Stephen Clay Perkins was gunned down by police in front of his home. Weeks later, what police say happened is at odds with what surveillance video actually shows.
The almost daily protests since Perkins’ death on Sept. 29, his family’s demands for the release of police body camera footage, and discrepancies between police statements and what’s seen on video are reminiscent of the high-profile police-related killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Donovan Lewis — and more recently Tyre Nichols.
Critics and families say the language police use in statements to describe fatal encounters with law enforcement not only damages trust but intensifies the grief and outrage.
What is indisputable is that Perkins was a 39-year-old husband and father who died in front of his Decatur, Alabama, home in a hail of police officers’ bullets.
Before Decatur police were called to Perkins’ home on Ryan Drive SW, a local towing company attempted to repossess a vehicle that was on Perkins’ property. An unidentified tow truck driver fled the scene and called police when “the homeowner [Perkins] pulled a handgun” on him, according to the police’s Sept. 29 statements. When officers arrived on the scene with the tow truck driver, police said, “the homeowner exited the residence armed with a handgun and began to threaten the tow truck driver.”
An initial police statement released after Perkins was killed said: “Officers on scene ordered the homeowner to drop his weapon, which he refused to do.”
Days later, Perkins’ family hired an attorney who received surveillance footage from a neighbor. The neighbor’s camera captured the officers opening fire without giving Perkins a command to drop any weapon. More than a dozen shots were heard on the video.
Decatur Police Chief Todd Pinion has since backtracked his initial statements and apologized “for the inaccurate description of the encounter.”
“We now know the officer identified themselves as ‘police’ and ordered Mr. Perkins to ‘get on the ground’ prior to the officer firing rather than ordering him to drop the weapon at that time as we initially reported the morning of the shooting. That means that we also erred in stating Mr. Perkins ‘refused’ to drop his firearm prior to the shooting,” Pinion wrote in the Oct. 11 press release.
Other details are less clear. Perkins having a gun equipped with a light remains a matter of dispute. And whether Perkins was armed or not, his neighbor told WAFF that the officers didn’t give Perkins enough time to respond to their commands. In addition, the Perkins’ family attorney is arguing that the vehicle on Perkins’ property was being wrongfully repossessed.
Perkins’ older brother, Nicholas Perkins, told CNN that his brother didn’t have any enemies. And his little brother’s worst nightmare came true. “This has always been his biggest fear, being shot and killed by police. Just being a Black man in America, it was his fear,” Nicholas Perkins said.
Conflicting versions of what happened underscore how crucial video footage is in revealing the truth — and whether it results in the prosecution of police officers. Until a teenage bystander’s cellphone video of the last 10 minutes of Floyd’s life hit the internet, police had the public believing that Floyd was intoxicated and died in their custody from a nondescript medical emergency. Once the footage went viral, the four Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s murder were swiftly fired from the department and prosecuted in federal and state courts.
Law enforcement agencies that release inaccurate accounts that — especially ones that disparage the victim of a fatal police shooting — perpetuate deeply rooted distrust within Black communities. For the Perkins family, the rift is growing after they were turned away by officials when they expected to view the body camera footage earlier this week. Paperwork needed to get approved first, WAFF reported.
Police body cameras have become a relatively new requirement for federal and most state law enforcement agencies across the U.S. Ultimately, they don’t answer all the questions needed to complete an investigation, but they do bring additional transparency.
“That’s why I think it’s more important for police departments to work in tandem with community members, and for affected families,” Rodney W. Jacobs Jr., leader of Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel that reviews complaints against the city’s police officers, told Capital B.
When the family is allowed to see body camera footage before it’s made public, at least everyone knows what’s happening and it builds trust.
Jacobs added that when police departments wait months to release camera footage, that’s when you have more of an outcry in the community.
Conflicting details, lack of transparency
For nearly three weeks, protests ensued in Decatur, where up to 100 residents have reportedly turned out to call for the release of the officers’ body camera footage and for the Morgan County district attorney to prosecute them for killing Perkins.
“You really just have transparency issues with police departments in the community. And I think if police departments really just leaned into being more open and transparent before these situations happen, you can create an environment where [the relationship] works for both sides,” Jacobs said.
The discrepancies in the moments after Perkins exited his home are what lead to Pinion correcting the record. They may also be the timestamp that investigators will concentrate on to determine if any wrongdoing was done by the officers.
Similar to the Decatur shooting, the Minneapolis Police Department was forced to retract its initial report on the death of George Floyd, which it erroneously said was the result of a “medical incident.” John Elder, the spokesperson for the Minneapolis Police Department, walked back his initial press release in a June 2020 interview with the Star Tribune.
“There is no way I’m going to lie about a situation that is on body camera and is going to prove this department to be disingenuous,” Elder said.
Jacobs understands how this would make anyone feel like the police department has something to hide. “I think this situation cuts both ways. … But in other situations, if it’s an ongoing investigation, police departments have a really good reason for withholding … evidence that may tarnish an ongoing investigation,” he said.
Nichols’ family also had to wait weeks before they were able to see what multiple body and surveillance cameras captured of the fatal attack on their loved one on Jan. 7. Investigators cited the need for the ongoing internal investigation to be completed first. Before the end of that month, those five Memphis police officers were ultimately fired and have been indicted in state court. They were also hit with federal charges.
The county coroner’s preliminary report says Perkins died from multiple gunshot wounds and the manner of death is homicide. A “full autopsy report could take up to three months” and “no reports will be released until the district attorney releases them,” a spokesperson told Capital B in an email.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s State Bureau of Investigation immediately launched an investigation. Upon completion, its findings will go to the prosecutors to determine next steps.