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Detroit Will Breathe wants Detroit's top cop fired over shootings

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Members of the group Detroit Will Breathe on Tuesday criticized police officers who have shot three men this month, and said cops should have let a quadruple shooting suspect go free instead of chasing him at high speeds through residential neighborhoods.

Activist Maureen Taylor speaks during the 'Detroit Will Breathe' press conference following recent police involved shootings in Detroit, Michigan on July 28, 2020.

During a contentious press conference on the front lawn of a house on the city's west side, members of the group also called for the firing of police chief James Craig, expressed concern about federal agents possibly patrolling Detroit, and blamed white people for problems in the African American community.

Members of the group sparred with reporters, accusing them of phrasing questions to appease Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan. One member of the group said the journalists were "worthy of a spanking ... worthy of a whipping."

Detroit Will Breathe came into prominence following the death of George Floyd, who was pinned on his neck by a Minneapolis police officer for several minutes after he was handcuffed May 25. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was fired and charged with second-degree murder.

Detroit Will Breathe has clashed with longtime Detroit civil rights activists who say the newer group doesn't speak for them.

Lloyd Simpson, one of the group's organizers, began Tuesday's press conference by reading a statement in which he lambasted three officer-involved shootings in the past two-and-a-half weeks, and called for Craig to be fired.

On July 10, Hakim Littleton fired a pistol at an officer's head from about a foot away, seconds before police returned fire, killing him, in a confrontation captured on police body camera video.

Video of a July 23 incident also was released by police, showing an unnamed suspect brandishing a pistol seconds before officers fatally shot him.

Craig said investigators were still poring over video of the most recent shooting, in which police wounded a man suspected of selling drugs July 26. Because of the review, that footage has not been released.

A 'Detroit Will Breathe' press conference following recent police involved shootings in Detroit, Michigan on July 28, 2020.

The chief said it's unusual for his department to release any video early in an investigation, but said he released footage of the two fatal incidents "for the sake of transparency."

Simpson said the video of the July 23 shooting was "edited" and demanded the release of video from all three incidents, along with the names and badge numbers of all officers who were at the respective crime scenes.

"In two of the cases, the victims shot by the police were on the ground when they were shot," Simpson said. "Edited body cam footage clearly shows the young man (in the July 23 incident) never having been in position to fire the weapon."

Craig replied: "We didn't edit the gun into the video. The video clearly shows the officer was faced with an imminent threat when the suspect pulled out a gun and pointed it at the officer. It's on video."

A TV reporter pointed out that the videos released by police do not support Simpson's claim that police initially shot the suspects while they were on the ground, and asked Detroit Will Breathe co-founder Tristan Taylor whether his group had a responsibility to put out accurate information.

"Absolutely, and we can only do that when facts are given," he said. Taylor walked back Simpson's comments and stipulated that Littleton was standing when he was first shot, but said he was disturbed that officers continued firing rounds after Littleton fell to the ground.

"That's the thing that we find most disturbing about his shooting was the fact that the last shot was point-blank to the head," he said. "... we call these murders, especially someone who's shot point-blank to the head, an execution. They are the victims of police brutality."

Activist Tristan Taylor speaks during the 'Detroit Will Breathe' press conference following recent police involved shootings in Detroit, Michigan on July 28, 2020.

Craig said it's "ridiculous" to call the shooting an execution.

"That's an example of taking what actually happens and creating a false narrative," he said. "The officer who responded put his own life in danger to mitigate the threat to other officers."

Detroit Will Breathe members also criticized the July 23 shooting. That incident started when officers were investigating a July 19 quadruple shooting in which an 18-year-old man died.

Video footage released by police shows officers approach a blue Mercury Grand Marquis, which makes a U-turn and speeds away. While Detroit police policy bans high-speed chases in most instances, they're allowed when violent suspects are involved.

The footage shows officers tailing the car as it lurches through side streets and jumps onto the sidewalk several times, narrowly missing pedestrians before crashing into a tree. Three men get out of the car and run in different directions, with officers at their heels, the video shows.

One of the men is seen in the video with a pistol in his left hand. As he runs, he turns, raises the gun and appears to point it at an officer before the officer fires a single, fatal shot that hit the suspect in his torso, Craig said.

During Tuesday's press conference, Taylor said police should have never initiated the chase. He was asked whether police should have let a homicide suspect go free, and he replied: "Yes, I am saying that. There are other opportunities to apprehend them."

Activist Tristan Taylor speaks during the 'Detroit Will Breathe' press conference following recent police involved shootings in Detroit, Michigan on July 28, 2020.

Craig responded: "What do we say to the families of the four shooting victims, one who succumbed to his injuries? Their lives matter, too. We're not going to let a violent suspect go free so he can possibly do harm to other people.

"I've been in law enforcement longer than (Taylor) has been alive," the chief said. "Some of the things he's saying clearly show he doesn't know what he's talking about. If he thinks he can do a better job than me, and keep the people of Detroit safer, I'd like to hear his suggestions."

When asked about the calls to fire Craig, John Roach, Mayor Mike Duggan's spokesman, said: "The mayor has the highest confidence in Chief Craig, and the job he's doing."

President Donald Trump said last week he planned to send federal agents into some cities, including Detroit, to help quell violence. Craig and Duggan said they welcomed federal help with fighting crime, but added they didn't want the feds patrolling Detroit's protests as they've done in other cities that have experienced rioting and looting.

Simpson said Tuesday that Craig showed a "lack of concern for the sanctity of Black lives (because of) the invitation to federal forces to occupy the city and exacerbate the ongoing brutalization  of our community by police."

"That shows (Craig) has more in common with Donald Trump than the people of Detroit," Simpson said.

 Detroit Will Breathe member Paul Jackson criticized reporters at Tuesday's briefing for asking what he said were "James Craig and Mike Duggan questions."

"What I've watched here is ridiculous," Jackson said. "It's worthy of a spanking. It's worthy of a whipping." 

Activist Sandra Simmons said white people were to blame for problems in the African American community.

"Everywhere that a white man has been, he has caused hell," she said. "Every county that he has been in has caused trauma and drama all around the world."

Simmons then called for racial harmony. "Black, white, brown yellow, red — we need to walk together, because we’re all human beings, and when we all walk together, America will be greater than it ever was.”

She also had a message for minority police officers: "We are your family ... before you put on that blue uniform, you're Black."

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN