Rev. Charles Williams II, right, listens while Akil Copeland, center, tells what he saw take place at Northland Mall outside L.A. Diamonds when McKenzie Cochran died. At left is Sam Riddle, political director for the Detroit chapter of National Action Network. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Southfield — Akil Copeland couldn’t believe his eyes last week: a slumped man who wasn’t breathing after Northland Center mall security officers reportedly doused him with pepper spray in front of a jewelry store.
To Copeland, 38, the incident was the senseless killing of an unarmed man — right in front of his son, whom he brought to the mall to shop last Tuesday for shoes. He recalled there were five officers in a struggle with the man — both white and black guards, he said.
Copeland was part of a peaceful protest at the mall Monday with civil rights activists searching for answers as to why McKenzie Cochran of Ferndale died after mall officials received reports he was acting suspiciously outside the LA Diamonds store.
“This was a killing, man,” said Copeland, as he walked through the mall with 30 protesters back to the store where Cochran was confronted by mall security officers. “This is serious. The main thing that really impressed upon me is the fact that no one tried to help this guy.”
Mall officials said Cochran and a companion were “acting suspiciously” while outside the LA Diamond store last week. Police said Cochran left after the business owner asked if the pair needed help. Cochran returned the next day alone and police have said when asked by the owner again if he needed help, Cochran allegedly replied, ‘I want to kill somebody.’ ”
That’s when police say the store owner contacted security and Cochran ultimately was restrained after a struggle. He then became unresponsive.
Copeland told reporters he didn’t see the guards pepper spray the man but could smell the odor in the mall for about 30 minutes.
After the struggle, Cochran was propped up on a pillar with his head slumped to the side and his eyes closed as guards surrounded him, Copeland said. When he asked why he wasn’t breathing, one of the guards asked him to leave, Copeland said.
Civil rights activists called for the firing or prosecution of the guards and demanded to have a meeting with mall officials about the incident.
“We’re concerned about the safety of this mall right now,” said the Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the Michigan Chapter of the Nation Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton. “We could be in here and one of these officers could do the same thing that they did to this man.”
The Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality joined the protest, calling the actions of the mall security officers a “heinous, odious display of force.”
“It is appalling in this day and age that we have to revisit matters of human brutality such as this,” Ron Scott, coalition spokesperson, said in a statement. “All citizens and organizations who are like-minded should come together to achieve these purposes, so that Mr. Cochran's death will not have been in vain.”
Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper said her office is awaiting results from the county medical examiner before reviewing the case.
“I assume perhaps he is waiting on toxicology,” Cooper said Monday, “but he hasn’t completed his investigation as of yet, so it is not at our office.”
Brent Reetz, the general manager of the mall, read a statement to reporters that said officials would be open to meeting people concerned about the incident at a later time and then kindly asked the protesters to leave. He refused to say whether the security guards were still on duty.
When asked if he had condolences for the victim’s family, he had no comment but did say “absolutely” when posed the question of whether he felt bad for Cochran’s life being lost.
Williams called the reaction “callous” and was deeply troubled by what he termed Reetz’s “indignation and nonconcern that this management staff have here.”
“We are going to continue to fight for justice for the Cochran family as well as those who had to witness this egregious crime,” Williams said. “This is absolutely horrible.”
Copeland, who said he was interviewed the next day by Southfield police, said he wants justice for Cochran. “It’s a horrible memory.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Tony Briscoe contributed.