September 10, 2016 10:15:14 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
At a little before 11 a.m. Friday, a group of about a dozen people gathered at the back entrance at the Lowndes County Courthouse.
It was a show of support for former Columbus Police Department officer Canyon Boykin as he appeared before Circuit Judge Jim Kitchens to plead not guilty to a single count of manslaughter in the Oct. 16, 2015, shooting death of Ricky Ball.
As Boykin emerged, in handcuffs, from the courthouse he was greeted by a round of applause -- not one celebrating his arrest, but one showing he had people in his corner.
A couple of miles from the courthouse, at Jordan's Barbershop on Military Road, barbers and patrons alike were well aware of the 26-year-old Boykin's indictment.
"I made an announcement about it this morning," said Bobby Jordan, who has operated the barbershop that has been a key meeting place for the black community for more than 25 years. "I didn't know if people knew about it or not."
The reaction, Jordan said, was subdued and generated little discussion, even though the shooting of the black man by a white officer has been an open wound for almost a year in the black community.
There were no applause, even though some who gathered in the barbershop said the indictment represented a measure of justice.
"I was very surprised," said barber Arthur Brewer over the low hum of his electric clippers as he attended to his customer, Jason Leech. "When you look around the country, you don't see police officers indicted very often. I can't remember that ever happening here in Columbus. I was shocked, really."
Boykin shot Ball, 26, after the suspect fled the scene of a traffic stop at 21st Street and 15th Avenue North. Ball, who was the passenger in the vehicle, was found with two gunshot wounds about 1.5 blocks from the traffic stop site.
Authorities found near his body a 9 mm handgun, which had been reported stolen from a police officer's home. Part of the investigation, details from which have not been publicly released, was determining whether Ball ever possessed or fired the weapon.
The city turned the investigation over to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations. After MBI completed its investigation, District Attorney Scott Colom handed the case to the Mississippi Attorney General's office. Assistant AG Stanley Alexander presented the case to a Lowndes County grand jury, which chose to indict Boykin.
After the former CPD officer entered his plea Friday and was assigned his $20,000 bond, his lawyers vehemently defended their client to the press.
"In my 30-plus years of law practice, I have never seen a bigger travesty of justice than this indictment of this police officer," said Jackson-based attorney Jeff Reynolds, adding he was "flabbergasted" by the indictment. "It's an absolute travesty, and he will be found not guilty. He's innocent of this charge."
Jim Waide of Tupelo is also representing Boykin.
Columbus City Council members voted to fire Boykin soon after the Ball shooting, citing three reasons: the officer had not activated his body camera during the incident, he had an unauthorized passenger in his patrol car at the time of the stop and he violated the city's social media policy by making posts derogatory to blacks, women and disabled people following the shooting.
Boykin later sued the city in federal court for wrongful termination, in which he claims Ball pointed a pistol at him prior to the shooting.
However, federal court documents in the U.S. District Court of Northern Mississippi indicate a settlement conference scheduled for Sept. 16 "has been canceled until further notice from the court."
Ball's family filed a notice of intent in July to sue the city for his death. Mose Lee Sudduth, a Vernon, Alabama, attorney representing the family, declined to comment extensively on Boykin's indictment. However, he told The Dispatch the family is pleased to see the case moving forward.
"Obviously the family is relieved that something is being done," Sudduth said.
Healing police-community relations
In the almost 11 months since the shooting, Leech said he's seen a change in how police interact with the community.
"They (the police) are doing a lot better," said Leech, 35. "I see them doing a lot more patrolling and checking on problem areas. But the thing is, this sort of thing shouldn't have to happen for them to do their job. That should have been happening all along."
Another barber shop customer, LaVaris Harris, agreed.
"Yeah, just from personal experience, I think they are doing better," said Harris, 29, a married father of two who works at Paccar. "I've actually been stopped by the police late at night since the shooting happened. All (the officer) did was ask for my license and registration. Before, it seems like the first thing they did was start asking you if you had drugs or if you had a gun, even before they told you why they stopped you. So maybe things are getting better."
Brewer has noticed too, saying he sees more officers having conversations with residents.
Even so, Brewer said there is a long way to go in building trust between the police and the black community.
"There's been a lot of mistreatment, so I don't know why anybody was surprised by the shooting, when you look at the history of policing and African Americans. I'm sure a lot of people feel like the indictment was a step toward justice, but it's going to take a lot more than that, and a lot of time, too, to change things, I think."
For Rhonda Sanders, community relations officers for CPD, the past 11 months have been an exercise in soothing the pain caused by the death and rebuilding trust between officers and residents.
"You feel the people's pain and you understand why they are upset," Sanders said. "But the people in the community who supported and worked with the police department then still work and support us now.
"Early on after it happened, when I went out and talked to people, I can't say there weren't tensions. That's understandable. A lot has changed since then. We have a new chief (Oscar Lewis) and he's very committed to community-oriented policing. We've made it a real commitment, and I think that's been a plus."
'I don't see how anything good comes out of something like this'
Harris said he feels the way the Ball investigation was conducted helped diffuse the initial anger and mistrust.
"I do like they way the case was handled," he said. "I think they were transparent, and I think handing over the investigation to the MBI was a really good move."
Most of the folks in the barbershop still retain a wait-and-see attitude about the ultimate outcome of the case.
"The case has to play out," Harris said. "We won't really know until the verdict comes down. I guess that's when we'll begin to see what directions things are going to go in. But even if it's a not guilty verdict, while people will be upset, I don't see everything falling apart."
Brewer said no matter the outcome, the shooting death remains a tragedy for the community.
"It's all bad," he said. "Any time somebody gets killed, it's bad. I don't see how anything good comes out of something like that."
Dispatch reporter Alex Holloway contributed to this story.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]