Smith's swift arrest is likely intended to calm the community outcry. But she says it won't work.

JONES: Nobody should be calm when a black man is assassinated.

ELLIOTT: Activists and some elected officials are calling for a federal probe. Greg Gunn's 87-year-old mother says all she wants is justice. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Montgomery, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.