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Memphis police enforce tense calm after killing, unrest

Associated Press • Jun 13, 2019 at 2:45 PM

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Police enforced a tense calm on Thursday in a Memphis neighborhood where 25 officers were injured by a rock-throwing crowd following a black man's shooting death by U.S. marshals on a fugitive task force.

Elected officials condemned the crowd as violent, and the police chief pleaded for patience while state authorities investigated the killing. Unanswered questions about the circumstances left many people angry as they recalled with bitterness a litany of police-involved shootings around the country.

Crowds appeared shortly after the task force shot 20-year-old Brandon Webber around 7 Wednesday night, and numbers grew swiftly as people livestreamed the scene on social media. Memphis police initially responded in street uniforms, then returned in riot gear as people threw rocks and bricks. Mayor Jim Strickland said 25 officers were injured, six of them seriously enough to need hospital treatment.

Officers cordoned off several blocks around the scene in the Frayser neighborhood north of downtown and arrested three people. By 11 p.m., officers had used tear gas and most of the crowd dispersed, police director Michael Rallings said.

Early Thursday, officers on horseback patrolled the area, and lines of police cars with flashing blue lights were parked along the street. An ambulance waited at the outer edge, and a helicopter flew overhead.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Keli McAlister said the Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force went to a Frayser home to look for a suspect with felony warrants. Marshals saw the man get into a vehicle and then proceed to ram task force vehicles several times before exiting with a weapon, McAlister said. Marshals then opened fire, killing the man who died at the scene. McAlister did not say how many marshals fired or how many times the man was shot.

The TBI identified the dead man on Thursday as Webber. Authorities have not provided details about the charges that prompted the task force's interest in him. A criminal history for him released by the TBI lists two arrests, April 2017 and April 2018, on charges including weapons possession, drug dealing, and driving without a proper license. Court records show the 2018 charges were not prosecuted and the 2017 charges were dismissed.

His father, Sonny Webber, told The Associated Press that his son had been planning to return to the University of Memphis in August.

"He had a son that's two," Sonny Webber said in a phone interview. "He just had a daughter, his first daughter, two weeks ago. He's got another daughter expected any day now. He would have had three children. Now he'll have a child that he won't get to meet."

Shelby County Commissioner and mayoral candidate Tami Sawyer tweeted that Webber had been shot several times in his family's front yard.

"Every life lost should matter...every single one. How many times will this be ok? It cannot continue to be," she wrote.

Memphis police officers were called in to help with crowd control as word of the shooting spread on social media. As more protesters showed up, more Memphis officers and Shelby County sheriff's deputies arrived at the scene. The situation then escalated, and officers donned protective riot gear as people threw rocks and bricks. Police cars and a nearby fire station were damaged, Rallings said.

The TBI is routinely called in to investigate police-involved shootings by district attorneys in Shelby and other counties in the state. TBI investigators then give their report to the district attorney, who will decide whether to pursue charges against officers involved.

The police director implored residents to wait until the TBI finishes its investigation before spreading possible misinformation about the shooting. "I need everyone to stay calm," Rallings said.

While police support the right of people to demonstrate, Rallings said "we will not allow any acts of violence."

Mayor Strickland expressed pride in the city's first responders.

"I'm impressed by their professionalism and incredible restraint as they endured concrete rocks being thrown at them and people spitting at them," the mayor tweeted.

At least two journalists were injured, multiple police cars were damaged, a fire station's windows were shattered and a concrete wall outside a business was torn down, he said.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally said "lawlessness like this cannot and will not be tolerated in the state of Tennessee."

"Attacks on police and firefighters have become far too common in our nation. No matter what the circumstances of the shooting last night, this kind of indiscriminate violence and mayhem is an unacceptable response," McNally's statement said.

In 2016, police shootings of black men prompted protesters to block the Interstate 40 bridge connecting Tennessee to Arkansas. Activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement also have sued the police department, claiming officers illegally surveilled them.

In 2015, Darrius Stewart, an unarmed 19-year-old, was fatally shot during a fight with Connor Schilling, a white officer who was trying to arrest him on outstanding warrants. Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich recommended Schilling be charged with voluntary manslaughter, but a grand jury refused to indict.

In 2018, Martavious Banks was shot and critically wounded by police while running from a traffic stop. Activists and relatives of Banks protested, claiming the shooting was unlawful and accusing police of an attempted cover up.

Passion Anderson, a 34-year-old student, drove her 13-year-old son to the scene early Thursday, after protesters had gone and the scene had calmed down. She grew up in Memphis, but left to Ohio before moving in November to the Frayser neighborhood, a mostly low- to middle-income area north of downtown.

Anderson said she worries about her son's safety every day.

"I just want him to see this, know what's going on, to be conscious," she said from the driver's seat of her car, with her son in the passenger seat. "I fear for him all the time."

Earle Fisher, a Memphis pastor and activist, said in a phone interview Thursday: "This is part of a broader series of tensions that have continued to escalate between civilians and law enforcement of all stripes."

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