By Dale Liesch and Jason Johnson
Hundreds gathered along Stanton Road over the weekend to remember the life of 19-year-old Michael Moore, who last week was shot multiple times and killed by Mobile police officer Harold Hurst during a traffic stop that police say turned into a confrontation.
The scene at the weekend vigil told half of a story that has divided the Port City along racial lines on some level, as Moore is black and Hurst is white. Even if race is put aside, many in Mobile have been sharing their opinions about the shooting, and many have added social media profile pictures that read either “Justice for Mike Moore” or “I support the Mobile Police Department.”
But while those in the comment sections may have made up their minds, authorities leading an internal affairs review of the incident and a parallel civil rights investigation through the FBI are just over a week into their efforts.
As those investigations continue, some leaders in Mobile’s black community have urged patience, while others have called for immediate action. There have been modest protests, with marchers taking to the streets downtown with signs reading, “no justice, no peace.”
“We will make this town look like Ferguson, look like Trayvon Martin. Those were just practice for Mobile, Alabama,” yelled Kenneth Glasgow at the vigil held for Moore this past weekend.
Glasgow, of Dothan, is a relative of civil rights activist Al Sharpton. While his comments drew applause at the vigil, they seem to be in direct conflict with statements by Mobile County NAACP President Ronald Ali.
Ali has worked closely with Mobile Police Chief James Barber on community-based initiatives such as the Second Chance or Else (SCORE) program, and last week, he reminded citizens that “no one has been charged” and “no one has been cleared.”
“Some of our members may feel the need to do something now based on these reports,” Ali said last week. “However, I urge our members and our fellow citizens to consider that we must get all the facts so we can respond appropriately once the reports are in.”
As Glasgow insinuated, similar police shootings across the country have led to unrest and even riots in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland.
While there have been no instances of civil disobedience, the incident has already led to an internal review of certain MPD policies. Some are concerned Moore’s death — no matter what the investigations determine — could set back the push toward “One Mobile” championed by Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson credited Chief James Barber’s “proactive outreach” as part of a larger One Mobile strategy for helping the city cope with Moore’s death.
“I think the way this has been handled is unique,” he said.
The “One Mobile” concept has created an “atmosphere of transparency,” Stimpson said, allowing Barber to be forthcoming with information and allowed him to get the FBI and the NAACP involved in the investigation early on. But the mayor also said the administration will critique everything in terms of police procedure.
MPD’s version of events
According to Barber, Hurst observed a 1999 Lexus make a “quick left turn,” almost causing a collision near the intersection of Stanton Road and Wagner Street shortly after 6 p.m. on June 13. The car was driven by Moore and occupied by two passengers.
Hurst later reported Moore failed to produce a driver’s license and provided a false identity. A check of the vehicle’s tag number also revealed the car had been reported stolen three days earlier. Barber said nine witnesses testified to what happened next, including Moore’s two passengers.
“What we know occurred, in talking to the witnesses, is that Moore indicated [to the passengers] the car was stolen and gained access to a Smith & Wesson .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol that was concealed between the driver’s seat and the console,” Barber said. “That pistol was then removed and placed into the waistband of the driver’s clothing.”
Based on Hurst’s statements, Moore was told to exit the vehicle. As Moore was placing his cellphone on the ground, the officer noticed the gun in Moore’s waistband. According to Barber, Hurst drew his service weapon before giving Moore verbal instructions to keep his hands away from the gun.
After Moore attempted to “gain access to it,” Hurst fired four shots, striking Moore three times, in the shoulder and abdomen. The officer then fired a fifth shot — striking Moore in the chest while he was already on the ground.
Two days after the shooting, the MPD released a photograph of the handgun in Moore’s possession. Public Information Officer Terence Perkins said investigators “discovered the handgun Moore was found in possession of had been reported stolen the previous night.”
A police report provided by MPD indicates the weapon was reported stolen from a residence on Thornhill Drive — an area where vehicle burglaries linked to the stolen Lexus were reported in the days prior to the shooting. According to Barber, a search of the Lexus revealed items reported or believed to have been stolen between Sunday, June 12, and Monday, June 13.
Several stolen items were recovered, but Barber said there are no plans to charge anyone with those burglaries. Barber said evidence of the crimes was released to the media because of previous “dispute over whether or not the evidence we said existed actually existed.”
Hurst has worked with the MPD for four and half years and has been assigned to the Third Precinct for three of those years. According to Barber, Hurst “may have had some minor misconduct violations” but had never been involved in any previous shootings or received complaints about any misuse of force.
Meanwhile, Moore had a record with the juvenile court system before he turned 18 last June, though the nature of that record hasn’t been disclosed. Michael Dekle, chief probation officer with the juvenile court in Mobile, said the criminal history of a juvenile is privileged information and the court could not discuss “whether a child was good or bad.”
However, Moore has also had one encounter with local law enforcement since becoming an adult. An incident in January lead to his arrest on charges of “giving a false name to an officer, resisting arrest and failure to obey.”
Lagniappe requested a report from the incident, but MPD Public Affairs Officer Charlette Solis said it cannot be released because it is considered part of the investigation of Moore’s death.
Disputed claims, lack of camera footage
Some, including elected officials, have openly questioned MPD’s version of events and subsequent investigation. Of particular concern is the gun Moore was said to be carrying.
While the passengers in the Lexus allegedly told investigators Moore placed the pistol in his waistband before exiting the vehicle, the only statement suggesting Moore attempted to use the gun came from Hurst himself — a claim contradicted by other purported eyewitnesses.
Willie Westbrook, a witness interviewed by both the MPD and the FBI, says he was just across the street when the shooting occurred and never saw Moore try to access a gun. He said he never saw authorities attempt to retrieve a weapon from the scene, either.
When the MPD initially released information about the gun “in Moore’s possession,” it was described as having been “recovered.” Barber later confirmed eyewitness reports that no gun was ever retrieved from Moore’s body at the scene of the shooting.
“The gun was recovered with the body of Michael Moore at the ER by emergency medical personnel. Yes, protocol is to recover it at the scene, but it wasn’t recovered at the scene,” Barber said. “It was transported with Michael Moore to the ER.”
Videos posted minutes after the shooting have been widely shared online. In one of those, at least six officers are shown securing the scene, with four attending to Moore, whom Hurst had handcuffed and left face down on the pavement next to the vehicle.
“The protocol is obviously to recover any evidence or weapons at the scene, not to transport them from the scene, but you’re dealing with a very dynamic situation,” Barber said about the mistake. “You’ve got one officer waiting on backup and still dealing with three individuals as well as other individuals that are across the street.”
Barber says there is actually a separate Internal Affairs investigation regarding why the gun was not removed at the scene and was instead left in Moore’s waistband.
Barber did confirm officers saw the gun, and reaffirmed protocol would have been for a supervisor to secure the weapon before Moore’s body was moved. Previous protocol would have been to leave the scene untouched as long as it was determined there was no danger in order to allow for photographs and other documentation.
“There’s an Internal Affairs investigation about the weapon not being removed and being transported,” Barber said. “If it was determined policy was not followed we expect not only a policy review, but corrective action.”
Exactly how and where the gun was recovered has drawn much scrutiny from Moore’s relatives and others. Moore’s cousin, D.J. Larry, said he had a hard time accepting the story.
“How, after you shoot someone and [a gun] is your threat, is it left there?” Larry asked. “We don’t know how many people touched that body, and it made it to the hospital. What we were told is that they were working on the patient and then later found the weapon.”
City Councilman Fred Richardson, who was on the scene shortly after the shooting, questioned how several dozen officers, crime scene investigators, paramedics and “about 100 spectators” never saw a gun.
“Now, ‘crime scene 101’ teaches: collect the weapon first, because that was the threat and the rationale for the officer firing his weapon,” Richardson wrote on Facebook. “So that, having not been done, is surely under question and under investigation.”
Also missing from the evidence is footage from a body camera, a tool the city spent millions of dollars equipping officers with last year. Barber said the officer in question was not wearing one at the time of the shooting.
