A white police officer in Montgomery, Alabama, is being charged with murder in connection with the shooting death of 58-year-old Gregory Gunn, a black man who was walking toward his own house at 3 a.m. on Feb. 25 when the officer approached him.
Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey announced Wednesday that after an investigation that lasted just under one week, it was determined that there was probable cause to arrest officer Aaron “A.C.” Smith, a 23-year-old who has been with the Montgomery Police Department for less than four years. Smith is currently in custody and is being held on $150,000 bond.
“I will do everything in my power to protect a police officer who is operating within the law,” Bailey said Wednesday. “I will also use every ounce of my power to prosecute a police officer who is acting outside of the law.”
The official police account of what led to Gunn’s death is that Smith saw Gunn walking down the street and thought he looked “suspicious.” As Gunn came closer to his home, where he lived with his 87-year-old mother, Smith got out of his patrol car. After that, for reasons that have not yet been explained, a struggle took place, and Smith fired his gun several times.
Witnesses told the Washington Post that they heard Gunn screaming for help and calling for his mother before he was killed on his next-door neighbor’s front lawn.
According to Montgomery police chief Ernest Finley, Gunn was carrying a stick-like object when the confrontation occurred; that object was later determined to be a retractable painter’s stick.
The AP quoted Mickey McDermott, Smith's attorney, saying that the officer's arrest was a "political witch hunt" conjured to "quell public unrest."
"This is on the back of a 23-year-old police officer working by himself in a high crime area, with a larger man who ran," McDermott said. "We're sorry for the loss of this man, but he brought it on himself."
Smith’s arrest comes at a time when police officers around the country seem to be facing criminal charges for on-duty shootings at a greater frequency than any time during the last decade. According to Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University, an average of five police officers per year were charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty shootings between 2005 and 2014. In 2015, that number spiked to 17—a count that doesn’t include the six officers indicted in connection with the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
The Montgomery County prosecutor responsible for the decision to charge Smith with murder did not elaborate on Wednesday on the evidence that convinced him that was the right course of action. That evidence, whatever it is, will be presented before a grand jury at a future date.