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Ron Scott said the wrong thing last week and took a shellacking for it.
It started after Detroit Police Officer Brian Huff was fatally shot when responding to a report of gunshots inside one of the city's numerous vacant houses in the early hours of Monday, May 3. Four other officers were also shot, receiving less tragic injuries.
Scott is president of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality. He and Tijuana Morris, a retired Detroit police officer, went to the scene of the shooting as they often do to observe and try to keep violence from escalating.
They spoke to the media at the scene. According to Scott, he expressed his pain over the loss of the officer. Then he offered to help find any other individuals who may have been involved in the shooting so that they could peacefully surrender.
Then he stepped in the doo-doo. Scott went on to talk about an issue the coalition is involved with that is unrelated to the specific incident of the Huff killing:
"In most cases that we have looked at, individuals have run and not shot, so this is a startling turn in that scenario. And so we can only say that we have been raising questions for a long time about whether or not the zero-tolerance activities that have been initiated by [Police Chief Warren Evans] are essentially making people feel more threatened so as to feel the necessity to respond and to react."
Only the last statement made it to broadcast on FOX 2 News, and based on that a lot of people thought Scott was blaming police for the shooting. Scott became the lightning rod for much of the righteous anger from police, media and the community over the shooting.
At a press conference later in the day Evans said, "Generally I wouldn't even stoop to respond to anything quite that ignorant, but maybe I'll stoop a little bit today. That's absolutely ridiculous. You ought to know what you're talking about before you start making assertions."
The war of words seemed to peak on Thursday with a Detroit Board of Police Commissioners meeting in the afternoon and a session of Let It Rip hosted by Huel Perkins on the FOX 2 evening newscast. The commissioners' meeting was the usual twice-monthly gathering, but attendance was ramped up by those who wanted to comment on the Huff tragedy. Evans was there, although Commission Chair Mohamed Okdie mentioned that it was unusual for him to attend. Also in attendance was Officer Steve Schram, one of the officers injured during the shooting. Schram said to Scott, "I thought that was in bad taste going out there. And you showed no respect to the Detroit Police Department or Officer Huff. I know that the Detroit Police Department in the past has not had the best reputation, but there are good officers out there."
Later on the news show Scott did a bit of rhetorical backpedaling, saying, "What I said is not what I meant to say."
Much of Let It Rip was spent with Evans and Scott ripping into each other, pointing fingers and cutting in on each other's statements, although things seemed to calm down near the end. Evans even admitted, "I don't think Ron Scott is the boogeyman. I honestly don't think he is. What I'm talking to is, on a morning when you've had such a tragedy, some things that are policy questions need to be brought up in a policy setting."
In the end, both Evans and Scott are on the same side. Neither wants to see people killed in Detroit, although the coalition and the Police Department don't always agree on how to achieve that goal.
The Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality is no fly-by-night organization. It's been around since 1996, when it pressed issues of police brutality and deaths of those incarcerated, helping to bring the scrutiny of the U.S. Justice Department and a couple of 2003 consent decrees for federal oversight. It's remarkable that fewer than half of the reforms called for in those decrees have been instituted.
The coalition has been involved in creating what it calls Peace Zones for Life in the city. These are areas where local residents are trained block by block and enlisted to defuse conflicts — whether it's neighbors arguing over a barking dog, gangs claiming the same bit of turf or crowds gathering in the aftermath of a shooting — until a mediation team arrives. The mediation team could be made up of cops, social workers, lawyers or other professionals appropriate to the situation.
"That is our primary activity that we're engaging in this summer and ongoing," says Scott. "We realized we had to do more than just respond to presumed police misconduct."
The coalition has been working on creating a Peace Zone near where Huff was killed, which is part of the reason Scott went to the scene and offered to help find and peacefully bring in any other suspects.
They do serious work. Congressman John Conyers, the Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellerman and attorney Bill Goodman were at a recent coalition meeting where they discussed a number of cases the group is investigating. They also discussed initiatives to eliminate use of Tasers by police (in the wake of a 15-year-old who died after being Tasered by Warren police last year) and work with the state Legislature to set standards for high-speed police chases. One thing that was stressed there is that they are not anti-police.
"We understand the role of law enforcement," said Sandra Hines at the meeting. "We as a community have got to get a lot better — raising youth without discipline. Those are parenting issues."
These are good citizens and they hold themselves responsible as much as anyone else. I hope all the good they do and have done is not erased by an incident of Scott sticking his foot in his mouth. These are tense times, and when emotions are high, it's easy to mishear and misread what's going on. It's also obviously easy to misspeak. For this, Scott says, he has received several death threats. Everybody needs to calm down. We haven't heard the results of any investigation; at this point we don't know how it all went down. Personally, I am in awe of police who brought in the alleged murderer, Jason Gibson, 25, alive with only a bullet in his butt after having one of their brothers killed and four others injured.
I'm equally in awe of Scott, who I've known for several years. Community organizing can be an arduous and near-thankless task. It takes dedication and a stick-to-it spirit that most don't have. Anyone who has seen what he and the coalition do would not for one minute believe that Scott felt like the injured and killed police had it coming. However, he will speak blunt, inconvenient truth to power. Things that are uncomfortable to hear but need to be said.
I don't think this incident will stop him. This is a war of words. We don't need Scott, the coalition or the serious issues that need to be addressed in our police-community relations to become casualties.
Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.