Undercover narcotics officers in Jacksonville, Florida, killed two people in separate incidents in late January. Both men were black, and neither is alleged to be a drug dealer. Now, local black leaders are calling for a federal investigation, and the local prosecutor is questioning the value of such operations.
On January 20, undercover officers posing as drug dealers during a drug sting shot and killed 18-year-old Douglas Woods on January 20. Police claimed that Woods was armed with a pistol and attempted to rob what he thought were drug dealers. But family members and witnesses said Woods had no weapon and was holding only a cell phone.
"He was standing in the parking lot, like they always do, and the police pulled up on them. Everybody ran away except my child, and he threw his hands up. They said they shot him about eight times," Woods' mother, Machealle Woods said. "Why? I want to know why."
Witness Tyronnie Dennis, who was sitting on her steps smoking a cigarette when Woods was shot in her apartment complex courtyard, said Woods was holding a cell phone, not a gun. "I heard the shots ring out, and the boy hit the ground. There was only one gun fired. He didn't shoot back. He had a cell phone. He did not have a gun," said Dennis.
"We want a thorough investigation on this from the federal side to make sure that this is done fair and justly. We do not condone criminals. We do not condone drugs dealers and we never will," said Rev. RL Gundy of the Jacksonville Leadership Coalition. "We just want to make sure. Too many stories have been told too many different ways, and we want to make sure that the mother and the father get a thorough investigation about this."
Jacksonville County Sheriff John Rutherford was defending the shooting early last week. "At this point in the investigation, I am confident that the officer fired in self-defense after being approached by someone who was trying to rob him with a gun," Rutherford said. "I can tell you that we have statements from witnesses who were at the scene and are telling us one thing -- that told us one thing the night it occurred -- and the next afternoon were telling the electronic media something else." Rutherford said his office wouldn't put out a statement unless it was confident it was true. "We are not going to put that out there until we know -- it was gun, and I can tell you that it was a gun that was lying beside that individual not a cell phone," Rutherford said.
Then, on the day that Woods was buried, undercover narcotics officers shot and killed 81-year-old Isaac Singletary in his yard after the neighborhood fixture apparently mistook them for drug dealers and confronted them. "An individual approached from between two houses brandishing a handgun. The officers gave several commands to drop the gun, he did not, so they exchanged gunfire," said Chief Dwain Senterfitt.
"The man came out three times and said move out of my yard. So after the third time he came out with a 357 and started shooting at the individuals," one witness who did not want to be identified told local media.
Singletary's nephew, Gary Evans, said his uncle was a respected man in the neighborhood. "He got his enjoyment from sitting under a tree and watching his collard greens and cabbages grow," said Evans. "The only time anybody would hear anything out of my uncle is if they stopped in front of his house and tried to do whatever deals they wanted to do," Evans added.
"I never would have thought he would have gotten shot by a police officer," said niece Sheree Bea. "I thought if he ever got shot it would have been in a confrontation with a drug dealer."
Now, it isn't only community organizations raising questions about police practices. Jacksonville County States Attorney Harry Shorstein said in the wake of the two killings he questioned the value of undercover narcotics stings. "If we're just selling drugs to addicts, I don't know what we're accomplishing," Shorstein said. "This could wind up being the tragic death of one kid -- arguably a bad kid -- and a gentleman who had the right to protect his property."