Thousands Attend Heated Community Meeting With Phoenix Police Chief on Viral Video

Outside Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church.
Outside Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. Meg O'Connor
"You know how hard it is to bury your brother? To put clothes on his dead body? That's the hardest thing I ever had to do," said the brother of Hector Lopez, who was shot and killed five weeks ago, as he stood in front of thousands of Phoenix residents, the mayor, and the chief of police at a church on Tuesday night. "And these officers get paid leave? If I killed somebody, I'd be prosecuted for murder."

Roland Harris, the father of Jacob Harris, who was shot and killed by Phoenix police this past January, followed Lopez. "The chief wants to talk about transparency? We had to sue you to get his police report. I got his police report today, and it's inconsistent with the autopsy I got."

Over 2,600 people packed into pews and lined the walls at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church on South 14th Street and East Jefferson Street for a community meeting on Tuesday after a young couple's violent encounter with Phoenix police made international news.

"David Norman, your officer — my son was the third victim of that police officer, do you understand that, Chief? He killed three people before my son!" Harris shouted as the room stood and applauded.

Then came 12-year-old Savannah Taylor. "What [those police officers] did was wrong and can never be justified by anyone ... It's sickening and it's sad. I'm shaking right now," she said through tears. "Something has to be done so this never happens again. Raise your hand if you agree with me."

The crowd again stood, applauded, and cheered. "I see a lot of hands," the girl said before walking away.

Tensions ran high at the meeting where several people whose loved ones had been shot and killed by Phoenix police officers addressed Police Chief Jeri Williams and Mayor Kate Gallego directly. Many decried the department's lack of transparency surrounding the deaths of their sons and brothers. When Williams did take the mic, she was quickly drowned out by boos and infuriated yells from the crowd.

Gallego was also met with boos when she finally spoke at the end of the three-hour meeting.

"This is a very difficult conversation, and it will continue. We are going to come back in 30 days with recommendations. We have listened to you. We will come back with recommendations," Gallego promised. Everyone then filed out. The church began playing jazz over the speakers to drown out shouts of protest.

Dravon Ames, 22, his pregnant fiancée, Iesha Harper, and their two young children were accosted by Phoenix police on May 27 after their daughter walked out of a dollar store with a doll. Video of the encounter, filmed by residents of the apartment complex, has since been viewed hundreds of thousands of times worldwide and has brought renewed scrutiny to a department already reeling from the revelation that 97 officers had shared racist posts on social media.

The Ames-Harper family has filed a $10 million notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, against the city of Phoenix. Phoenix police released a report regarding the incident on Friday afternoon that left out many key details.

In the video, officers can be heard screaming and cursing at the couple in front of their children to "put your fucking hands up." Ames repeatedly says, "My hands are up! My hands are up!" One officer, now identified as Christopher Meyer, can be heard saying, "I'm gonna put a fucking cap in your fucking head" and "You're gonna fucking get shot!" Another officer can be seen pointing a gun at the car with the children inside. Meyer later attempts to yank Harper's 1-year-old daughter out of her arms and screams at her to place her baby on the scorching hot pavement.

Besides Gallego and Williams, City Council members Carlos Garcia and Michael Nowakowski, City Manager Ed Zuercher, Assistant City Manager Milton Dohoney, and Executive Assistant Police Chief Michael Kurtenbach also attended. They didn't say much throughout the meeting, but several appeared to be taking notes. Two other city officials stood at two large notepads propped up on easels and took notes.

Gallego and Williams promised the community's concerns were heard and change will happen, but Williams' brief remarks during the meeting didn't seem to give the crowd much hope.

"I am hearing a lot of things. I am feeling a lot of things. These are some of the words that I hear: We matter. We are here because of a lack of trust, a lack of transparency," Williams said before getting cut off by boos.

"You guys aren't going to like what I'm going to say. I have rules to follow —"

"Then don't say it!" one person yelled as the crowd again drowned out the police chief with boos.

"Real change doesn't start with our police department," Williams tried again. "Real change starts with our community."

