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Eugene Ellison: Little Rock's Michael Brown

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From left: Mike Laux and Eugene Ellison's sons, Spencer and Troy Ellison image
  • From left: Mike Laux and Eugene Ellison's sons, Spencer and Troy Ellison.

A couple of weeks ago I accompanied 10 students to St. Louis for a mass rally in support of indicting the police officer responsible for killing Michael Brown in mid-August. My students were pleasantly surprised to find how multiracial, multigenerational and ecumenical the thousands of protestors were. The purpose of the rally was to ensure justice was served on Brown's behalf by calling for the grand jury to indict the officer who killed him. On our way back to Little Rock I explained to the group that Brown is only one of dozens of black men who have been killed by the hands of the police in America.

In the past 30 years there have been ample examples of police brutality in almost every major city in the United States. In the same month Barack Obama was inaugurated as president of United States, Oscar Grant was killed by a police officer in a Metro station in Oakland, Calif. Two years prior in 2006, Sean Bell was killed by a fury of 50 gunshots in New York City. Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times in New York when reaching for his wallet in 1999. There are countless others: Malice Green in Detroit, Mich.; Flint Farmer in Chicago; and Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta, Ga. — all killed at the hands of the police.

In 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale started the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in a response to police brutality. The group began to "police the police" by arming themselves and then observing police matters in order to curb violence, repression and terrorism in their community. This program was quickly abated as the state of California and eventually the federal government systematically destroyed it.

Nowadays surveillance and oversight of police activities are carried out through organizations like Cop Watch and Cop Block, which encourage citizens who have been victims of police brutality to record and report alleged abuses in order to create a broader narrative of police misconduct around the nation. Unfortunately, in most cases individuals who report abuses against police officers do not see justice served on their behalf. A prime example of this is the story of Eugene Ellison of Little Rock.

On Dec. 9, 2010, Ellison, a 67-year-old black man, was killed in his home by Donna Lesher, an off-duty police officer. Ellison was involved in a confrontation with Lesher and Officer Tabitha McCrillis after the two came upon Ellison's open door while working off-duty security at the Big Country Chateau Apartments near University Avenue and went inside to investigate. The two officers called for backup. According to an on-duty officer who arrived on the scene, Lesher stepped outside the apartment. When Ellison picked up his cane, she shot him without issuing any warning.

An internal investigation into Ellison's killing by the LRPD homicide division cleared Lesher of all wrongdoing. Lesher's husband, Sgt. James Lesher, heads the division.

Ellison's sons — both veterans of the Little Rock Police Department — filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2011 alleging that their father's civil rights were violated. The case is still moving toward trial.

Just a few weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder and former President Bill Clinton held a forum, "Race Relations and Community Policing," in Little Rock. Attorneys representing the family of Ellison made a public request to the attorney general to investigate the LRPD "pattern and practice" of shootings similar to what happened in Ferguson, Mo.

According to Ellison's attorneys, Michael J. Laux and Ben H. Elson, from 2001 to 2014 there have been 107 police officer-involved shootings in Little Rock. Over half of the shootings were deadly force victims, 72 percent of whom were black. Also during these years there have been 192 complaints filed by Little Rock citizens against the LRPD, only seven of which were sustained. The attorneys argue that there exists a "code of silence" where Little Rock police officers are not being held accountable for misconduct allegations.

Eugene Ellison is the Michael Brown of Little Rock, and if nothing is done to bring justice for the Ellison family and address the police misconduct in the Little Rock Police Department, Little Rock could become Ferguson.

Dr. Joseph Jones is executive director of Philander Smith College's Social Justice Initiative.

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