A white Alabama police officer has been arrested after the killing of a 58-year-old black man in Montgomery last week, the district attorney announced.
Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey announced Wednesday that 23-year-old Aaron Smith, a Montgomery County police officer, had been “arrested for the crime of murder” in the shooting death of Gregory Gunn on Feb. 25. Smith, who has been on the force since 2012, was released Wednesday on a $150,000 bond.
“As district attorney I will do everything in my power to protect a police officer who is operating within the law,” Bailey said at a news conference announcing the arrest. “I will also use every ounce of my power to prosecute a police officer who is operating outside of the law.”
Bailey said that state investigators and his office agreed that there was “probable cause” to arrest Smith for murder, but declined to detail what evidence led to that conclusion.
The investigation into the incident remains ongoing, Bailey said, but once it’s complete, a grand jury will ultimately decide if Smith will be formally indicted. (In addition to deciding whether or not to indict Smith, the grand jury can also determine whether to indict him on murder or another charge. If he’s indicted, Smith’s case will then proceed to a trial in the circuit court).
“In the history of Montgomery, this is not one of our great days,” Mayor Todd Strange said in a separate news conference Wednesday, where he promised a transparent investigation into the shooting.
The full details of what happened in the early morning hours when Smith fired on Gunn, killing him, remain unclear. Police said that Smith stopped Gunn, who was walking home after playing a regular card game with friends, saying he appeared “suspicious.” But police have not detailed what exactly Smith thought was suspicious about Gunn. After stopping Gunn, officials say that Smith stepped out his patrol car and confronted Gunn. Shortly after, a struggle ensued between the two men, ending when Smith fired multiple shots at Gunn.
Police initially claimed that Gunn was holding a stick or an object that could have appeared to be a weapon. But Gunn’s brother, Franklin, denied that account to The Washington Post.
“I know he was racially profiled,” Franklin Gunn told the newspaper. “They thought he was a low-life nothing, walking the street. They saw somebody who needed to die, and they executed him.”
Mickey McDermott, Smith’s attorney, criticized the arrest as “political” and denied that the shooting was racially motivated. He said that the officer used “appropriate deadly force to protect himself and this community,” The New York Times reported.
Authorities have not said if there is video of the incident from an officer-worn body camera or dash camera.
The arrest comes after days of protests in Montgomery over the shooting and public demands for Smith’s arrest. On Tuesday, protesters repeatedly interrupted a City Council meeting in order to draw attention to the case.
Police around the nation continue to face increased scrutiny surrounding their use of lethal force and demands for accountability when it is used.
Although there are no reliable government statistics on civilians killed by police, data compiled independently last year by outlets like The Guardian and The Washington Post or the civilian tracker Mapping Police Violence have led to estimates of roughly 1,000 deadly shootings each year.
The vast majority of those incidents are determined to be justified homicides ― meaning police rarely, if ever, face charges ― let alone a conviction ― in a fatal shooting. In both 2014 and 2015, no police officers who killed a civilian during the line of duty were convicted of murder or manslaughter. In fact, there have only been 13 officers convicted of such charges for on-duty shootings since 2005.
That’s largely due to the Supreme Court’s legal standard for use of lethal force by police. According to Graham v. Connor, the landmark 1989 case that established the standard, each “use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” The ruling specifically cautions against judging police too harshly for split-second decisions made in “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving” situations. All of this gives officers plenty of leeway to explain why their actions were legal.
The Gunn family, in a statement made through their attorney Tyrone Means, called the arrest a “critical” first step in this process, one that the family recognizes as significant.
“This is a very difficult time in our country, our cities and in our communities,” the Gunn family said. “It is also one of the hardest times that a family such as ours, or any other one can go through when one of their beloved is taken by violence.”
The family says they simply want justice delivered in this case and intend to hold local and state authorities to “the highest levels of accountability” in order to facilitate that.
“From the use of excessive force to the failure of safeguards designed to protect both citizens and officers alike and the failure of those officers to render assistance once our beloved was shot,” the Gunn family continued, “we want to know what happened to our brother, our son, our friend… Greg Gunn.”