Joe Henderson Columns
Henderson: Police shooting reopens community wounds
It had already been a busy day when, at 7:21 p.m. Sunday, Tampa police answered the fourth call in 13 hours at the Central Court Apartments. Officers had broken up two separate fights before returning in midafternoon because of reported gunfire. They found spent shell casings but no victim. Later that night, someone checked into the emergency room at St. Joseph's Hospital with a gunshot wound to his shoulder. The final trip ended when two officers chased 16-year-old Javon Neal across the complex's courtyard and up three flights of stairs. They said Neal pulled a loaded pistol-grip assault-style shotgun from his pants leg. No one gets to do that. The officers shot him dead."If they had not fired, those officers wouldn't be here today," police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. Instead, a young man paid the harshest price for the worst decision of his life. He became the latest casualty in a culture where it seems normal to have such a weapon and brandish it while fleeing police. "We need gun control. There are too many guns accessible out there on the streets, not only in the black community but also in the white community and the Latin community," said Ali Muhammad of the New Black Panther Party. "We need to stop fighting each other." That sounds perfectly reasonable, but the community first has to get past long-standing obstacles like mistrust and anger. It won't be easy. Muhammad said, "What I want to know is, how did (Neal) run across a courtyard and up three flights of stairs with a weapon of that size stuck down his pants?" McElroy said hiding a weapon that way is not unusual. A better question: Why did he run at all? It would seem like common sense to stop when an officer tells you to stop. But Muhammad said there are too many cases of blacks being stopped because they are black. This was the 210th call this year to Central Court. That's not officers just driving by, looking for heads to bust. "We have put a large amount of effort into reducing crime in that area," McElroy said. "I think we have made great strides. (Sunday) night, when tensions were high, there were people there telling our officers they wanted to stand with them because it made them feel safer." Officers were working the neighborhood Monday, listening to residents and trying to calm things. While that was going on, Muhammad's group called for TPD to essentially let the neighborhood police itself. "That apartment complex has been a nuisance to the area for years," Muhammad said. "The residents have tried to clean it up. We are very much involved with Tampa Police on that, but they aren't working with us." Says McElroy, "We welcome help from all interested groups." There is no simple answer. If cops are suspicious, they have good reason because so many have been killed in the line of duty. And at least 210 times this year, residents at that complex felt the need for police protection. People are afraid, trouble can come from anywhere, and it seems like everybody has a gun. That's no way to live.