The crowd erupted with boos and jeers once again, inflamed that Williams seemed to be implying the community needed to change, not the department.

Williams stood up from the table at the front of the church and approached the crowd, microphone in hand, and began talking over the boos. "The police department is a part of the community. I am listening to what you say. You don't have to believe me. At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding. The proof is in what happens after this meeting," Williams said before sitting back down.

Ames, Harper, Harris, the family of Hector Lopez, the family of Alejandro Hernandez, Maria Castro, (who said her brother-in-law was killed by Phoenix police), and Edward Brown, who was unarmed when he was shot and paralyzed by Phoenix police last year, all spoke at the community meeting. Dozens of other community members spoke as well, and emotions ran high as community members vented their frustrations with a police department responsible for a record-high number of police shootings.

"Chief, I waited a long time to speak with you," said Brown as he approached the mic from his wheelchair. "This situation has changed my life dramatically. I don't have balance. Your officer took that away from me. I can't even sit in this chair without holding on ... I can't even get a good night's sleep, because this haunts me every time I close my eyes."

"When I get up in the morning, I need help getting up. Because I'm stiff. Like a corpse."

When Ames and Harper walked into the church, the audience broke out into applause and cheers for the young couple. The two spoke briefly to reiterate that they think the officer should be fired, and they feel they are lucky to be alive.

"Nobody should ever try to justify what happened that day in that video," Ames said. "No kids should see terror like that ... I had to hear [my children] scream locked behind a car, helpless. That's wrong. That's evil."

Jarrett Maupin, a community activist and spokesperson for the family, began to speak after Ames and Harper, but was met with boos. Roland Harris vehemently defended Maupin.

"When I was trying to bury my 19-year-old son, the only man who reached out to me and helped was this man," said Harris.

Maupin then introduced another man who alleges he was attacked by police officer Christopher Meyer, the same one who told Ames he would "put a fucking cap in your fucking head."

Dante Patterson said he was harmed by Meyer last year. "I was pepper-sprayed as I was walking away. I have video evidence and pictures of everything," Patterson said. "I tried twice to file a complaint through the professional standards bureau ...The same thing Officer Meyer did to me last year, I didn't want him to do to anyone else. You didn't listen," Patterson told Chief Williams.

Maria Castro, an organizer for Puente, said that her work as an organizer turned chillingly personal.

"As an organizer, you reach out to families in need. Last year, when I heard of an officer-involved shooting in my neighborhood, I started reaching out to the family. And I learned it was my own. My brother-in-law," said Castro.

"His neighbor recorded the officers beating his face. The cops noticed and threatened to call immigration on her if she didn't turn over her iPad," Castro said. "My little nephew wants to go see his dad ... because your officers beat his face in, he couldn't have an open-casket funeral."

While Gallego and Williams assured community members they were heard during the lengthy meeting, people didn't seem to believe it. The crowd still expressed frustration on the way out of the church, and outside the church, some continued to protest. Two men walking toward their cars called the 30-day promise for recommendations "a joke."

click to enlarge Outside Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church after the meeting. - MEG O'CONNOR
Outside Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church after the meeting.
Meg O'Connor
Some who spoke at the meeting did highlight concrete reforms, like implementing a civilian review board with firing power; beginning or improving upon an early intervention system to spot problem officers; swiftly and directly responding to families of police shooting victims with answers and reports; de-escalation training; community involvement and oversight on police policies; and firing officers on the Brady list and officers who kill several people.

"Yesterday was seven weeks ago that my brother died," said the sister of Alejandro Hernandez. "To this day, I have no police report, no autopsy report, and no conversation with the county attorney. Not only that, but somebody in your department leaked his status before we were notified. We found out through the media that he had died.

"We have no answers. You need to change that. That is your job. My parents lost a child. You continue to victimize families by not providing answers. How are we supposed to let him go, when we don't know what happened, because your officers weren't wearing bodycams, and you won't give us reports?" the woman said.
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Meg O'Connor was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from April 2019 to April 2020.