Prosecutor declines black lawmakers’ call for outside probe of police shooting in Palm Beach Gardens

Church drummer Corey Jones was shot and killed by police after his car broke down; details about the shooting are scarce.
Church drummer Corey Jones was shot and killed by police after his car broke down; details about the shooting are scarce. The Washington Post

Calls by black state lawmakers on Wednesday for an independent probe into the fatal police shooting of a Delray Beach property manager and musician after his car broke down along I-95 were heeded by the governor — but brushed aside by the Palm Beach County state prosecutor.

After the state legislative Black Caucus gathered in Tallahassee to make its demand, Florida Gov. Rick Scott offered to enlist the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to help investigate what led to the death of Corey Jones.

The response from Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg: Thanks, but we’ll handle it. He said his office intends to conduct “an independent and thorough investigation,” will continue to exchange information with the FDLE, and will meet soon with the grieving family of Jones, who was 31.

“We appreciate the Governor’s offer and have spoken with FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen about this matter. We routinely exchange information with FDLE and our working relationship with FDLE continues to be strong,” Aronberg said in a prepared statement.

Earlier in the day the Black Caucus had voiced frustration over a local police agency leading an investigation of the actions of an officer in their own back yard. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office will investigate the shooting by Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja. The shooting, the latest in a string of fatal encounters across the nation between black men and police officers, is drawing national attention. Community activists plan a rally Thursday outside the Palm Beach Gardens police headquarters. Jones’ family is expected to attend.

“Once again, another young black man has been killed by being someplace he rightfully belonged in our state,” said Rep. Edwin Narain, D-Tampa. Narain said he was also angered that Stephen Stepp, the Palm Beach Gardens police chief, waited more than two days before addressing the issue publicly.

Black state legislators in Florida want an independent investigation into the police-involved shooting death of Corey Jones. He was shot in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Video by Kristen M. Clark/Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau

“It is these type of delays and lack of evidence that continue to create distrust between communities of color and local police departments,” said Narain. “It is a source of anguish and frustration for black people nationwide, and legislative action and enforcement appears to be the only proper remedy.”

Rep. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach, echoed that view: “This has to stop. There’s no evidence that we’ve seen to indicate that this man was a trouble-maker. . . . My community is frustrated, and rightfully so.”

Jones was killed early Sunday morning in a grassy swale along I-95 at the PGA Boulevard exit. Chief Stepp said Tuesday night that Raja stopped his white van near the on ramp after spotting Jones’ broken-down silver Hyundai just after 3 a.m. The officer was in an unmarked car and not in uniform while on a burglary detail. The car did not have a dashcam and Raja was not wearing a body camera.

Stepp said Raja, 38, thought the car was abandoned. But as Raja approached, Stepp said, “he was suddenly confronted by an armed subject.” Raja shot and killed Jones about 30 yards from the car after a brief foot chase. Stepp said police found a silver Jimenez .380 handgun with six rounds in it near the Hyundai. He said the weapon’s original box and the paperwork from the purchase were still inside Jones’ car.

Jones was returning home from a gig in Jupiter with his band, Future Prezidents, when his car broke down. He called a friend, who came by and helped him call a tow truck, then left.

Days later, family and friends continued to grapple with the death of someone they say was a gentle, church-going soul who wouldn’t even kill fish he caught, choosing instead to release them.

On Wednesday morning, the 872 seats at The Bible Church of God in Boynton Beach were mostly empty, except for Jones’ uncle Fred Banks, seated on a padded blue bench chatting with reporters. Behind Banks were more blue benches leading to a well-worn pulpit. White and gold fans spun lazily, causing the gold and crystal chandeliers alongside to sway. Jones’ grandfather is a bishop at the church. His sister is its secretary. He used to play music there.

Normally, at this time on this day, church leaders are preparing for evening Bible study. Instead, they were mourning the death of Jones and trying to understand why he was killed.

“He wouldn't attack anybody, that’s not in his character,” Fred Banks said of his nephew. “Hatred, violence, prejudice is all taught. For them to call Corey aggressive, no way.”

His family hired Tallahassee attorney Benjamin Crump, who represented the families of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, killed by a security guard in Sanford, Florida, and Michael Brown, 19, shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. On CNN Wednesday Crump said he doubted Jones knew Raja was a police officer because he was in an unmarked car and not wearing his uniform.

Jones, born into a prominent Boynton Beach family of church elders, was an inspector and assistant property manager with the Delray Beach Housing Authority. He grew up playing drums at the family church, just like his father. He was the brother of former NFL player C.J. Jones, and the cousin of current NFL player Anquan Bolden.

Raja joined the Palm Beach Gardens police department seven months ago. Stepp said there have been no complaints or disciplinary actions filed against him, and no internal affairs investigations. Before that he spent eight years with the city of Atlantis police department in Palm Beach County. There, he ran into some trouble, disciplinary action reports from the city show.

He received a written reprimand in 2011 after chasing a car he spotted with expired tags through a crowd of people who had to jump out of the way. He also received a written reprimand for three incidents in 2012 in which he did not submit reports. In one of the incidents he failed to file away narcotics he had confiscated that were later found in his vehicle. At least two of those cases were dropped.

Raja, an adjunct professor at Palm Beach State College and certified to teach firearms training, has been placed on administrative leave until the investigation plays out.

Family friend Vince Wilfork, a future Hall of Famer and current Houston Texans defensive lineman, said he plans on gathering with Jones’ family on Saturday, the day before the Texans face the Miami Dolphins. He called the death “a tough pill to swallow” and said “everybody needs to held accountable and hopefully justice can be served.”

Breante Allen, 26, is a cousin of Jones. They grew up in the same home and played football and video games and went to church together as kids. They also liked to go fishing, but because of Jones’ gentle nature, Allen recalled, it usually meant releasing whatever they caught.

Allen said Jones had just made the final payment on his gun, which he bought for security because he always was collecting rent from tenants at all hours of the night. Another reason he bought the weapon, according to Allen: the nine people shot to death at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June.

“That’s what triggered him,” said Allen. “He asked, what if someone tried to do that to my church? My family?”

The Bible Church of God in Boynton Beach will have a benefit concert in honor of Jones on Sunday, with all proceeds going to the family.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Adam Beasley contributed to this report.

Related stories from Miami Herald