Councilman Billy Jackson said Monday a white Decatur police officer should be fired instead of given desk duty after he allegedly punched and broke the jaw of a black owner of a local liquor store in March.
Police Chief Nate Alllen said in a Monday news conference that the officer who punched Kevin Penn, owner of Star Beverages on Sixth Avenue in Northeast Decatur, on March 15 is reassigned to administrative duties until the investigation into the incident is complete.
Citing it as a personnel matter, Allen would not identify the officers involved in the incident. He did say one was a sergeant.
Jackson said Penn talked to him 2½ months ago about the incident and asked him not to speak publicly about it. The incident occurred during a police response to a suspected theft that Penn reported. Penn was arrested and charged with misdemeanor obstruction of governmental operations.
The incident became public Sunday night after a portion of video surveillance footage of the incident was posted on Facebook.
Jackson and two fellow leaders in Decatur's black community, Rodney Gordon and the Rev. Samuel King, met with Allen on Monday before his afternoon news conference. They saw the video on social media and also viewed body camera video supplied by the department that showed another angle of the incident.
Allen offered a defense of the officers during the news conference. He said dispatch told them they were responding to a robbery, and the body cam video shows actions that could have been interpreted as Penn reaching for his gun on the counter.
Jackson said the punch wasn't warranted.
“I don't agree with the Police Department’s assessment," he said after a council work session Monday. "The act was egregious and unnecessary. The sergeant had the situation fully under control, and I think the officer should be terminated.”
King said the officer followed DPD policy “but he didn’t follow procedure.” He also said the punch was unnecessary.
Jackson and King said they don’t think the incident was a result of racism but more of an incorrect reaction to a perceived threat.
King said a group of black pastors met with Allen on Friday and another meeting is scheduled for Saturday morning.
“I hope we can come up with a plan of action and come up with a better process and policy,” King said.
Allen said they don’t train officers to hit a suspect in the face because “the head is mainly bones and they can break their hand.” However, he said he would rather an officer hit than shoot a suspect.
“The whole incident lasted only a minute and a half so he had to make a quick decision,” Allen said.
Attorney Carl Cole, who is representing Penn, said the social media video is is only a short segment of a 16-minute video surveillance tape of the incident. He said Penn stopped an attempted theft with the auto lock to his front door and held the thief at gunpoint.
“The robber waited until two women left and then grabbed two bottles of liquor and made a run for the front door,” Cole said.
Allen said dispatch told the three officers to respond to a robbery call when it actually was a shoplifting case. The robbery call increased the anticipated threat level of the response, he said.
The alleged shoplifter laid down with his hands on his back at the front door on the officers’ orders.
The video shows Penn taking the bullet clip out of his gun as police arrive, and then the officer punching him. Cole said the store owner showed the gun and bullet clip to the three officers.
However, Allen said body cam video from the officer shows Penn angrily reacting to the officers’ demands before he appears to be reaching for his gun on the counter. At that point, the officer moves from behind the sergeant, who has his gun lowered and is holstering his gun, and punches the store owner.
Jackson said the sergeant seemed to have control of the situation, and Penn should have followed his orders instead of getting angry over being treated like a suspect.
“It looks to me is he (Penn) was just being expressive and talking with his hands,” Jackson said.
Cole said they’re not sure who the arresting officer was. Cole said the longer video was shared with the Police Department.
“We assume it was the arresting officer on the arrest report, but we don’t know for certain,” Cole said.
A hearing on Penn’s arrest was scheduled for this month, but it has been postponed, Cole said.
Cole and Allen said a notice was filed before the deadline that Penn may sue the department over the incident.