A church drummer whose car broke down on I-95 in South Florida was shot dead by a plainclothes cop. Questions abound.
COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
PALM BEACH GARDENS – The 31-year-old Florida man shot and killed by a Palm Beach Gardens police officer Sunday legally bought a gun just three days before his death, according to police.
Palm Beach Gardens Police Chief Stephen Stepp claimed that Corey Jones of Boynton Beach was holding that gun when Officer Nouman Raja, 38, who was in an unmarked police car and plain clothes, was investigating what he thought was an abandoned car.
In response, Raja shot Jones, Stepp said.
Stepp released the information about the gun, among other new details, in an abruptly announced news conference Tuesday. He said the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is leading the investigation, and he could release only a limited amount of information to avoid compromising the sheriff’s examination.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg is also investigating.
Driving from Jupiter
The confrontation occurred at about 3:15 a.m. Sunday, Stepp said. According to band mates and family, Jones was driving back to Boynton Beach from a gig in Jupiter with his band, Future Prezidents, on Interstate 95 when his car broke down at PGA Boulevard.
Raja, working a burglary detail, was parked in a lot near the area, Stepp said. Thinking the car was abandoned, Raja drove up to investigate. At the same time, Stepp said, Jones, holding the gun, confronted Raja. Stepp said the gun was found on the ground at the scene and its box was in Jones’ car.
Stepp said the Sheriff’s Office discovered paperwork indicating Jones bought the gun three days before the incident.
‘Feel our grief’
Jones, a well-known musician, played drums in various bands around the county and at his church, Bible Church of God in Boynton Beach. His grandfather, Sylvester Banks Sr., told the media after Stepp spoke that he did not know his grandson had a gun.
“You who are out there that are grandparents; I wish you could feel our sympathy and feel our grief for what we are going though,” Banks said, while also calling for peace and a thorough, fair investigation into the facts surrounding Jones’ death.
If he could talk to Raja, he said he would pray for the officer to tell the truth.
“The truth (will) make you free,” he said. “If (the officer) had done right or whether he had done wicked, he’s going to be accountable for it.”
Raja is on administrative leave with pay.
The president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, John Kazanjian, on Tuesday accused the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department of being slow to release information about the shooting.
The police department did, however, release Raja’s records that show he has had no disciplinary actions. He was hired in April 2015.
Previously, he worked at the Atlantis Police Department, where he received a few disciplinary notes for failing to file reports and log evidence pertaining to cases. Once he was reprimanded for not disengaging from a road pursuit when he should have, but otherwise, the officer received praise from both his boss and members of the Atlantis community.
Kazanjian said slowly releasing information can make the community restless.
“It’s causing reckless inferences about our officer’s conduct,” he said, adding that Raja, who has been assigned a union representative, has received death threats. He said he believes Raja has since relocated with his family. “Whether it’s good or bad, they need to be more transparent.”
Jones’ family has retained Attorney Benjamin Crump, and said they’re reaching out to other high-profile public figures, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and President Barack Obama.
Crump, based in Tallahassee, has represented the families of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager from Miami Gardens who was killed in 2012 in Sanford;
Tamir Rice, a Black 12-year-old shot dead by Cleveland police; and Michael Brown, whose shooting last year by an officer in Ferguson, Mo., also drew an outcry by the public.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday that Scott had spoken with Bradshaw and Aronberg, as well as with Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen, and that the governor had offered FDLE’s help with the investigations.
Friends and family of Jones said they suspect he did not know Raja was a police officer. They, along with state and U.S. representatives, have called for an independent investigation into the shooting.
At Tuesday’s news conference, the police chief said there was no dashboard-camera footage, and said the department doesn’t equip its officers with body cameras.
Outrage over the fatal shooting reached the state Capitol on Wednesday, as members of the Black legislative caucus called for an independent review of the killing. They also called for legislation that would put safeguards in place for future incidents, including body cameras for law-enforcement officers, dashboard cameras for police vehicles and automatic reviews of all police-related shootings.
“This has to stop,” State Rep. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach, said. “There is no evidence that we have seen that indicates this man was a troublemaker. He doesn’t have a record. My community is frustrated, and rightfully so.”
Caucus Chairman Ed Narain, D-Tampa, suggested that a bill filed for the 2015 legislative session by Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, offers a plan for conducting an independent review.
The bill, which would have automatically spur-red reviews of police shootings, called for creating a commission of 15 members appointed by the FDLE commissioner. At least five members could not be current or former law enforcement officers. The measure did not pass during the 2015 session.
“There are some times where there is some doubt and distrust by the community,” Watson said. “I believe this bill will get a second set of eyes and hopefully restore the confidence of our community back with our police departments.”
The caucus also called for police training that includes an examination of racial bias.
Some of the mistrust, Narain said, was due to a lack of transparency by the Palm Beach Gardens police, who delayed notifying Jones’ family of his death or releasing the details.
“It is these types of delays and the lack of evidence that continue to create distrust between communities of color and local police departments,” Narain said. “It is a source of anguish and frustration for Black people nationwide, and legislative action and enforcement appears to be the only proper remedy.”
Margie Menzel of The News Service of Florida and Kate Jacobson and Adam Sacasa of the Sun Sentinel / TNS contributed to this report.