No less than two eyewitnesses to the shooting of Tevin Lewis cut short their testimony at an NAACP sponsored press conference Tuesday night, vibrating with fear at the image of a man collapsed from gunfire. The details of the case are murky.
Lewis, a young black man with no outstanding warrants, was shot in the back in flight from police, folding like a towel into a nearby ditch where Lafayette Police Department officers swarmed and handcuffed him, according to witnesses. Some witnesses said they saw no weapon, but the police report indicates that Lewis had a firearm “tied to him." No one contends that the shooting officer was under immediate threat of death from a suspect clearly in flight. Many said that Lewis was “running for his life.”
At Tuesday's press conference, exhortations of community togetherness, the need for unity and the hope for justice were met with alternating outbursts of discontent and concurrence from the gathered black community. People are scared of their police department, they said, and spoke at length and in growing numbers of the state of fear that permeates black homes in north Lafayette. Some called it a militarized environment. Takuna El Shabazz of the Council of Black Elders likened it to domestic terrorism. That rampant suspicion and fear has not been eased by a persistent pattern of opaqueness by police in the conveyance of information regarding this case, coupled with some alarming procedural and structural decisions made by the LPD in the recent past, they insisted.
Beginning with the case of Tevin Lewis, the lack of official explanation beyond a muddled police report has left too much to the imagination of clearly suspicious minds.
Nearby resident and eyewitness Shelia Carter claimed that officers responding to the scene entered her home to watch surveillance footage of the incident captured on her DVR from cameras outside her home. After the video revealed the first of two shots fired at the visibly fleeing Lewis (the second of which dropped him cold), the attending officer became hostile, stopped the video and demanded she release it, Carter said.
Carter also said police restricted her from moving freely within her home, and she reported in her press conference testimony a persistent attitude of hostility and mistrust on the part of the responding officer. When he supplied a warrant shortly thereafter, the document signed by 15th Judicial District Court Commissioner Thomas Frederick indicated that Lewis was wanted for attempted murder of police officer. According to police, Lewis, who is still recovering in a local hospital, is facing arrest for carrying a concealed weapon, resisting an officer and felon in possession of a firearm. There has been no mention of attempted murder of a police officer.
The Rev. John Milton of Imani Temple reported that other witnesses to the crime were rounded up by officers, brought to the precinct and were subsequently shackled and intimidated by officers. Milton, on behalf of the gathered black leaders, demanded that the claim of witness intimidation be investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Why would our police department treat citizens that have not been charged with a crime in that manner?” he asked.
Milton further demanded the establishment of an independent investigating committee for officer-involved shootings, a task currently handled by an internal LPD organization known as a “shoot team.” Prior to the establishment of the shoot team, such cases were handled by outside law enforcement agencies, typically the Louisiana State Police, and in one case the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. Police Chief Jim Craft established the internal shoot team in 2013.
[Editor's Note: The following paragraph has been updated to include an LPD response to Milton's allegations about the Community Relations Board.]
Chief Craft established a Community Relations Board as part of a growing concern about the relationship between law enforcement and the black community across the nation earlier this year. Milton mentioned that the NAACP was at one point removed from that board following a July press conference in which the civil rights organization criticized the department for lack of transparency in internal investigations and for racial inequity in its conduct of police business and hiring practices.
According to NAACP Lafayette Chapter President Marja Broussard, Chief Craft remarked to her that he removed the NAACP at the recommendation of the three police representatives on the Community Relations Board. The three sitting officers expressed to Craft, Broussard says, that the NAACP’s conference demonstrated a desire to work against, rather than with, city officials on issues of race and law enforcement. Although it's unknown why, the NAACP’s seat on the board was later reinstated.
Lafayette police spokesman Paul Mouton disputes Milton's claim, saying the department tried for a month to contact the NAACP to invite it to sit on the board and received no response; an NAACP rep was added to the board, police say, when the civil rights group finally responded.
Above all, black community leaders demanded accountability on matters of race and justice in the police department. An easy step, they claim, toward righting this wrong would be immediate release of Shelia Carter’s surveillance video. Milton contends that the evidence on the video, either exonerating or implicating Lewis of wrongdoing, should be quickly apparent and result in swift administration of justice.