The circumstances are still hazy in what led a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy to shoot and kill an unarmed black man east of Tampa last week. While the investigation will take time, the Sheriff's Office has been too close-mouthed about the case, opting to huddle behind the scenes with local civic leaders rather than to speak frankly and directly with residents before a tense situation spins out of control. With protesters in the street for several nights, it is critical that all sides work to tamp down emotions and the rumor mill, which only help fuel the racially charged climate that communities and the police are facing across the country. Sheriff David Gee can build confidence by being more visible and responsive in the coming days.
A tactical team responded to the Clair-Mel home of Levonia Riggins on the morning of Aug. 30 after what authorities said was a monthlong investigation during which they bought drugs from Riggins. A veteran deputy, Caleb Johnson, who has served on the SWAT team for three years, smashed through a bedroom window and ordered Riggins to show his hands. Authorities said Riggins, 22, wriggled under the covers before slipping between the bed and a wall. The Sheriff's Office said Johnson, who is white, "could not see what Mr. Riggins was doing." Authorities said the deputy fired once after fearing that Riggins was reaching to his waistband for a weapon. It turned out that Riggins was unarmed.
Dozens of protesters have gathered outside a convenience store in Clair-Mel where Riggins worked, where for the past week they have held signs, chanted anti-police slogans, hauled trash and obstacles into the road, blocked traffic and vandalized garbage cans, signs and other property. Deputies have secured the area to prevent further damage and harm to motorists, though the Sheriff's Office said Tuesday it believed the protests were under control and waning.
The Sheriff's Office made the right move by communicating quickly with black civic leaders, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, the Rev. Thomas Scott and James Cole, a member of the sheriff's Black Advisory Council and the local NAACP youth council. They have delivered a message of calm, and their involvement will help build public faith as this investigation by the state attorney continues. But it took the Sheriff's Office three days amid mounting pressure to offer even a basic explanation of how the shooting unfolded. And Gee has yet to speak publicly on the matter. The investigation must take its course, but this also is a moment when the public needs to hear from the elected sheriff. The shooting is one thing, but the investigation and the fallout on the street are serious enough to be addressed as public policy matters, too.
This region, luckily, has been spared from the violence and chaos that has followed police shootings across the country. But residents here are not deaf or indifferent to the conversation taking place on the national stage. If anything has been learned from the experiences in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and elsewhere, it is the importance of developing relationships between law enforcement officers and residents before there is trouble — and the importance of police speaking candidly as quickly as possible when shootings occur so everyone has the facts as they develop rather than relying on rumors and speculation that may be inaccurate. The sheriff can set the right tone and an example without steering the investigation one way or another. Gee should shed more light on the incident and make public his commitment to a thorough and fair resolution to the case.