The East Feliciana sheriff's deputy responsible for the shooting death of a man outside an Ethel convenience store didn't mean to discharge his weapon during a struggle with the suspected burglar, who was fleeing the scene after stealing a raw chicken, officials said Friday.
East Feliciana Parish Sheriff Jeff Travis announced during a press conference that evidence reveals the shooting was accidental. He said the officer had unholstered his gun and fired a warning shot into the ground while chasing the suspect. The weapon then discharged again once the two engaged in a struggle.
Christopher Whitfield, 31, was pronounced dead after the encounter with deputies early Monday. Deputies had responded to a call from the store's owner, who said a man had broken into the outdoor cooler and stolen some food.
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The sheriff's announcement came after heated protests outside the Clinton courthouse Friday morning. Dozens of people — including Whitfield's relatives and local activists — gathered to demand transparency from the sheriff's office and to protest police brutality.
"It's about time these senseless and avoidable killings stop," said Ambrose Sims, vice president of the West Feliciana branch of the NAACP. "Today there are two types of justice in America. Among white communities, law enforcement is looked upon as a protector, as a friend, as a neighbor. Conversely, in black communities … the officer is the intimidator, the oppressor, and now he's the executioner. This has to stop."
Travis released the names of the two deputies involved in the encounter with Whitfield: Glenn Sims Sr. and Houston Frazee. Sims, a black deputy with no relation to Ambrose Sims, is the one whose weapon discharged.
Sims' tactic of firing a shot into the ground was "a further attempt to get (Whitfield) to stop," Travis said. Sims momentarily caught up to the suspect and grabbed the back of his hoodie. The two struggled, and Whitfield struck Sims' weapon while the officer was trying to reholster it.
Travis said that's when the gun accidentally discharged. The bullet struck Whitfield in the lower back.
East Feliciana deputies don't carry stun guns because of the cost to purchase the equipment, Chief Deputy Greg Phares told reporters. The agency also doesn't use body cameras. Officials said they would like to obtain both if funding becomes available.
Phares said warning shots are only effective in a very limited number of circumstances. "I don't think a warning shot is always inappropriate," he said, noting that he couldn't comment specifically on this case because of the ongoing investigation.
The sheriff offered his condolences to Whitfield's family, saying he's praying for them every day. Travis also said he's become aware of issues in Sims' record that weren't disclosed before now.
"I pledged to the people of East Feliciana that I would require professional conduct from my deputies both on and off duty," Travis said. "The conduct that we have uncovered in the past few days concerns me greatly, and I pledge to East Feliciana Parish that we will conduct a full review of these matters and take appropriate action."
East Feliciana Parish court records show Sims served a period of probation for an illegal weapon discharge in 1992, another short probation sentence in 2004 for simple battery, and he was sentenced to a year of probation with a suspended jail sentence attached in 2008 for resisting an officer.
The latter, which has the most detailed court records available, outlines a situation in which Sims got into a scuffle with East Feliciana deputies when he thought they used too much force in carrying out a warrant on a friend of his at a social event.
At the time, Sims was a former deputy and was interacting with former colleagues, the records show. The deputies used a chemical spray to subdue Sims, who they said was threatening them; but Sims claimed he wasn't and only resisted them as a reaction to the chemicals.
Sims is a longtime East Feliciana sheriff's deputy, who even ran for sheriff in 2011. He's now serving part time with the agency and has another job with the parish police jury.
During the Friday press conference, Travis alluded to Sims' criminal history, saying he was not aware of the past charges. Sims was initially hired prior to Travis' election as sheriff, but Travis said he did review Sims' application document at one point and there was not any mention of his history.
Sims was placed on leave after Whitfield's death pending the results of an internal investigation, which will be turned over to local prosecutors to determine whether Sims will face criminal charges. Twentieth Judicial District Attorney Sam D'Aquilla said it's possible the evidence will ultimately be presented to a grand jury.
Deputies allowed two of Whitfield's relatives to attend the press conference inside the Clinton courthouse, an unusual move in a forum that's usually limited to members of the media. The relatives then relayed what happened to the crowd of protesters still gathered outside.
Many said the sheriff's words left them with more questions than answers.
Some questioned why there was a foot chase in the first place, and why a warning shot was fired. They wondered how Sims' finger was on the trigger if he was really trying to holster the gun — and how the investigation can come to a trustworthy conclusion if an outside agency doesn't take over.
The sheriff's office is conducting its own investigation into the shooting, along with help from State Police — a decision that diverges from common protocol as most agencies turn over those investigations completely to State Police or another outside authority.
Protesters called it "the fox guarding the henhouse."
"They're not feeling the way I'm feeling," said Whitfield's mom, Ella Whitfield. "My heart is empty and it's going to be empty for a long time. I have five other kids and I love them to death but that was my first born and he taught me how to be a mother. … They took him away from me."
The sheriff also announced that investigators had discovered after the shooting that Christopher Whitfield had a knife somewhere in his clothing. But officials emphasized deputies had no knowledge of the knife before or during the encounter and it was not involved in their interaction.
"It doesn't matter what he had," his mom said in response to that news. "It didn't give any reason for my child to be shot like a dog in the back."
During the protests before the press conference, some people directed their remarks at a small group of law enforcement officers acting as security outside the courthouse. "No justice, no peace. No racist police," the protesters chanted, many holding signs demanding "Justice for Christopher."
Relatives said Whitfield was diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago but was not a violent person. They also said law enforcement officers across the tightknit community were well aware of Whitfield's long struggle with mental illness, including the officer responsible for his death.
"You weren't protecting and serving. You were killing," said his sister Phelicia Whitfield. "We still want answers. … My brother can't speak for himself. He's not here."
Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that Ambrose Sims is not related to Glenn Sims Sr.