As protests erupted around the country Thursday night in response to multiple, widespread, and longstanding allegations of police brutality, community activists in Tallahassee, Fla., have tried to press for more accountability from police officers after three officer-involved killings in just over two months.
On Wednesday night, community activists protested the recent killings, demanding more transparency from Tallahassee officials who have given frustratingly little information about the shootings.
Members of the Tallahassee Community Action Committee told WTXL-TV there’s “been no method of real accountability” since the first officer-involved killing on March 20. In that instance, police claim that 31-year-old Mychael Johnson, suspected of carjacking, got into a fight with Officer Justin Davidson after attempting to flee.
According to WTXL, the police report stated that during the fight between Davidson and Johnson, Officer Zackri Jones fired a single shot at Johnson, killing him. Although Johnson died from the encounter, TPD officials said they consider Davidson to be the victim in the case.
The second police-involved killing happened on May 19, when police killed Wilbon Cleveland Woodard after responding to a call about an altercation in a restaurant parking lot. TPD says a confrontation with Woodard ensued, during which they had to use deadly force on Woodard, claiming he was armed.
Last week, the department said it was investigating the incident, but didn’t release the names of any officers involved, saying only that a cop had been placed on administrative leave. Woodard was 69 years old.
The third shooting, just eight days later, is the one that has received the most attention on social media thus far—the killing of trans black man Tony McDade on May 27 (TPD and other local outlets have misidentified McDade as a woman).
The details that emerged so far are murky, and witness accounts appear to conflict with the TPD version of what happened.
The Tallahassee Democrat reports that Wednesday’s officer-involved shooting began with a “savage attack by a group of men” on a person believed to be McDade. At 10:45 a.m., police responded to a report about a stabbing at the Leon Arms apartment complex: McDade was identified as a suspect and was said to be armed with a knife and handgun.
This is where police and eyewitness accounts diverge. Tallahassee Police Chief Lawrence Revell told reporters in a briefing Wednesday that officers tracked down McDade and “immediately saw [him] with the gun.”
“According to what we’ve been told, [McDade] pointed the gun at the officer before the officer could even fully exit the vehicle,” Revell said.
But people at the apartment complex at the time are confused by the police account. One of them is Clifford Butler, who lives at Leon Arms and witnessed the shooting.
“I walked down this way, as soon as I get around this curve, I just hear shots,” Butler told WFSU. “I see [McDade] right behind the tree, but I see him (the officer) just jump out the car, swing the door open and just start shooting.”
Butler said he heard seven or eight shots total, but didn’t hear the officer who fired his weapon give any warning before shooting.
“I never heard ‘Get down, freeze, I’m an officer’–nothing. I just heard gun shots,” Butler said. According to him, two officers shot at McDade.
Barbara McClakin was visiting a relative at Leon Arms during the shooting. She told the Tallahassee Democrat that she and her cousin rushed outside after hearing gunfire and saw a police officer with his gun still drawn, pointing to the back of McDade’s head.
“That’s what everybody is trying to figure out—why do they have a gun at the back of [his] head when [he’s] already down?” McClakin said. Police said McDade died from his injuries at a nearby hospital, as did the man he’s suspected of stabbing.
During the press conference, Revell said he didn’t know how many times McDade was shot, and appeared to imply there was just one shooter. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, the officer is considered a victim in this shooting, and his privacy rights are protected by Marsy’s Law, an amendment to Florida’s constitution passed in 2018.
Delilah Pierre, a member of the Tallahassee Community Action Committee, said Wednesday’s shooting has pushed the community to the edge.
“We still don’t know the name of the police officer who murdered Wilbon Woodard, and we still don’t know the name of the police officer who murdered the black [man] today,” Pierre said.
Revell tried to distance his department from the national outrage around police shootings, which escalated this week after the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for at least eight minutes during an arrest on Monday.
The police chief defended the officer in this week’s shooting, saying that once a suspect points a gun at a cop, “you’re defending your life at that point.”
He insisted that race had nothing to do with the shooting.
“Obviously the timing with what’s going on across the country makes this even tougher,” Revell said. “But you can’t associate one incident in another state with the incident that happened here, other than to say it’s a concern for our entire community.”
But racial justice advocates and LGBTQ rights activists say the McDade’s killing falls directly in the long continuum of state-sponsored, state-enabled deaths that have disproportionately targeted black and trans communities.
David J. Johns, Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said in a statement Thursday, “adequate words do not exist to describe the weight of the pain that accompanies drafting statements to honor Black people who have been murdered as a result of who they are and how they show up in the world.”
“Tony, a Black trans man, is our brother. Prior to being shot and fatally wounded by a police officer, Tony posted a video to his Facebook page recounting a horrific beating he received from five men because he is a Black trans man,” Johns continued, noting that 1,500 hate crimes against LGBTQ people were recorded in 2018.
“We don’t know a lot of the details around Tony’s death, or how police became involved. We do know that Tony should not have been killed,” he added cautioning Tallahassee PD that “the world is watching.”