Police’s Shifting Account of Black Man’s Death Raises Questions in Savannah

Jameillah Smiley at her home in Savannah, Ga. Her 20-year-old son, Ricky Boyd, was shot and killed by the police just outside the front door.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — The official story of Ricky Boyd’s fatal encounter with law enforcement officers changed, then changed again.

Savannah’s interim police chief, Mark Revenew, initially said that Mr. Boyd, a murder suspect, had fired on officers while they were trying to arrest him in front of his home in a workaday suburb far from the fountains and oak-shaded squares of the city’s historic core.

Hours later, the police released a statement that did not mention Mr. Boyd doing any shooting, though it did say that he “confronted officers with a gun.” Then the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stated that Mr. Boyd had been armed with a BB pistol.

Now the family is insisting that Mr. Boyd, 20, an African-American restaurant worker, was not armed at all. Their lawyer has accused the police of lying, and he claims that a photo taken by a neighbor just after the January shooting shows the BB pistol on the ground, a puzzling 43 feet from where Mr. Boyd fell.

On Thursday, Mr. Boyd’s mother, Jameillah Smiley, went before the Savannah City Council and asked the city to release a police body-camera video that she says shows that her son was unarmed. State Senator Lester G. Jackson III, the head of Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus, has sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, asking the Justice Department to take over the investigation from local authorities to “help avoid potential bias.”

And Savannah — the elegant, troubled jewel of the Georgia coast — found itself confronting, yet again, the question of whether its police force can be trusted.

The question has dominated the public conversation in many American cities at a time when technology can make the most obscure police encounter combustible. But it comes at a particularly sensitive moment for Savannah — a city of 147,000 people famous for its fine old buildings and Southern charm, but burdened with an outsize violent crime problem, a 25 percent poverty rate, and a police force stained by the 2014 conviction of its former chief, Willie Lovett, on federal extortion, gambling and obstruction charges.

Mr. Lovett’s well-regarded replacement, Joseph Lumpkin, reinstilled some public confidence in the police force. But Mr. Lumpkin moved to a new job in January, and the city is on a nationwide hunt for a new police chief.

Alicia Blakely, an activist with the Savannah chapter of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, said that if evidence of a cover-up emerges in the Boyd case, “just imagine — if that happened, that means the trust is completely out of the window.”

Savannah has long been a city starkly divided between rich and poor, black and white. Its growing success as a magnet for tourists, wealthy retirees and film and television productions has thrown its pervasive problems into even sharper relief.

Its restaurants are more sophisticated, its airport has expanded to accommodate more visitors — “The numbers are just exploding,” Mayor Eddie DeLoach says — and its historic downtown, which once evinced a tatty charm, has been burnished to a high gloss.

In recent years, the Savannah metropolitan area has also suffered some of the highest murder rates in the United States. There were 50 homicides in Savannah in 2016; in proportion to its population, that was more than twice the rate of metropolitan Atlanta. The figure fell to 35 last year, which city officials cite as a sign of progress.

“We think we’ve turned the corner,” the city manager, Rob Hernandez, said, “and the data is supporting that.”

Black mistrust of the Savannah police has deep roots — some of them typical for a Deep South city, some of them complicated (Mr. Lovett was the city’s first black chief), and some stemming from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a crack cocaine boss named Ricky Jivens Jr., who was black, led a criminal gang that was linked to about 20 killings before his eventual arrest.

Geoffrey A. Alls, 35, a black lawyer who was raised in the city, said that from that point on, the disparate treatment of blacks by the police became even more pronounced.

“Bad experiences with police as a black man growing up in Savannah are somewhat of a rite of passage,” he said.

Ms. Smiley, 36, said that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation showed her and other family members the body-camera video a few days after Mr. Boyd was shot. That day, she said, a state detective told her that her son had been armed, and had “wanted to die.”

Ms. Smiley said the video shows Mr. Boyd taking a few steps out of his front door, then falling as the officers shoot. But she and others who have seen the video said they could not make out any weapon in Mr. Boyd’s hands.

“I said, ‘This is the crap y’all brought me up here to see?’ ” Ms. Smiley recalled in a recent interview. Her anger turned to tears. “They didn’t have to kill my son,” she said.

The Chatham County district attorney, Meg Heap, who is white, calls that description of the video “inaccurate,” and said that a grand jury will rely on the results of the bureau’s investigation to determine whether charges are warranted against the officers.

