Christopher Whitfield.jpg

Christopher Whitfield

A national civil rights attorney representing the family of a man killed by an East Feliciana Parish sheriff's deputy said Thursday it was "unconscionable" for the 31-year-old to have been chased for stealing raw chicken and shot dead behind a convenience store.

"We don't kill people in America for being hungry," lawyer Benjamin Crump said.

The Sheriff's Office has said Christopher Whitfield was shot accidentally after part-time Deputy Glenn Sims Sr. chased him to the rear of a Texaco gasoline station and convenience store in Ethel early on Oct. 14. After Sims fired a warning shot into the ground, the two struggled on the ground until the deputy's gun fired, striking Whitfield in his lower back, officials said. Whitfield died at the scene. 

"It is unconscionable in one of the most prosperous countries in the world that we would shoot someone for taking food," Crump said during a news conference in front of the courthouse in Clinton.

Whitfield's death sparked a heated protest days later, with family members and their supporters decrying the shooting as unjust. They said he wasn't a danger to pursuing deputies and was running away when Sims grabbed him by the back of his hoodie.

"My son is not a violent person; he did what he did but he is not a bad person," said Whitfield's mother," Ella Whitfield. "My heart is empty, and I miss him so much."

Crump, meanwhile, tore into the criminal record of the deputy.

"Not even McDonald's would have (a person) working for them after he’s convicted of the things he's been convicted of, but yet he's allowed to carry a gun and badge," Crump said. "It doesn't make any sense."

Court records show Sims was previously convicted of at least three crimes in the parish, including a 2006 battery conviction for assaulting his girlfriend over several years. In one instance, the woman sought emergency room treatment after she told investigators that Sims choked her and threw her to the ground.

Department and court records show Sims was fired shortly after a simple battery conviction that same year.

The infraction would have stripped him of his license to be a law officer in Louisiana if it had happened after lawmakers updated guidelines in 2017 to include revocations for domestic violence convictions.

Sheriff Jeff Travis said his office wasn't aware of Sims' criminal history or previous firing because the events happened before he took office in mid-2016.

Records show Sims returned to the sheriff's office sometime after his 2006 firing, but murky records kept under former East Feliciana Sheriff Talmadge Bunch don't indicate when Sims came back. Also, the documents don't include an explanation about why he was fired.

Sims returned to the sheriff's office sometime after and left again in 2008, and he had recently been working as a part-time deputy while working another job with the parish police jury. He's remained on paid leave since the shooting.

“This one is one of the worst (officer-involved shootings) I’ve seen because of the deputy’s history and the alleged crime was stealing chicken,” Crump said. “People are outraged.”

Crump, a Florida-based lawyer who represented relatives of Trayvon Martin and Botham Jean's family in Dallas, has also filed a civil lawsuit against the West Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office after a deputy there fatally shot a 38-year-old during a “no-knock” narcotics raid of a motel near Port Allen.

The recent shooting in East Feliciana comes roughly six months after a Clinton police officer and an East Feliciana deputy fatally shot 28-year-old Myron Flowers during an April traffic stop near Clinton. A grand jury declined to criminally charge the lawmen in that case, a decision that followed a handful of peaceful demonstrations calling for transparency and wider use of police body cameras.  

Crump said in an interview that the fatal encounters underscore a broader trend of law enforcement's implicit bias toward black men, even when it involves a non-white officer. 

Law enforcement officers across Louisiana have fatally shot at least 18 people so far this year, according to a Washington Post database on fatal police shootings. Of those deaths, 14 people were black men and three involved people with a mental illness, including Whitfield. 

"In America there’s an implicit bias with black men where police shoot first and ask questions later,” Crump said. “That seems to be the tragic pattern in policing in communities of color.”

The East Feliciana Sheriff's Office is conducting its own investigation into the shooting, a departure from protocol in that most agencies turn over their officer-involved shooting investigations to Louisiana State Police. 

State Police are assisting the sheriff’s office with the investigation, and their findings will be sent to the district attorney for possible criminal charges.

Carol Powell Lexing, a Louisiana lawyer also representing Whitfield's family, questioned whether the sheriff's office can impartially review Whitfield's death.

"When you have the public's interest at stake, there is a serious conflict of interest," she said. "The fox is in the henhouse investigating their own officers and not doing a thing about it."

Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com.