For 73 years before his killing by a white police officer, Bernard Monroe led a life in this little town as quiet as they come — five kids with his wife of five decades, all raised in the same house, supported by the same job.
The black man’s death is making far more noise than he ever did, and raising racial tensions between the black community and the police department.
Rendered mute after losing his larynx to cancer, the 73-year-old retired power company lineman was in his usual spot on a mild Friday afternoon in February: A chair by the gate that led to his Adams Street home. A barbecue cooker smoked beside a picnic table in the yard as a dozen or so family members talked and played nearby.
All seemed peaceful, until two Homer police officers drove up.
In a report to state authorities, Homer police said Officer Tim Cox and another officer they have refused to identify chased Monroe’s son, Shaun, 38, from a suspected drug deal blocks away to his father’s house.
Witnesses dispute that account, saying the younger Monroe was talking to his sister-in-law in a truck in front of the house when the officers pulled up.
All agree Shaun Monroe, who had an arrest record for assault and battery but no current warrants, drove up the driveway and went into the house. Two white police officers followed him. Within minutes, he ran back outside, followed by an unidentified officer who Tasered him in the front yard.
Seeing the commotion, Bernard Monroe confronted the officer. Police said that he advanced on them with a pistol and that Cox, who was still inside the house, shot at him through a screen door.
Monroe fell dead along a walkway. How many shots were fired isn’t clear; the coroner has refused to release an autopsy report, citing the active investigation.
Police said Monroe was shot after he pointed a gun at them, though no one claims Monroe fired shots. Friends and family said he was holding a bottle of sports water. They accuse police of planting a gun he owned next to his body.
“Mr. Ben didn’t have a gun,” said 32-year-old neighbor Marcus Frazier, who was there that day. “I saw that other officer pick up the gun from out of a chair on the porch and put it by him.”
Frazier said Monroe was known to keep a gun for protection because of local drug activity.
Despite the chase and Tasering, Shaun Monroe was not arrested. He and other relatives would not comment on the incident.
Monroe’s gun is being DNA-tested by state police. The findings of their investigation will be given to District Attorney Jonathan Stewart, who would decide whether to file charges.
The case has raised racial tensions in this north Louisiana town, led to FBI and State Police investigations and drawn attention from national civil rights leaders.
“We’ve had a good relationship, blacks and whites, but this thing has done a lot of damage,” said Michael Wade, one of three blacks on the five-member town council. “To shoot down a family man that had never done any harm, had no police record, caused no trouble. Suddenly everyone is looking around wondering why it happened and if race was the reason.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped organize a massive 2007 civil rights demonstration in Jena after six black teenagers were charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate, will lead a rally Friday in Homer.
“The parallel here is that the local community cannot trust law enforcement and cannot trust the process to go forward without outside help,” Sharpton said.
Homer, a town of 3,800 about 45 miles northwest of Shreveport, is in the piney woods just south of the Arkansas state line. Many people work in the oil or timber industries; hunting and fishing are big pastimes.
In the old downtown, shops line streets near the antebellum Claiborne Parish courthouse on the town square.
The easygoing climate, blacks say, masked police harassment.
The black community has focused its anger on Police Chief Russell Mills, who is white. They say he’s directed a policy of harassment toward them.
Mills declined interview requests, saying he retained a lawyer and feared losing his job. But after the Monroe killing, the Chicago Tribune quoted him as saying, “If I see three or four young black men walking down the street, I have to stop them and check their names. I want them to be afraid every time they see the police that they might get arrested.”
“Word got around on what the chief said and things really boiled up again,” said the Rev. Willie Young, president of the Claiborne Parish NAACP.
Mills describes his policing style as “aggressive” but denies making the statement to the Tribune. He would not permit interviews with his officers. The FBI and State Police said they received no complaints about Homer police before the shooting.
“They’re more than aggressive around here,” said Shirley Raney, 47, a homemaker who lived a few blocks from Monroe. She said officers pulled up at her house and searched her son before going to his home Feb. 20.
“They said there were drugs in this area and Chief Mills wanted it stopped,” Raney said.
Meanwhile, the officers are on paid leave as Homer prepares for Friday’s rally.
“I consider (the rally) to be more spiritual than divisive,” said the NAACP’s Young. “There are whites who understand the situation and are working with us.”
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press