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

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Twenty-one-year-old Chavis Carter was visiting the town of Jonesboro, Arkansas when he died from a gunshot wound to the head received while seated in the back of a police cruiser. Police ruled Carter’s death a suicide, but the fact that his hands were cuffed behind him during the incident has raised doubts about the officers’ account. The controversy surrounding the case has caused the local black community in Jonesboro to question police chief Michael Yates — already unpopular with African-Americans — about his department’s explanation, and to unearth disturbing details from Yates’ past.

“How does a person who is handcuffed — when the police found him he still had his hands cuffed behind his back — commit suicide? That’s been the big question,” Rev. Perry Jackson, the president of the Jonesboro NAACP, told theGrio.

“So to add to the stigma he has of being unfair to the minority population,” Jackson added of Yates’ reputation, “people are really questioning what’s really going on. That’s the mood in the black community.”

Jackson said Carter’s parents denied that he was suicidal. “I’ve met with the mother and I’ve met with the father, Teresa Carter and Charles Douglas,” Jackson said of visiting them in Carter’s native Mississippi. “As far as their reactions, they don’t believe that their son committed suicide. According to his mother, he’s just not that type of person who would kill himself. His father said it as well.”

These perspectives reinforce the lack of trust that many in Jonesboro’s African-American community have in Yates, who Jackson says has done little to reach out to them. “I personally think that if Chief Yates would do more as far as community relations, Jonesboro would probably be a better place to live, but I don’t think he’s really willing to work with the public,” he said.

Black leaders in Jonesboro also attest to Yates ignoring calls to increase diversity within the police force; a dismissal that stings more sharply now that an African-American man has died while under arrest and under unusual circumstances.

The Jonesboro police department has confirmed to theGrio that of the 149 officers on the force, only three are African-American. Dr. George Grant, co-chair of the Diversity Coalition of Jonesboro, has been working to change that for over a year. “Our position was that this was not satisfactory,” Grant told theGrio. “That is not representative of the diversity in the community.”

Jonesboro has about 68,000 residents. Census data shows that the city experienced a population growth of 21.2 percent between 2000 and 2010, many of whom Rev. Jackson says were African-Americans. As of 2010, the city’s black population was 18.4 percent of the total. Currently, blacks make up only 2 percent of the police force.

“Last September, we addressed the city council in Jonesboro about the lack of diversity in the police and fire department,” Grant said. “We made presentations to the city council, and we came back and made recommendations on ways to improve access to those jobs in the police and fire department, and they have not responded.”

Yates initially responded to emails from theGrio requesting comment by sending a summary of the applicants, test results and potential new hires of the department dated April 2012, but did not directly address the Diversity Coalition’s allegations. After the publication of this article, the police chief sent additional details over email, stating that his human resources department did review the Diversity Coalition’s plan, but that some aspects of it violated human resources law.

“We did take input from this group, [and] did implement some of their suggestions which may have had some positive effect on our last hiring cycle as it relates to minority applicants,” Yates wrote in an email to theGrio. Yates also cited that 40 percent of black males and 70 percent of black females failed to show up for the physical portion of the police officer test, reducing the eligible pool of African-American applicants that was already disproportionately low.

Yet, Yates asserts that from the perspective of the department, minority police hires have been made recently based on the quality of the applicants, not political pressure. He stated that some members of the coalition (excluding Grant) wanted the department to lower its standards for minorities. Yates would not comply with the alleged request.

Today, it remains that there are no Latino members of the force, compounding the issue of African-American under-representation. Civil rights leaders in Jonesboro see the dearth of people of color among police as a potential source of problems, which Carter’s death might be evidence of.

“I think it’s a problem because of the lack of diversity within the police department, and the fire department,” Rev. Jackson added. “But the chief of the fire department — we’ve been a little bit better able to work with him than Chief Yates. Our Hispanic population is also growing in this area. We need to get more minorities in the police department. Not just being secretaries and things like that, but working the streets.”

Grant, who is also an active member of the NAACP in Jonesboro, is disturbed by what he calls Yates’ lack of action in addressing the alarm of the black community over Carter’s death, as well as the silence of the mayor and other city officials. TheGrio reached out to the two African-American members of the Jonesboro city council, Rev. Renell Woods and Dr. Charles Coleman. Rev. Woods did not respond to an email, while Dr. Coleman declined to comment. Jonesboro mayor Harold Perrin did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

“We want to take the city to task when things like this happen. We need to understand why a young man who was 150 pounds, who was handcuffed, would shoot himself — could shoot himself — with a gun, after he’s been searched twice. It’s just not logical. And it’s not physically possible,” Grant asserted. “We’re trying to figure out how that could happen, and how they could expect us to accept that it has happened. This has to be dealt with so that people can start to feel safe in those communities.”

Yates confirmed to theGrio that FBI is reviewing the Carter case.

Distrust of chief stretches back to previous tenure