Connie Bolton, known in her West Jackson neighborhood for her cooking, fixed a meal of BBQ neck bones, string beans, mashed potatoes and cornbread on a cool, cloudy Saturday in January.
As she often did, Bolton made sure her neighbor George Robinson got a plate.
The next day, she said she watched from her porch as police officers “body slammed” Robinson, 61, to the ground, then stomped several times on his chest and stomach.
Bolton’s 10-year-old niece Keiaria was outside standing in a yard across the street from police during the field arrest — for which Jackson Police Department has yet to give a reason — and said officers held Robinson against his car while K-9s sniffed in his vehicle. She said she was outside shortly before 9 p.m. to pick up some vittles from the grilling station in Robinson’s yard.
Bolton, who uses a wheelchair, said when officers picked Robinson up off the ground, he looked like a rag doll, his head drooping. Robinson died in the following days due to blunt force trauma to his head and his death was ruled a homicide Wednesday, Hinds County Coroner Sharon Grisham-Stewart confirmed to Clarion Ledger. The community believes the police caused Robinson’s death and has since mobilized to ask that the arresting officers, who were placed on administrative leave following Wednesday’s news, be held accountable.
“If you knew him, you’d be marching too. He didn’t deserve that … Ain’t no way nobody’s supposed to kick no human like that,” Bolton said. “For them to do him like that there has to be a larger problem (with the police).”
Keiaria described the facial expression on Robison, the generous man she knew to hand out money to her and other kids in the Washington Addition neighborhood, while police handcuffed him.
“He was like sad,” the girl said, adding, “I was scared.”
This also wasn’t the first time Keiaria had seen this kind of altercation between police and her neighbors, she said. The Jan. 13 incident is actually indicative of a larger rift between Jackson neighborhoods and the officers tasked with protecting them, according to nearly a dozen residents Mississippi Today interviewed.
“Police have been like that for years,” Robinson’s nephew Frank Williams said from atop an SUV where he was sitting as friends and family gathered at the corner of Jones and Washington avenues on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to celebrate his uncle’s life. “It’s just now coming to light.”
More than a dozen people marched the square block surrounding Bolton’s house holding signs that read “We Want Justice” and “Stop Police Brutality.”
Another one of Robinson’s nephews, Gabriel Wilson, echoed the sentiment of King and other civil rights leaders, urging his neighbors to remain peaceful. “This doesn’t have to result in us being mad at police officers or police officers being mad at us,” he said.
Robinson’s death, under JPD investigation, also comes at a critical time for the police department as it explores new solutions to crime after closing out the deadliest year in the capitol city in 20 years — 84 total homicides in 2018.
When officers approached Robinson, they were patrolling Jones Avenue for the suspect accused of killing a pastor as he opened his church, New Bethany Missionary Baptist Church, around the corner that Sunday morning.
“We hear the cry of the community,” Jackson Police Chief James Davis told Mississippi Today Tuesday. “We hear the cry of the churches. We gather communities and we try to do all that we can to direct young people, give comfort to older people, just being out there in the community. The best way I know how to do it, the main thing is treat everybody with respect. That’s how you can get information from the community … and that’s what we do. We’re not an abusive police. And we shouldn’t be painted that way.”
Davis touts the success of programs he began last year, “Operation Safe Streets” and “Knock and Talk,” which both entail increased police presence in “hot spot” areas experiencing recent crime. The chief said these initiatives are aimed at making Jacksonians feel safe, and based on community feedback, he said they’ve worked. He said residents appreciate seeing the blue lights on their street.
Commanders have been going door to door in specific neighborhoods to talk to residents about crime in their area and calm their concerns.
But when officers began patrolling Washington Addition in the days following the New Bethany killing and Robinson’s death, residents Mississippi Today interviewed perceived the efforts differently.
Arsenio Handford said he was standing in his yard when officers rushed to him, commanding him to get on the ground. They began searching him. Several of Handford’s neighbors confirmed this is a common occurrence.
“They don’t ever have a reason. They don’t come out here with warrants or anything,” Handford said. “I was really terrified because they had guns.”
Handford said he owns his own business — Handford Trucking — and offered that he is neither a drug user or dealer. Robinson was one of his best friends.
“It could have happened to me,” Handford said.
Davis said there’s “no truth” to allegations that police force people on the ground for no reason. He also questioned why the residents are just now raising these concerns.
“Some communities is not all good,” Davis said. “Some communities don’t want you in their community, because there’s criminal activity in their community.”
That answer is difficult, but residents acknowledged a sense of fear in their neighborhood.
