Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

March 26, 2013

Future for Alto officer, city is unclear

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

ALTO — The police officer a grand jury cleared Monday of criminal liability in the Jan. 22 fatal shooting of a suspected convenience store robber will not immediately return to duty from paid leave — if he returns at all, various officials said.

The attorney for Alto officer Brandon Michael Smith has, meanwhile, offered a more complete account of that shooting — including the assertion that Smith was forced to fire on James Eric Griffin, 48, eight times to counter what he described as an unprovoked and startling machete attack.  

Angela Hackney-Jefferson, Griffin's niece, declined to comment on the grand jury's Monday decision to “no-bill” Smith.

The January incident immediately hit a fault line in Alto's black community, provoking allegations of police brutality, professional callousness and even racism.

It comes at a delicate time for the city. The Alto police force had only been reinstated about 13 months before the shooting after having been sent on a six-month furlough, then fired and replaced in 2011.

In a previous interview, Rev. Herman Martin, of the Weeping Mary Baptist Church, indicated the African-American community continues to be in an uproar regarding Griffin's death.

“It's chaos here right now,” the reverend said last month.

So what happens with Officer Smith?

Acting Police Chief Troy Ansley — standing in for Chief Jeremy Jackson, who was on  vacation Tuesday  — said Smith will remain on paid leave in connection with Griffin's death until at least the end of the month.  

What happens next is unclear, Ansley said.

“This is something the chief will  address when he gets back.” Ansley said. “At the end of the month, the chief, the council and the city attorney will  get together and talk about what will be done. … But what the police force would like to say right now is: the grand jury no-billed Officer Smith, there was no violation of the law, and it is time for our community to pull together and move forward.”

Paul Allen Robbins of Lufkin, the attorney representing Smith and speaking to the media on Smith's behalf, also called for peace in the town's African-American community.

One of the more recent flareups came when Smith was recently spotted in a police car going to lunch with a colleague in a squad car. Even though Smith was still off active duty at the time, black residents became furious because they incorrectly thought it signified Smith was allowed to patrol the city again — before the investigation into the shooting was complete, officials said.

As a result of all this anger, Robbins expressed doubts his client's safety could be assured if he ever returned to active duty as a police officer in Alto.

“We don't want any backlash,” the attorney said. “We need them to understand that no one is holding any satisfaction that someone has been killed. No one wants this kind of conflict in their community... We hope that by having the truth and more details come out — that the family will not buy into allegations that this was racially motivated.”

Both Griffin and Officer Smith, incidentally, are black.

Robbins said he and his client want to put to rest “the misconception that police in Alto are out shooting and murdering people.”

The findings of any officer-related shooting in Texas that is investigated are submitted to a grand jury, which then determines if the officer in question acted appropriately — and, if not, what charges are warranted. This is true in all such cases, the attorney emphasized.

Robbins, an attorney for Region 9 of the Texas Municipal Police Officers' Association, said he has has made it a focus of his legal career to assist East Texas police officers in cases involving law enforcement employment and liability issues. He also is a reserve deputy and was a former officer of some two decades, he said.

Robbins said much misinformation has been flying around regarding the shooting. This, he said, became evident as early as the initial investigation.  The attorney said authorities had to sort through hearsay and outright lies regarding the officer's actions during the shooting.

“There's a big difference between being an eyewitness and just being someone on the scene,” Robbins said. “There were people who did not witness the occurrence who made false statements as to what they saw. It caused a lot of turmoil and frustration and anger in Alto. It was basically rumored that this was 'murder by a police officer against a suspect who didn't have a weapon.' ”

But the suspect did have a very large weapon, the attorney said.

“He had a three-foot machete and he was brandishing it and in the process of attacking a police officer with it when he was shot,” the attorney said.

Robbins relayed his client's specific account of how the shooting happened:

• Griffin, 48, a patient with Anderson Cherokee Community Enrichment Services who was off his medication, apparently displayed a machete tucked in his waistband to a clerk  at the Pick N Go at 100 S. Marcus Street as he stole a pack of cigarettes.

• Exiting the store, Griffin started walking along a sidewalk until he reached a donut shop in the 200 block of US Highway 69 South.

• The Pick N Go clerk dialed 911, telling the dispatcher he had been threatened by someone with a large blade.

• Officer Smith  got the call and drove to the store, where the clerk was standing outside. The clerk pointed down the road to where Griffin was walking, indicating Griffin was the one who was armed with the machete.

• Officer Smith pulled over to the southbound shoulder in the 200 block of US Highway 69 South, where Griffin was walking, activating his overhead lights as he stopped.

• As Officer Smith stepped out of the vehicle and drew his weapon, he yelled: “Drop the knife!”

• Griffin allegedly charged at him with the machete raised over his head; and

• Officer Smith fired his weapon at Griffin eight times — until Griffin stopped charging.

In retrospect, Robbins said he and his client believe the fact that Griffin  was an ACCESS patient believed to have been off his medication might have played a part in his behavior.

“We believe that may have been a factor,” Robbins said. “I don't think a sane person would charge an uniformed office in a police vehicle with the overhead lights on and a duty weapon drawn. Especially if that officer was telling you to stop and drop your weapon.”

And again: Now that the grand jury matter is concluded, Officer Smith's future with the city must be discussed and decided by city officials, Robbins said. But he's just not sure he would advise his client to return to Alto.

Robbins said returning to Alto would be an uphill battle for his client. Officer Smith is well aware that his presence on the police force has become a flashpoint for many citizens in the African-American community.

“One of the key factors would have to be Officer Smith's safety in the community,” he said. “There would have to be some serious analysis of whether he would be risking his life. The city and the citizens need to discuss if they felt the outcome with the grand jury was a fair process that can be accepted or if people will be upset.”

However, the attorney said his client certainly hopes to go back into law enforcement in some regard because for him, it is a good fit.  In all, Smith's training has been comprised of 672 hours of classes, including basic peace officer lessons, special investigative topics, and crisis intervention training, records show.

“He has all the skills and the training and demeanor to be a good officer,” Robbins said.

An investigation into allegations of a racial slur Smith has been accused of using in connection with the shooting is still ongoing. This slur is alleged to have taken place on a separate date, not the same time as the shooting as originally reported.

Robbins said Smith was not actually voicing a slur, but actually recounting something he had heard when relaying another person's remarks. Robbins said he will continue to represent Smith through this particular part of the proceeding.