Published in the Clarion Ledger
Roughly two months have passed since Jonathan Sanders died at the hands of police officer Kevin Herrington in Stonewall. In this small Mississippi town, there are still frequent protests — cries for justice, for answers — and we cannot afford to let them go unanswered.
On the night of the incident, Officer Herrington had neither a dash cam nor a body cam. Would the encounter have gone differently if Herrington was being recorded and knew he was being recorded? Would Jonathan Sanders still be alive? Even in the unlikely event that he wouldn’t, we would at least have the facts.
On the night of July 8, Sanders was exercising his horse, Diva, and as he passed a local gas station, he observed Officer Herrington conducting a police stop with a white man Sanders knew. Sanders called out from his buggy for Herrington to leave the man alone as he continued down the road.
Because we have no video, we are left with drastically different accounts of what happened next.
According to witness testimony, Herrington flashed his blue lights, startling Diva and throwing Sanders from the buggy and his headlamp around his neck. Herrington chased Sanders as he ran after his horse, grabbed Sanders by his headlamp and pulled him to the ground. When Sanders fell to the ground and tried to relieve the pressure from his neck, Herrington mounted him and placed him in a chokehold. During what felt like 20 to 30 minutes Herrington held Sanders in the chokehold, Herrington asked his wife, who was with him that night, to radio for backup and remove his gun from its holster so Sanders could not reach it. Herrington refused to let a neighbor perform CPR and ignored Sanders’ multiple pleas that he couldn’t breathe. By the time Sanders was released from Herrington’s vise, witnesses say he was unconscious with blood coming out of his mouth.
On the other hand, Herrington’s attorney, Bill Ready Jr., has stated Herrington stopped Sanders and searched him for drugs, Sanders tried to run after Herrington found drugs, and Sanders grabbed Herrington’s gun during a struggle that occurred after Herrington pursued Sanders on foot.
Video evidence would discount one of the two versions of events, but we are only left with questions. An important question, aside from what happened once the stop commenced, is what in the world could be the factual basis for a reasonable suspicion that Sanders was performing a drug transaction?
Ready provided the Jackson Free Press with the conclusory statement that Herrington had reasonable suspicion that Sanders was “performing a drug transaction,” but it’s almost inconceivable Herrington had a good reason to follow Sanders, much less a lawful basis to stop him.
From the information available, Herrington’s provocation was Sanders’ statement, made in passing, that he should leave someone alone. Of course, that isn’t a crime, and Sanders was completely within his rights. But rights don’t matter when they aren’t protected. Rights don’t matter when those who violate them evade accountability. Rights don’t matter when you’re dead.
Unfortunately, we have every reason to believe there won’t be an indictment and public trial. Mississippians should begin considering structural upheaval of how we investigate and prosecute police for excessive use of force, but there are simpler reforms on which we should all be able to agree. A body cam bill did not pass into law last session, but it should have.
It’s hard not to see the Justice for Jonathan movement as one ripple in the larger scheme of a national movement partially ignited by the lethal chokehold of Eric Garner in Staten Island last summer. This ripple in Stonewall is one of many challenging the system that — with little to no transparency — grants public servants, armed with weapons and the authority to detain citizens, impunity when they take a citizen’s life. But as the Eric Garner case demonstrated, video doesn’t necessarily result in an indictment. Body cameras are not a cure-all, but they are a necessary first step.
Policies promoting the use of body cameras are not designed to solely document police misconduct or even to document a so-called “war on police.” Body cameras inject transparency into the situation and promote trust between the community and law enforcement.
Justice for Jonathan is a product of legitimate frustration and justifiable rage. Jonathan Sanders’ death has shown us the unacceptable risk of allowing officer-involved killings to happen in the dark. We need transparency; we need accountability. We need body cameras. Now.
Blake Feldman is advocacy coordinator for criminal justice reform to the ACLU of Mississippi.