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Opinion | Something strange has happened in Decatur

In Decatur, the killing of a Black man by police has mattered to the entire community.

Stephen Perkins Family/GoFundMe

Have you paid attention to what’s happening in Decatur? If not, you should. Because it’s unlike anything I’ve seen. Maybe ever. 

On Sept. 29, Steve Perkins, a Black man, was shot in his front yard by Decatur Police officers during what was initially described as a confrontation over a vehicle repossession. Almost immediately, though, videos began to surface from Perkins’ neighbors’ security cameras, and they showed a bizarre and troubling scene leading up to the shooting. 

Decatur cops were essentially hiding around Perkins’ home as a tow truck driver pulled up and began preparing to take away Perkins’ truck, which was parked in the driveway in front of the home. When Perkins exited the house and yelled at the driver, police officers jumped from hiding spots and one began firing after barely a warning. 

A DPD statement in the hours after the shooting said Perkins had a firearm and pointed it at the officers after being warned and told to drop his weapon. But those security videos, which also captured audio, told a much different story. 

Perkins was given no opportunity to drop his weapon and was shot less than three seconds after an officer sprang from a hiding spot beside his house. 

There was outrage. And rightfully so. 

Protesters started gathering daily at City Hall in Decatur. They began marching. Nationally known attorneys showed up to hold press conferences and rallies. There were arrests and a number of heated confrontations between cops, city officials and protesters. 

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It’s a scene that has played out, unfortunately, numerous times all over the country. Sometimes, there has been violence and destruction. There is usually hurt and anger. There is almost always a divided local community – split solidly between those who support the police officers involved and those who support the protests. 

And that’s where things in Decatur are different. 

After so many of these incidents, and the disappointing-in-their-predictability responses they bring, I thought it was impossible to be surprised. I thought things were the way they were, especially in the South, where confederate monuments still stand and streets are still named for Lee and Davis. I genuinely thought that there was no situation in which a Black man could be mistreated or killed by police and still have a not-insignificant portion of the community support the cops and find fault with the Black man. 

Decatur has restored my faith in humans. 

I mean it. Go look at the various Steve Perkins groups on Facebook. Read the reports of what has happened at rallies and at city council meetings. Watch the footage of protests and interviews. 

Yes, there have been a handful of people who support the cops and who have spoken against the protesters. But they are a tiny minority. 

The overwhelming majority of people – people of all races – have expressed their outrage over the police actions that they’ve seen in the videos. They have showed up to council meetings and work sessions and city gatherings of all sorts to let officials know that they’re watching and they’re expecting a resolution. They’re expecting accountability. 

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Drive around Decatur and you’ll find #IAMSTEVEPERKINS and #JusticeforSteve signs in yards all over the city – in affluent neighborhoods, in middle class neighborhoods. Businesses all over the city have the signs up. Several businesses have donated food and supplies to the protesters who are STILL – some two months later – marching and holding protests every day. 

Hell, a former Decatur cop and the former Decatur Police chief have spoken out publicly about the incident and raised questions about police tactics that night. 

The pressure that sort of community cohesiveness has placed on city officials to do the right thing can’t be overstated. Because while no one can be sure how city officials would have ultimately behaved in this situation – if not for the security videos and community outrage – we certainly know how they initially behaved. 

They lied. 

And the Decatur Police chief has since issued a statement correcting the initial press statement following the shooting. Perkins was never ordered to drop his weapon and he never “refused” to drop his weapon, as the statement read. 

That doesn’t happen without the majority of the residents in Decatur coming together.

Neither does the local investigation undertaken by city officials, because the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s investigation, as it typically does, was dragging on with no end in sight. Now, according to Mayor Tab Bowling, residents will get reports from that investigation, which apparently found violations of department policies by at least four officers. 

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Bowling said hearings for the four officers will be Dec. 4, after which he will release the results of the investigation and reveal the punishment handed down for the officers involved.  

There has also been talk of re-examining police policies, initiating more training and refocusing efforts by the department to better connect with the community. And Decatur will be a better place for it. 

Many of the citizens of Decatur will tell you straight up that this has nothing to do with race. That they’re not marching because a Black man was killed by police. That they’re outraged because police behaved poorly and killed a person – that the person was a Black man is inconsequential. 

And that’s fine. In fact, that’s more than fine. Because the entire Black Lives Matter movement – that’s all it ever wanted. For the wrongful deaths of Black men to matter equally to everyone else. 

Decatur is a pretty good example of what that looks like.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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