Reactions to Walker shooting remain mix of frustration, hope

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 10, 2013 

Ten years after the shooting of Kenneth Walker, the Columbus community is still healing.

It doesn't matter that a decade has gone by, or that a settlement of about $500,000 was reached with the Walker family. The shooting magnified a perceived racial divide and has become a pivotal moment in the city's history.

"Of all the cases that I've dealt with since the Kenneth Walker case, this one for me has kind of been what I call the 'ghost case' because to this day, 10 years later, I don't feel there was any real justice," said Ed Dubose, who advocated on behalf of the Walker family as head of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and recently retired as leader of the state NAACP.

Today, some remain outraged and worried, while others believe the city has taken steps toward reconciliation and hope.

Walker, 39, was the son of Emily Walker, husband of Cheryl Walker, and father of Kayla Walker, now 13. He was a Ledger-Enquirer Page One nominee as a Kendrick High School senior, a graduate of Georgia Southwestern State University and a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. He worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia.

On Dec. 10, 2003, Walker and three friends were stopped by the Metro Narcotics Task Force and the Muscogee County Sheriff's Department on the false premise that they were armed drug dealers from Miami. The agents and officers swarmed their vehicle, and sheriff's deputy David Glisson shot Walker twice in the head. No drugs or guns were found in the vehicle.

Nearly a year later, Glisson was allowed to make an emotional statement to a grand jury without first being sworn to tell the truth. He was not indicted.

Click here to view the timeline in a larger form.

Local, state and national leaders accused the Muscogee County Sheriff's Department of racial profiling, and held rallies demanding justice. The case drew national attention to the city, attracting the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Southern Christian Leadership Conference Founder Joseph Lowery and Judge Greg Mathis. It was also featured on Lou Dobbs' cable television program.

Local organizations at the forefront of the protests included the NAACP, Urban League, Rainbow Push Coalition and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.

Today, Walker's death continues to be the rallying cry for organizations pushing for the investigation of other recent cases in which people were killed by law enforcement.

Brother Love, of the Grassroots Unity Movement, said the Walker controversy helped to galvanize the black community and led to more African-American candidates running for office and greater black voter turnout. One black official elected to office in the aftermath of the shooting was Marshal Gregory Countryman.

Reginald Pugh said he was disappointed in the way local elected officials responded to the case, and that it motivated him to get into politics. At the time of the shooting, he was president of both the local Omega Psi Phi chapter and Urban League of Greater Columbus. Pugh, who has been critical of long-time black elected officials, tried unsuccessfully to unseat State Sen. Ed Harbison three times."Kenny was murdered and very little if anything was done," Pugh said. "Both the black and white community let the Walker family down, and it's a shame. David Glisson should have been prosecuted."

State Representative Calvin Smyre said Walker's death was an avoidable tragedy that put a cloud over the community for many years. For him, it was both a personal and community loss.

"It had us all in knots," he said. "Kenny was a good person. He was my fraternity brother. And when the family grieved we grieved. So it was a very, very difficult time."

Smyre said the case was also a wake-up call that led to better dialogue between people of different races. "It brought about a lot of understanding and discussions about race relations," he said, "and about how we could continue to build a better community so that this would never, ever happen again."

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who was elected in 2010, said there's no way to change history and that Columbus has suffered as a result of the controversy. She said the fact that there was no indictment and no trial only made matters worse.

"A trial really forces you to go through every step of what happened and look at every angle of why it happened," she said. "But I think because we were aborted in the legal process, and a trial did not occur, (the case) didn't have a thorough vetting. So I think something we really had to struggle with is how do we mourn and continue the conversation without the legal environment that the courts provide."

She said the Walker case means the community will never be the same.

"Any time you have such a tragic event it really is a catastrophic emotional event for a city and so the community never goes back to the way it was before," she said. "It simply evolves into something else and that event becomes part of its history.

"And that's what happened to Columbus: We experienced a catastrophic, emotional event. It was very tumultuous for the city, and we simply can't go back to the days before Kenneth Walker was killed. We have to move forward and to a new normal -- and I think that's what we've done."

Tim Crumbley, a former Columbus police officer, was one of Walker's fraternity brothers. He said they became friends while attending Georgia Southwestern, and were roommates for a couple of years in the early 1990s. They had a Wednesday night routine of hanging out at Applebee's and then going to Margarita Night at a Mexican restaurant.

"The only reason I wasn't in the vehicle was because it was my wife's birthday," Crumbley said. "I had gotten her a birthday present and went home. The next thing I knew someone called me late at night -- and boom."

When he got to the hospital, Walker's family didn't have any information. That's when he found out his friend had died.

"The angry part of it is that nobody was actually formally notified, and then the next thing you heard on the news was 'Drug bust gone wrong …'" he said. "That's what made it even worse."

Crumbley said the way authorities handled the case from the night of the shooting all the way to the settlement "stinks to the high heavens."

"It was a lot of messed-up stuff going on," he said. "If you thought conspiracy, that would've been one story to say, 'something ain't right,'" he said. "It was Trayvon Martin before there was Trayvon Martin."

Crumbley points to the release of an autopsy report that Walker had cocaine metabolites in his blood -- and also to an attorney's statement that Walker wouldn't have been killed if he'd been at home with his family -- as part of a smear campaign to make Walker seem less of a victim.

After the shooting, Crumbley opened a group home in Walker's name called the KBW Residential Group Home for Boys. It serves boys ages 10 to 21 who have suffered child abuse, neglect or incarceration within the Georgia Juvenile system. He wants it to be a part of Walker's legacy.

What concerns him most is the impact the shooting has had on Walker's family. He said it's unfair that his friend died so young, leaving behind a wife and young daughter.

"We were black men who went to college, got our education, played ball, did the fraternity thing," he said "We did everything you're supposed to do. We both were married. He had a kid, bought him a house.

"He loved his daughter big time. He was an only kid, she is an only child, and (his death) devastated Mrs. Walker," Crumbley said of Kenneth Walker's mother, Emily. "She hasn't to this day gotten over it. That's all I could say about her. I have to still protect the family."

Calls by the Ledger-Enquirer to members of the Walker family were not returned.

Starting a commission

In response to the Walker shooting, the city formed a Public Safety Advisory Commission. Some in the community wanted it to have subpoena power to investigate complaints against law enforcement, but in 2008 the city council voted down the measure by a single vote, with then-mayor Jim Wetherington breaking a tie.

Since then, the Columbus branch of the NAACP has been critical of the city's handling of cases involving Tony Carr and Jaquess Harris.

In 2011, Carr, a Fort Benning fire inspector, was shot and killed by a Columbus police officer. The officer, Vincent Lockhart Jr., was chasing a robbery suspect, Alrahiem Tolbert, who had apparently carjacked Carr. Lockhart, who is black, opened fire, killing both men, and was place on administrative leave.

Harris, a Phenix City woman, was killed in October 2012 after she was hit by a Columbus police cruiser while an officer was on his way to a backup call.

The city referred both cases to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Georgia State Patrol for independent review. In May, a Muscogee County grand jury cleared Lockhart of any criminal wrongdoing.

Nate Sanderson, current president of the local NAACP, said the organization hasn't referred the cases to the Public Safety Advisory Commission because he doesn't think it will do any good.

"I have mixed opinions about the commission," he said. "I don't think they have the power that is necessary to be a voice that could cause change. I think one of the things they must consider is some type of oversight with authority. Right now all they could do is make recommendations."

But Tomlinson said that, under Georgia state law, no non-judicial or non-elected person can have subpoena power. So she restructured the commission after being elected to office, proposing legislation that empowers the advisory commission to hear citizen complaints and then refer them to the professional standards division of law enforcement departments for investigation. The measure was approved by the city council.

"Then it comes back to be reported to the Public Safety Advisory Commission made up of citizens," she said. "If they're unhappy with the report, if they think that it shows a defect somehow of training or process, then of course they can bring it to my attention. They can bring it to council's attention. They can bring it to the media's attention."

Making progress

Father Tom Weise believes progress has been made in the relationship between citizens and law enforcement.

Weise is the pastor of two churches in Phenix City, St. Patrick Catholic Church and Mother Mary Catholic Church. The latter is a predominantly black church where Walker's sister-in-law worked as secretary in 2003.

Weise, who attended Walker's funeral and was one of the local white ministers to participate in some of the rallies after the shooting, said he's seen a positive change in how his black parishioners are treated by police in both Columbus and Phenix City.

"I have seen a decided improvement in the attitude of law enforcement in the area and I would hope that it would be one of the effects, if you can speak of good effects of an unnecessary death," he said. "I don't hear the racial epithets. I don't hear the kinds of jokes I used to hear. I think there's a real attempt to create fairness."

Smyre and others in the community cite state legislation passed after special prosecutor Kenneth Hodges allowed Glisson to give unsworn testimony to a grand jury in 2004. The law requires anyone testifying before a grand jury to be sworn in.

Walker's mother, Emily, was present at the Georgia General Assembly when the law passed in 2010. "Maybe my son has not died in vain," she said that day. "Someday, somebody will benefit from this."

When Walker was killed, the Rev. Johnny Flakes III, now pastor of Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church, was transitioning back to Columbus to work with his father, the Rev. J.H. Flakes Jr., who was at the forefront of efforts to bring about justice.

The younger Flakes said that though work remains to be done, the community has made progress over the past 10 years.

"A lot of work has actually been done to try to bring about a level of compassion and a level of cooperativeness -- sympathy if you will -- on behalf of the police department as well as the sheriff's and marshal's departments," he said. "And I think there's been a lot of effort placed in trying to increase the sensitivity, particularly from an African-American perspective."

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