By Coshandra Dillard
The Tyler chapter of the NAACP Friday evening said they want a formal public apology from the Tyler Police Department following a Jan. 11 incident involving former NFL running back Ricky Williams. They also want the officers involved to be reprimanded.
While walking in a wooded area near the Courtyard Marriott—where Williams was staying while in town for the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award Banquet— a caller alerted police that he was acting suspiciously.
When police showed up, Williams was questioned and searched. The incident caught the attention of numerous news outlets across the country after Williams described the event on a radio program, Dudley & Bob + Matt Show. Williams admits in the radio interview that he was upset during the encounter.
“I said, ‘listen, you don’t know what it’s like to be a black man,'” Williams said. “‘This is not the first time this has happened to me, that cops have harassed me when I haven’t done anything.'”
The spotlight was again placed on the strained relationship between law enforcement and black citizens.
“The embarrassment that this city and its citizens have suffered in the mishandling of this encounter with the officers must be answered and the officers must be held accountable,” said Cedric Granberry, Tyler chapter NAACP president.
NAACP members shared letters from former NFL players and Tyler natives Earl Campbell and Aaron Ross. Both men, according to written statements, expressed disappointment in the handling of the incident.
The public may not have been aware of the incident, had Williams not been famous, Granberry said. Former city councilman Donald Sanders said more needed to be done to address negative encounters between everyday black residents and Tyler police. At least three people in the audience shared negative experiences with Tyler police.
“I know that the city had to make themselves look good, but we are a part of the city, too,” Sanders said. “We have problems here and until we stop trying to sweep it under the table, under the rug, it can not get better. It can only get worse.”
Granberry questions whether it was necessary to ask Williams to give his social security number and to be searched. However, Tyler Police officials assert that officers acted appropriately in response to a call and say they are working to improve relations with the community.
“Tyler Police officers followed proper response procedures,” said Tyler Police Chief Jimmy Toler, in a written statement Friday. “But there are always opportunities for us to learn and improve from our experiences.”
Toler added, “Society expects perfection from law enforcement officers. However, police officers are individuals that are continually growing and learning through their careers. They are people who put their lives on the line in service of our community.”
The press conference comes just one week after police officials met with members of the NAACP, Tyler Together Race Relations Forum, and Smith County elected officials for a discussion about the incident.
Following that meeting, Jeff Williams, chairman of Tyler Together Race Relations Forum said those in attendance appreciated the opportunity to have an open and candid dialogue.
“Everyone present at the meeting expressed a desire to work together to enhance community relationships not only for African-Americans but for all of our citizens,” he said. “Future meetings are being scheduled to develop specific plans for our continued work together.”
“IT’S JUST SUSPICIOUS”
Questions linger about some of the exchanges seen in the video and heard on an audio recording.
The caller in the recording—which was played Friday at the press conference—says that a man is on the other side of a fence behind his property, in the green belt, or undeveloped, area. The caller tells the dispatcher the man was ducking behind a shed and said he was “trying to hide” from him.
As the dispatcher continues to ask questions the caller said, “He hadn’t threatened me or anything like that. It’s just suspicious to me that he’s hanging around back there.”
Granberry said the way information was relayed from the caller to dispatch and then on to police, created a more volatile situation.
“That’s why we are here today because we want to make sure that our position is clear: A suspicious call by a caller, it does not constitute an investigation to become an interrogation … Did he commit a crime? And the answer to that is ‘no.'”
“He was harassed. We know that these types of stops have resulted in people losing their lives,” Granberry said, referring to high-profile cases such as the deaths of Tamir Rice and Alton Sterling. “As citizens we have to be responsible with the information that we give.”
Granberry also expressed concern about stereotypical comments an officer made about North Tyler. He said it offended citizens, putting the city in a “damaging place.”
Noisy wind makes it difficult to hear some of the officer’s comments in the video, but Williams alluded to them on the radio program.
“He said, ‘if you’re staying in the hotel it makes sense that you’re walking here. But if you come from North Tyler, it doesn’t make sense.'”
Toler has praised the department’s transparency, noting that they’re one of the first police departments in the area to implement body cameras in 2014. He said he asked staff members to review procedures related to community concerns expressed during the Jan. 20 meeting. This includes a review of information from callers through dispatch, developing contact levels based on reported and observed behaviors and reviewing departmental reporting requirements to shorten necessary contacts with citizens.
Toler noted, however, that no change will be made that could compromise citizen safety, officer safety or delay response times.
Granberry said the local chapter of the NAACP is calling for better training, including cultural sensitivity on non-emergency calls. He said they’d continue to meet regularly with city and police officials.
They want better dialogue, too. Granberry said while the Jan. 20 was a positive step forward, not a lot was gained from it.
“What was strange is black people spent two hours trying to convince those who were white why we were offended,” he said. “On the other side, those who were white tried to understand why we were offended.”
Toler said the Tyler Police Department is in the process of transitioning their former minority advisory group into a community advisory committee, to enhance diversity and broaden the scope of future conversations, he announced Friday.