Police and city officials, citing the continuing investigation, declined to comment.

Mr. Boyd’s family said he had dreamed of joining the Marines — an idea his mother disapproved of — or of becoming a police detective. Records show that he was arrested in November 2016 for fleeing the police after riding in a stolen truck with a friend. At the time, Mr. Boyd told the police he did not know the truck was stolen. So an officer asked him why he ran.

“He began explaining how he runs from the police every time the police make a stop on him, because you know something is wrong and that is how he was trained,” the officer wrote in a report.

Mr. Boyd would soon be caught up in, and dashed by, Savannah’s vicious cycles of violence.

Officers went to his house on the morning of Jan. 23 to arrest him on suspicion of murdering a 24-year-old man named Balil Whitfield, who had been found shot and bleeding in the front seat of a Hyundai Accent two days before.

Violence struck even at Mr. Boyd’s funeral, when his 12-year-old cousin, John Cooksey Jr., was fatally shot. Mr. Boyd’s family has theories about the motive for this slaying, but did not wish to share them publicly.

A 15-year-old was eventually arrested in connection with that killing.

Mr. Boyd’s family, meanwhile, has hired a local civil rights lawyer, William R. Claiborne, 40, a white Atlanta native who has emerged as a chief critic of Savannah’s law enforcement culture. There are good officers on the force, Mr. Claiborne said, but over all, he believes the department has not fully reformed or scrubbed its ranks of bad actors.

“Ethical and honest policing protects everyone,” he said. “We haven’t had that historically, and I don’t think we have that now.”

In 2016, Mr. Claiborne won a settlement from the city over a case in which a white officer used a stun gun on a black man whom the police had misidentified while executing a warrant. In another stun-gun case, Mr. Claiborne and other lawyers are representing the family of Matthew Ajibade, a mentally ill black man who died after a violent confrontation with Chatham County sheriff’s deputies at a local jail. Their lawsuit in federal court alleges that Mr. Ajibade, 21, was shocked four times with the device while strapped to a restraint chair, and then was denied medical attention.

Mr. Claiborne has also filed a state civil racketeering lawsuit that names Mr. Lovett and others and alleges a “takeover” of the police department by corrupt officers who controlled a drug distribution network. (The suit was filed before the department split into separate city and county departments earlier this year.)

The suit describes a continuum of corruption, arguing that the network included members of a police-controlled cocaine smuggling ring who had evaded punishment during a 1990s-era federal probe that led to the arrest of 11 officers.

Earlier this month, Mr. Claiborne released a video on behalf of Mr. Boyd’s family in which he introduces the neighbor’s photo. It appears to show a pistol lying on the ground near a pine tree, more than 40 feet from the front door. Mr. Claiborne believes it is the same BB pistol shown in photos released by the state bureau of investigation.

Mr. Claiborne said the family members who watched the police body-camera video did not see Mr. Boyd make any throwing motion before he was shot. “So how does the gun that he supposedly had move from A to B?” he said.

Ms. Smiley said that a Savannah detective has told her that the police do not believe her son killed Balil Whitfield.

Mr. Claiborne said he is frustrated that after three months, the authorities have released the name of only one officer involved in the raid — a sergeant who was shot that morning, apparently by friendly fire.

Mr. DeLoach, the mayor, is a white conservative who defeated a black incumbent in 2015 with a campaign focused squarely on fighting crime. In an interview, he praised the Police Department’s progress, noting that its staffing is now above full strength after being short more than 100 officers a few years ago. Other city officials pointed out that the department has overhauled its internal affairs division, parted ways with problem officers and raised its success rate in solving homicides to 80 percent in 2017, from 54 percent in 2015 — evidence, they say, that public trust is on the rise.

But skepticism lingers about the Boyd shooting. Lloyd A. Johnson, a former Maryland prosecutor and president of a local youth support group, is among the black Savannah residents who want the police to release the video that Mr. Boyd’s family was shown. “If they feel they didn’t show excessive force, then let’s look at the tape,” he said.

At the council meeting, a tearful Ms. Smiley asked the members to say whether they supported releasing the video. But the city attorney advised them not to speak, and said that the district attorney had said that the video would not be released while it was under investigation by the grand jury.

“And ma’am,” the mayor said at one point. “We are truly sorry.”

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