“After they brutally killed him (Robinson), they terrorized this neighborhood for at least three or four days — road blocks, harassing people walking, stopping them. The harassing still ain’t stopped,” Handford said. “That’s why a lot of them fear telling what the truth was because they’re scared. They’re scared of retaliation from JPD.”
Bolton said she feels that Washington Addition, which is one of the most impoverished areas in Jackson and contains many abandoned, dilapidated houses, is stereotyped because it used to be a “nice neighborhood.”
“If we be out late at night, they think they have the nerve to tell you to go home,” Bolton said. “In nine days I’ll be 49 years old. I’m older than you. If you were patrolling where the bad stuff is going on you wouldn’t have time to mess with me just rolling down the street minding my business.”
Davis rejects any notion that his initiatives could turn into a profiling scenario.
“These roadblocks are not really roadblocks,” Davis said. “They are opportunities where we can engage the community. And we can engage the community, just to put a quietness in the community to say, ‘Residents, you are safe.’”
Despite the televised marches calling for justice and police interviews with the neighborhood, Davis said Tuesday the police department had yet to receive a complaint from the community regarding Robinson’s death. Instead, Davis said JPD initially chose to be proactive and investigate the matter after hearing murmurs and seeing concerns posted to social media.
Though Robinson’s sister Bettersten Wade organized the march for her brother, she said Monday she wasn’t ready to repeat the details of the eyewitness accounts, because, “We don’t have all the facts.” Reached Wednesday, Wade said the family received notice from the crime lab about the cause of death and now knows the police are responsible for his death.
Wade said the family will meet shortly to discuss possible legal action.
JPD had been awaiting Robinson’s autopsy to complete its investigation. Mississippi Today filed a public records request Jan. 16 for documentation of Robinson’s arrest, an incident report, any body camera footage and details of any calls made to the department regarding the alleged altercation, but has not yet received a response.
Adding to the community’s confusion and frustration, misinformation about Robinson’s death permeated initial news coverage of the event. Some reports erroneously said Robinson died in police custody, instead of later at the hospital, and prematurely counted his death among the city’s 2019 homicides.
“If they added him, it’s number 11, right? That means they know,” one man said Monday during a discussion around the grill next to Robinson’s house before questioning why the arresting officers had not been charged.
“They should be held accountability immediately,” said Robinson’s roommate James Taylor.
Bolton took video of the alleged beating on her phone, amplifying the buzz surrounding the incident, but she said the family asked she not share it with reporters. Wade, the sister, claimed not to know about the video. Chief Davis said the footage he knows about is too dark and blurry to distinguish any details from it about what happened.
JPD said Robinson was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor, but instead of taking him to jail, officers released him with instructions to attend court later. The family told Mississippi Today that Robinson had experienced a stroke a few weeks earlier and so his movements might have been slow when police approached him.
Wade said she believes an ambulance arrived shortly after officers let Robinson go and bandaged his head but did not transport him. He then drove to a nearby hotel where his girlfriend was staying and, after complaining about his head, Wade said, he was taken to University of Mississippi Medical Center.
Asked Tuesday whether the officers who arrested Robinson will be named within 72 hours, in accordance with an executive order Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba promised to sign in September, Davis couldn’t answer. The executive order addresses officer-involved shootings so it is unclear, Davis said, whether the rule would apply to an incident that did not involve gunfire.
A statement from Lumumba released Wednesday said the eventual results from JPD’s investigation into Robinson’s death will be presented before a Hinds County grand jury.
“In the full spirit of transparency, the administration will continue to be communicative with the public throughout this process and we ask the citizens of Jackson to hold the family of Mr. George Robinson in their prayers,” the statement reads.
Taylor, known in his community as “the painter,” said he would describe Jackson police officers as “unprofessional,” he said, “that’s the best way to put it.”
“You’ve got some good, police do their job right. But if I come visit you, I’m not supposed to put my hands on you. I’m supposed to take you to jail. There’s too much going on, folks just aren’t saying anything. This neighborhood is tired of it so we’re going to say something.”
In September, a former JPD officer was sent to jail for a year for assaulting a teenager during a traffic stop in North Jackson in May.
The next time a police officer pulls up behind Taylor, he said he’s going to slowly drive to the police department, “because I don’t know what they’ve got in their mind.”
“This is the Capital city,” Chief Davis said. “For us to work on raises, for us to bring more businesses to Jackson, we must provide a better police product. We must be a professional police department. And we must treat people with respect and we must never get out of character of a professional police officer.”
When asked, Davis said his department does not have a problem with unprofessional officers.