Handling of the Davis shooting a case study in what not to do

March 17, 2013 

“Once you lift the edge of the tent and let the camel’s nose in, where do you stop?”

-- Mayor Robert Reichert

In Mayor Robert Reichert’s attempt to explain away his decision to lock down tight any information in the killing of Sammie Davis Jr. by Macon police officer Clayton Sutton, he forgot a few facts. First, it was the police department that lifted the tent when it released incorrect information as to why officer Sutton appeared at the Kroger that fateful Dec. 21, 2012, afternoon. The initial police report said Sutton was executing a warrant on Davis, not responding to a 911 call. The department didn’t clear up its error for five days.

Camels have such sensitive olfactory perception they can smell water from more than a mile away, and when a department flubs the initial release of information and then shuts down communication about the case, what are the camels in the community to think?

The mayor was correct when he said, “Well if you’re gonna tell me that, why don’t you tell me this? ... What’s wrong with telling me that?” Again, the police department had a duty to timely correct what we now know was incorrect information and there’s something to be said about the phrase, “We don’t know yet.”

What good did it do to withhold information about the 911 call? How would that have jeopardized the investigation? Did it take a week to sort out the warrant issue and tell the public that Davis had no weapon? Camels, like citizens in a divided community, left to their own devices, can be a cantankerous bunch.

The mayor also said in his media conference Wednesday that “this incident has brought to the forefront this larger issue of the public perception of the police department, the level of trust and confidence that the community has in the department, and the level of respect, or the lack thereof, shown to individual citizens.”

The Davis case, aside from the recent criminal violations by other officers, has created the reality of the public’s perception. Throw history into the not-so-good mix as well. The police department and the mayor’s office should have erred on the side of transparency, knowing this case could be explosive under the best of circumstances. If they didn’t realize the implications of a white officer shooting a black man three times on a Friday afternoon in a crowded Kroger parking lot, they haven’t been living in Macon very long. Instead of diffusing the situation with transparency, it inflamed it with silence. The mayor admitted, “If there’s blame, it probably rests with me, because I instructed the police department not to comment.” The blame then, Mr. Mayor, rests with you.

So where do we go from here? Many in the community will never accept the findings in the GBI report or the decision by District Attorney David Cooke not to criminally charge Sutton. The public’s perception became tainted due to the initial mistakes made by the police department and administration. The situation was not helped by the 81 days it took to investigate and decide action.

Davis is dead. Sutton’s career on the street as a police officer is over. The department should conduct a case study of how it handled public perception in this shooting inquiry. Outside help is needed, because obviously, within the department and administration, somebody doesn’t get it. Public forums are a good step, but why do we have to wait until there is a crisis to have such discussions?

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