To the long and disturbing list of young black men who have died under questionable circumstances at the hands of police — shot, smothered, choked — we must now add the name Corey Jones.
The 31-year-old drummer from Boynton Beach was shot to death early in the morning of Oct. 18 after his car broke down on I-95 and he’d pulled off at the PGA Blvd. exit. He was waiting for a tow truck to arrive when Palm Beach Gardens Police Officer Nouman Raja pulled up behind him in an unmarked van with tinted windows. Wearing jeans, T-shirt and a baseball cap, Raja walked towards Jones’ car, believing it was abandoned. Inexplicably, he left behind in the van his police badge, radio and department-issued gun, all violations of standard police protocol.
Corey Jones had called his brother to say he’d broken down and also talked to another friend, but at the time he was alone. It was 3 o’clock in the morning. He had with him a pistol he’d purchased legally three days earlier and had a concealed weapons permit. Corey bought the gun, according to family attorney Benjamin Crump, because he carried his expensive drum kit in his car and often had the nightly cash proceeds from his band’s gigs. He and the band, Future Prezidents, had just played in Jupiter. Jones also played drums in his church band. His day job was as a building inspector for the Delray Beach Housing Authority.
“I know Corey and I know he couldn’t shoot that gun,” a distraught Housing Authority Executive Director Dorothy Ellington told a town hall meeting I attended at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in West Palm Beach. A panel of local officials and civic leaders tried to console the crowd of more than 200, but they weren’t having it.
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A retired police chief who’s looked at the incident tells me Officer Raja violated almost every standard police procedure for a traffic stop.
More than a dozen people told of being subjected to unprovoked harassment and excessive force by white police officers. Riviera Beach Police Chief Clarence Williams, who is black, didn’t excuse police misconduct, but held Officer Raja accountable for violating standard police protocols in approaching Jones’ car in plainclothes without his badge and not calling for a marked patrol unit. Attorney Crump, who met with Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, also says Raja didn’t run Jones’ license plate or tell dispatchers his location. A retired police chief who’s looked at the incident tells me Raja violated almost every standard police procedure for a traffic stop.
You can only imagine how scared Corey Jones must have been to see an unmarked van stop behind his car and a man in every day garb get out and walk toward his vehicle. It’s understandable why Jones would have reached for his gun---the one he had bought for self-defense. The one that likely cost him his life when the police officer saw Corey holding it. Corey never fired. Officer Raja, drawing his personal gun, shot Jones three times. Jones was hit once in each arm; the third bullet ripped into his chest and came to rest in his heart. His body was found 80 to 100 yards away in the grass swale. “Corey Jones died trying to run away,” Crump says. “He died never knowing that the man who shot him was a police officer.”
Raja has given a statement to investigators, but we may never hear it. It’s reasonable to assume Raja said he fired because he saw a man get out what he thought was an abandoned vehicle with a gun and feared for his life. Sadly, we’ll never hear Corey Jones’ version of what happened. Nor will a grand jury. If the Cleveland cop who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice was not indicted, it’s hard to imagine that Officer Nouman Raja will.
Jones’s friends, neighbors and band mates described him at the town hall as an outgoing, friendly man who carried no prejudices.. The band he played in, Future Prezidents, was a mixture of black and white musicians. “He never met someone who wasn’t a friend,” a white band mate said, choking back tears.
Among the speakers who urged those at the church to push hard for answers was Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother. “Never give up,” she cried out, “keep the pressure on.”
It took 48 hours for the Palm Beach Gardens police chief to make a public statement about the shooting, much too long. And while he promised a full and transparent investigation, it certainly sounded like he was defending his officer and blaming the victim. Yes, Corey Jones was arrested when he was 23 on Miami Beach during Hip Hop Weekend for having a knife and gun (Dorothy Ellington said the gun was her son’s). Corey went into a diversion program for first-time offenders and completed it successfully. He had no criminal record. His only record was as a hard worker, fine drummer and a good son and brother. “He didn’t do anything wrong,” Crump told me. “He had every right to live.”
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has started an investigation, which has been joined by the FBI. At the same time, the Palm Beach County state attorney is conducting his own investigation. Veteran Miami defense attorney H.T. Smith says having three separate investigations into Jones’ death will mean inevitable delays and arguments over evidence and jurisdiction. “I don’t expect to get any answers for at least a year,” Smith says.
In the meantime, people of good will must ask: How many more deaths of young black men by police will we have to endure? All lives matter, but black lives matter more in these situations because they’re mainly the ones being unjustifiably lost.
Sabrina Fulton put it well: “How many more will be killed before we say enough is enough?”