Leaders hope to ease racial tension with Department of Justice meeting

hgoodridge@macon.comFebruary 15, 2013 

The Department of Justice employee who was in Macon Thursday to talk to law enforcement and city leaders specializes in helping communities keep the peace.

Suzanne Buchanan, a conciliation specialist with the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service in Atlanta, met with Police Chief Mike Burns. In a separate meeting, she also met with a group of about 14 community leaders, organizers and family members of Sammie Davis Jr., the man shot to death outside a Pio Nono Avenue grocery store by officer Clayton Sutton.

Police did not find a weapon on Davis after he was shot three times in the chest.

Buchanan declined to be interviewed Friday about her visit to Macon, referring all questions to the department’s main office in Washington, D.C.

“What we do is we go in to communities when we’re invited, communities experiencing racial tension or experiencing tension under the Civil Rights Act,” said Lou Ruffino, a senior adviser in that office.

“We go in to help the parties to address the conflicts and move past them.”

Ruffino said he was aware of the Davis shooting, but he said he could not discuss specifics.

Asked who called the Department of Justice to Macon, Ruffino said “both sides” -- Macon police and supporters of the Davis family.

Macon City Councilwoman Lauren Benedict, who attended the meeting with the Davis family and others, said she thought the session went well.

Benedict said she believes the Justice Department’s services are needed in Macon.

“Whether (issues are) perceived or real, it’s always important to talk, to move forward. That seemed to be the goal of everybody in the room.”

Benedict said the group discussed the police department, its procedures and ways it can improve its dialogue with the community.

“I’m saddened beyond belief it took a death to have this discussion in the community, but I’m glad we’re having it now,” Benedict said.

Buchanan is looking for ways to help bring Macon together in the midst of real tensions surrounding the death of Davis, said Al Tillman, former president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Tillman also attended the meeting.

“My understanding is it was more fact-finding and listening,” Tillman said of the meeting. “She came in as a mediator. ... She was looking to see what the citizens are looking for as an outcome of the Sammie Davis Jr. shooting.”

Benedict said Anthony Harris invited her to the meeting.

Harris, who has an Internet talk show, has organized rallies protesting the police department in the wake of the Davis shooting.

Harris said the meeting Thursday lasted about three hours.

He said Buchanan called him about a week and a half ago to set up the meeting.

“I don’t know who gave her my number,” he said. “She said ‘the reason I’m coming down here is because (news of the Davis case) reached my desk and an even bigger desk’ ’’ at the Justice Department.

The GBI is scheduled to release its findings about the shooting soon.

Burns said Thursday he called the Justice Department as a precaution “if things get out of hand” after the GBI report is made public.

“They’re here to find out what we want and hopefully make sure nothing explodes” after the GBI releases its findings, Harris said. “We can’t promise her that. ... We don’t want that,” he added. “We want justice.”

To contact writer Harold Goodridge, call 744-4382.

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