Although a lot of information has been released from the investigation into Michael Moore’s death, Mobile Police Chief James Barber said it may be months before a grand jury decides if officer Harold Hurst was justified in shooting the 19-year-old earlier this month.
Though it’s early in the process, Barber has already admitted “mistakes were made” at the scene where Moore was killed June 13.
Barber was referring to the gun Moore was allegedly in possession of at the time, which wasn’t recovered at the scene. Instead, it was transported along with Moore’s body to the University of South Alabama Medical Center where it was later discovered in the emergency room.
“I’m admitting that there was an error made in the recovery of that gun that has brought into question things about the chain of custody,” Barber said. “There’s an internal affairs investigation going on. Part of that is related to policy and procedure, and among other things, it will address why the gun wasn’t recovered and who’s responsible for that.”
Barber said a supervising officer is required on the scene after any officer-involved shooting, and in most cases, he or she would recover any weapons or evidence from a suspect before they or their body is removed from the scene.
The MPD drew criticism and skepticism from some when it announced that key piece of evidence was allowed to leave the area. Barber recently told Lagniappe a change in policy he implemented in the wake the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, may have been the reason Moore’s body was moved before the gun could be recovered on site.
“I’ll have to accept some of the responsibility myself for some of the mistakes made,” Barber told Lagniappe. “With a standard crime scene investigation, where we don’t know who is responsible, everything is slow and meticulous. In this type of case, it’s not who shot him, we just need to know why.”
That’s one of the reasons the current protocol in an officer-involved shootings is to “quickly recover any evidence and transport the body” from the scene. In Moore’s case, a hospital was less than half a mile away, so Barber said it “made no sense not to transport him over to the ER” to determine his condition.
According to the MPD, Moore wasn’t confirmed deceased until he arrived at the hospital, though they haven’t given an official time of death. Because there was no mystery about who shot Moore, Barber said the most important evidence would be obtained from an autopsy, not the scene of the shooting.
“With any normal death investigation, the uniformed officers that arrive are just there to secure the scene,” Barber said. “Then crime scene investigators come in, and they photograph, measure and document the scene, and they’re the ones who usually recover any weapons or evidence. So, a body can lay there for several hours waiting for that process to take place.”
That approach was used in Ferguson, Missouri two years ago and resulted in Mike Brown’s body lying uncovered in the street for almost four hours and widespread criticism of the St. Louis County Police Department.
Barber said that incident prompted the MPD’s change to the current protocol of quickly moving any suspect injured or killed in an officer-involved shooting. He said leaving a body out where it’s visible to the general public can be “inflammatory” regardless of the circumstances.
“If you’ve seen the videos on social media of the scene after the [Michael Moore] shooting, you can see how heated that situation got in just eight minutes,” Barber said. “We already had family members that were arriving on the scene. I’m a father myself, and no matter what my child did, if I got there and had to stand for hours watching their body lay in the street, I would be incredibly upset.”
While Barber again said allowing the gun to leave the scene with Moore’s body was an error, he said those that are focusing on that element are missing what the investigation is actually about — “the critical seconds before Moore was shot.”
According to Barber, there is witness testimony and hard evidence to prove Moore had a gun, though he did clarify that having a gun is not in and of itself grounds for an officer to use deadly force.
“The true focus is on what happened in the few seconds after Mike Moore stepped out of that car, and there have been conflicting statements about that,” Barber said. “We’re going to spend the next few weeks, months — maybe longer than that — trying to dissect what happened.”
As for the legal issues in the case, Barber said it would be up to a Mobile County grand jury to decide whether there was justification in Hurst’s use of deadly force. That would mostly likely hinge on whether Moore tried to gain access his weapon, as Hurst has claimed.
The “conflicting statements” Barber mentioned have come from other eyewitnesses on the scene, like Willie Westbrook, who claims to have seen the shooting from the road. Robert Blackmon, who was riding with Moore as a passenger when they were pulled over by Hurst, also said they didn’t see Moore reach for a gun.
Blackmon is said to have told investigators initially he couldn’t see what happened from inside the car, but in later media interviews, gave what police described as “inconsistent” statements about Moore having his “hands up” when he was shot. Barber said all interviews conducted by the department in this case, including Blackmon’s, have been recorded, though there aren’t any plans to release those at this time.
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