MPD officials say Hurst was on his way to work at the Third Precinct when he pulled Moore over for making an improper left turn. Solis said “the officer was performing his duty as an officer once he made the traffic stop, and actually became on duty at that point.”
MPD confirmed Hurst’s roll call time for the Third Precinct was 6:45 p.m.
Barber says what many in the community are missing is what the investigation is actually about — those critical seconds before Moore was shot. He says witness testimony as well as hard evidence is there to prove Moore had the gun, but adds that just having a gun is not in and of itself grounds for use of deadly force. He admits exactly what happened at that point is disputed and that’s what investigators must determine.
“The true focus is on what happened in the few seconds after Mike Moore stepped out of that car,” Barber said.
Can “One Mobile” survive?
“It could have been my son. I have a 20-year-old,” Theria Taylor said during a community meeting on Moore’s death over the weekend. “What am I going to do when it’s my child and they tell me he sneezed wrong?”
For Taylor and others, the fear of one bad exchange with police overshadows any progress made by Stimpson’s administration to unite the city under his campaign promise of “One Mobile.”
Others at the meeting, including Stanley Ross Jr., admitted the city has seen an influx of businesses and jobs, but said the positives would be overshadowed by Moore’s death.
“It’s not where it needs to be,” Ross said. “If it was on the up and up, this brought it back down.”
As the investigation into Moore’s death continues, Ross said he hopes the department will be more consistent in the information it releases in order to gain more trust.
“They need to be more real and more raw,” he said. “This community likes realness and rawness. If things look obvious, don’t make them seem unobvious.”
Richardson, who has been the most outspoken councilperson about Moore’s death, wouldn’t comment on whether the city was any closer to “One Mobile.” However, he did say there should be a policy requiring officers to secure weapons at the scene.
Barber has already said that’s what “should have” happened in Moore’s case, but Richardson said to do otherwise is “inexcusable.”
“I’m not saying they don’t have these policies,” Richardson said. “I’m saying there should be these policies, and the mayor needs to act on them.”
In addition to a review of MPD policy, Councilman Levon Manzie called for the creation of a Department of Youth Services to “ensure the youth of Mobile are given the opportunity to succeed and thrive in our city.”
In a statement released Monday, Manzie said such a department could improve access to educational, extracurricular and employment programs by coordinating with the city and nonprofit organizations that already offer those programs.
He also suggested a comprehensive review of existing programs to help the city identify “major gaps” in opportunities for certain age groups in areas of Mobile where young people don’t have access to those services.
In that spirit, Manzie said the idea of “One Mobile” can still be achieved, but only if everyone in the city buys in and makes a concerted effort to forge better relationships.
“As a community we have to decide if that’s a goal we want to reach,” Manzie said. “We as a community have to make a conscious effort to see the value in individuals that don’t live, work or worship in the same spaces we do. Until we take a deliberate initiative to see the value in individuals who don’t look like us, we’re going to fall short of that goal.”
Following last week’s shooting, Barber said he’s tried to do everything in a spirit of transparency, but the investigations into Moore’s shooting are still in their early stages.
He’s also repeated his concerns about a “youth culture of gun violence in Mobile,” noting eight teenagers in Mobile have already died from gun violence in 2016. He also said Hurst has faced threats of his own since his name was revealed.
Barber said Hurst and his family are “suffering immensely as well.”
“I do want to say that while we continue to offer condolences to Michael Moore’s family, there are two families that are suffering as a result of the incident,” Barber said. “There’s the Moore family, who we spend a lot of time talking about and I understand why, but the family of the officer involved is affected, too. Again, this is the first time he’s ever been involved in a situation like this.”
Barber also briefly addressed the varied community response to Moore’s death, describing it as a “challenging time” for law enforcement officers. He said events across the country have called into question the trust between law enforcement and the communities they police.
“We in law enforcement need to learn to see what it’s like to be a law-abiding citizen in a high-crime neighborhood that is under the scrutiny of the police, and we need to understand what that person sees when they see a police car coming down the road,” Barber said. “But we, as a country and a community, also need to see what the police see. You need to see what we see through the windshields of our cars as we patrol these beats in high-crime areas, and what we see inside the crime scene tape.”