August 16, 2012
By CHUCK BARTELS
Police in Arkansas released a video reconstruction on August 14 meant to show how a 21-year-old man who was handcuffed behind his back could have shot himself in the head while in the backseat of a patrol car.
In the video, an officer played the part of Chavis Carter, a Southaven, Miss., man who died from a gunshot wound to the temple July 28 despite being frisked twice by Jonesboro police officers. Carter was Black and both of the officers who arrested him are white, a dynamic that has generated suspicion among some members of the city’s Black community.
The officers stopped a truck in which Carter was riding after they received a report of a suspicious vehicle driving up and down a residential street. They arrested Carter after learning he had an outstanding arrest warrant related to a drug charge in Mississippi. Police also alleged Carter had marijuana.
In producing the video, the agency used the same type of handcuffs that were used on Carter and the same model of handgun found with Carter after he died, a .380-caliber Cobra semi-automatic. An officer of similar height and weight to Carter — 5 feet 8 inches, 160 pounds — sat in the back of a cruiser, leaned over and was able to lift the weapon to his head and reach the trigger.
“We just wanted to get a good perspective on how it could be done and the ease with which it could be done,” said Jonesboro Police Chief Michael Yates.
As far as how Carter concealed the gun, Yates said it’s possible he hid it in the patrol car after officers first frisked him. He was then in the car un-handcuffed until officers eventually decided to arrest him. They then conducted a more thorough search of Carter.
“It’s obvious they did miss the weapon on the first search. It is likely, since he was placed into the car un-handcuffed the first time, that he had an opportunity to stash the weapon in the car,” Yates said. “The second search, which was more thorough and inclusive, did not disclose the weapon either.”
The incident and the subsequent investigation has prompted criticisms of the Jonesboro Police Department. Several critics came to a Monday night meeting on August 13 about the department's reaccreditation.
George C. Grant, retired dean of the library at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, asked that the reaccreditation be put on hold until the investigation into Carter’s death is complete, The Jonesboro Sun reported. Grant and others also complained that Yates hasn’t pushed to hire minorities. Only three of 145 members of the police force are Black, the Sun reported.
Yates didn’t offer a timetable for when the internal police probe would be complete. He said he’s waiting for an autopsy report, a report from the state Crime Laboratory on the gun and details on Carter’s phone records.
At a town hall meeting late Tuesday, some people said they had a hard time believing the police department explanation of what happened and voiced their frustrations to Department of Justice community relations representative Reatta Forte.
Others said Carter’s death was part of a larger issue of how Blacks are treated by police officers and recounted their own negative experiences.
Forte said she would review their comments and later convene a panel of the officials and agencies involved to discuss them, the Jonesboro Sun reported. She also said the state Crime Lab had been pressured to get the results of tests performed in the case back as soon as possible.
“I know they are putting a rush on it,” she said, urging patience from the audience.
Russell Marlin, a Memphis, Tenn.-based attorney representing Carter’s family, said Tuesday that he's conducting his own investigation. Martin said it was too early to give his own assessment of how Carter died, but he said Carter wasn’t suicidal. Martin said he would make a statement once his inquiry is complete.
“By all accounts, he was a healthy, happy guy. There’s no reason to think he would have killed himself,” Martin said.
Meanwhile, the FBI is monitoring the case. The state and local branches of the NAACP have asked the Justice Department to investigate. Craighead County NAACP Branch President Perry Jackson didn’t return a phone message seeking comment.
Prosecutor Scott Ellington, who will review the investigative file to determine whether any charges are warranted, said he didn’t expect to receive anything before the end of the week.
Police say video and audio recordings, as well as statements from witnesses, show neither officer pulled his weapon nor fired a shot during the traffic stop. Police have refused to release those recordings, citing the investigation.
Yates said other agencies have contacted him and told of similar incidents that occurred over the years.
Less than two weeks after Carter was shot, a man shot himself in the torso while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car in Mobile, Ala. The man survived. Police who searched him found two knives but missed the gun.
Charles Ellis, a training supervisor at the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy in East Camden, wouldn’t offer an opinion on what happened in Jonesboro. But he said both the initial pat down and the post-arrest search should reveal any weapons.
After a pat down and once a person is under arrest, “an officer can go in and search inside the pockets and inside the shoes, any place anything may be hidden on a person,” Ellis said.