Chavis Carter case: Police chief’s past causes skepticism among black Jonesboro residents

Police Chief Michael Yates and Chavis Carter

Jonesboro Police Chief Michael Yates and Chavis Carter.

Grant and Jackson explained that part of the black community’s distrust of Yates stems from allegations that arose when he was the police chief in Americus, Georgia. “Things that have happened before in his administration of a police department are starting to happen here,” Grant said about Yates’ previous position. “That suggests something for the future. We need to deal with it.”

Yates was the police chief in Americus from May 2001 through April 2004, according to that city’s human resources department. Yates voluntarily resigned from the position, but his tenure and departure were both mired in controversy.

John Marshall, who was president of the NAACP while Yates was Americus’ police chief, says he found the leader of the force to be a negative influence. “He is a rogue police chief,” Marshall told theGrio. “We did everything to get him out of here, and it’s been a great relief to have him away from here. But he left a lot of his men that were abusive and violent. And that’s his nature. He’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen.”

Marshall’s strong feelings result from a scandal which pitted the Americus NAACP against Yates when he was chief. Marshall, who is also the owner and publisher of the black newspaper, The Americus Sumter Observer, says the NAACP was working at the time to expose abuses he says Yates’ officers were perpetuating against the black community.

“Basically the conflict we had with him was this. We had an NAACP vice president that used to go to the city council meetings and complain about Yates’ behavior. He was being rough with our citizens. Several of his police officers were beating guys unnecessarily — a lot of abuse,” Marshall alleges.

Yates used unsavory means to return fire, Marshall believes. “In order to get back at my vice president, [named Craig Walker], he did an illegal background check on this young man and found out that when he was 17 he had [been involved in a robbery],” Marshall told theGrio, adding that Yates “did not follow the proper steps to do that. You are not supposed to do that unless there is a real cause for that kind of search.”

In response, the local NAACP launched a campaign to have Yates removed. Instead, the chief voluntarily stepped down. “They really let him resign and get on out of here, which we were glad of,” Marshall related about the conclusion of the incident.

Nelson Brown, currently an Americus city council member, served under Yates as a commander. “I don’t want to rehash any old wounds. We are trying to move forward,” Brown told theGrio about his time working for Yates.

Yet, Brown believes that he “had some issues with race. He was not good for the department,” Brown said. “When he left the department, it was in worse shape than when he got there, and we managed to recover. He came to our department like he was on a mission. And that mission was not for the growth of the department, nor the community, as a whole.”

The city of Americus did not confirm the circumstances of Yates’ resignation, but the local papers attest to the controversy that surrounded his departure.

Grant and Jackson are among those who say they know Yates left Americus amid serious charges of racism and abuse of power. Yates’ history in Americus has filtered into Jonesboro in the form of rumors among that city’s black inhabitants. Yates’ alleged dismissal of the Diversity Coalitions’ complete findings have not helped to illuminate his past for skeptical members of Jonesboro’s black community. Now, Carter’s death has worsened already negative feelings about him among some residents.

“So, he comes to Jonesboro and imposes his attitudes on Jonesboro,” Grant said of his perception of Yates’ management style.

In response to theGrio’s request for comment on these leaders’ declarations, Yates stated in an email (sent after original story publication):

The number of complaints we have received from the minority population is fairly low and we even conducted a citizen satisfaction survey a couple of months ago which indicated little concern on the part of the residents relative to race. Also, [Rev. Jackson's] determination of who is and is not in a leadership role in the African-American community is also his opinion as I have met with numerous other African-Americans, both prominent leaders and regular folks to discuss the issues related to this correspondence. Many of these individuals have been very supportive of the police department and our efforts.

Mourning a tragedy, helping a family, healing a community

Jackson cannot say for certain whether Chavis Carter’s death is an outgrowth of Yates’ leadership, or simply a tragic confluence of mistakes unrelated to his decisions. “I’m still looking into that, so I can’t really answer that,” Jackson said.

For now, the president of the Jonesboro NAACP is focused on the future, and how to help a community and a family that needs support. The executive board of the NAACP met last night to map out a plan to assist the city and Carter’s family. “There are still problems in terms of race relations in the city. We want to bring it to the forefront, and try to come together as a community, because it’s about speaking out in a non-violent way to make people aware of the issues,” Jackson said.

A vigil is planned for Monday in Jonesboro, which will be co-organized by the NAACP and other area religious and civic groups.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb

(This article was edited to reflect updates regarding Jonesboro police chief Michael Yates.)