What happens when someone is killed by police in MS?

Shot in the Dark looks at the killing of Georgia resident Leonard Parker by Gulfport police.

 McClatchy

“I think when you take a person’s life, you owe the family at the very least that much: you owe the family a very basic explanation of what led to this death.”
The family of a Black U.S. Army veteran killed by Gulfport police feel his case would have been treated differently if there was video. But no bystanders recorded, and the officer’s body cam wasn’t turned on. So how do things play out when someone is killed by law enforcement in Mississippi? It can be mysterious and complicated.

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Shot in the Dark

A Gulfport police officer shot and killed an Army veteran named Leonard Parker on Feb. 1, 2020. The officer said Parker was trying to run him over, and Parker’s grieving family got no other details from Mississippi law enforcement. Documents the Sun Herald fought to obtain tell a different story.


On the morning of Feb. 1, Mary Broussard answered a phone call that would change her life.

Her brother, Leonard Parker, was dead.

She drove 30 minutes to tell their mother that her oldest son was gone.

“I just didn’t believe it,” Frankie Parker said. “I said, no, no, you are lying. I couldn’t believe that could be the truth — that my son could be killed in a car by the police.”

Family and friends soon filled the Parker home in Covington, Georgia, all trying to figure out what had happened.

To his wife, Catina Parker, most of that day is a blur.

“The only thing I can remember really is my baby screaming, ‘No, my dad’s not dead,’” she said. “‘Mommy, just tell them they made a mistake.’”

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Leonard Parker adored his all his children, family said, including his youngest child, Londyn Parker, pictured. Courtesy of Parker family

Friends and neighbors frantically called the Gulfport Police Department and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, and enlisted neighbors and friends in law enforcement in Georgia to see if they could get anything from their counterparts in Mississippi. For hours, they got no response.

They didn’t know it then, but that day forecast how they would be treated by Mississippi law enforcement over the next 16 months: With little compassion or recognition that a grieving family needs the truth in order to heal.

In response to records requests made by both the Parker family and the Sun Herald, law enforcement made broad use of the exemption in Mississippi public records law for documents relating to an active investigation. Gulfport initially told the Sun Herald it had no responsive records, but provided an incident report after the grand jury ruled. Under Mississippi law, that incident report was not exempt and should have been provided initially.

The law gives authorities the right to withhold investigative documents, but it doesn’t require them to do so.

Nicolette Ward, an attorney for the Parker family, was a member of the legal team representing the family of George Floyd, the man killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020. Ward’s firm, Romanucci & Blandin of Chicago, has also represented the families of Daniel Prude, Byron Williams and other Black men killed by police.

Ward said that in other cases she has worked on, law enforcement has been slow to turn over documents and evidence. But she has never encountered the lack of transparency, for this length of time, shown by the Mississippi law enforcement agencies investigating Parker’s death.

“I think when you take a person’s life, you owe the family at the very least that much: you owe the family a very basic explanation of what led to this death,” she said in an interview in late January. “And unfortunately, a year in, they’ve refused to do it.”

On the evening of Feb. 1, 2020, a public official finally called Catina Parker. She put Harrison County Coroner Brian Switzer on speaker phone. A colleague of Parker’s at the VA, Sharon Hodges, and another friend, Valerie Martin, told the Sun Herald they remembered hearing the conversation.

Parker remembers Switzer saying: “‘Mrs. Parker, [what] I can tell you is your husband did nothing wrong.”

Switzer told the Sun Herald he doesn’t remember the specifics of that conversation, given the amount of time that has passed. However, he does remember Parker’s family asking why police shot and killed Leonard Parker.

“I told them he wasn’t the one that police got called out there for,” he said. “They got called out there for a disturbance of some kind, and the disturbance was actually involving the guy Mr. Parker was trying to take home or take somewhere away from the situation.”

No body camera footage from killing

In the days and months that followed her husband’s death, Gulfport refused to turn over even the most basic documents to the family and the Sun Herald in response to records requests. Under Mississippi law, incident reports are never exempt from public records requests, and Gulfport should have shared one with Ward and the Parker family.

MBI provided a sparse incident report, but after the grand jury ruled, it ignored a new records request from the family’s attorneys and provided no additional information.

Secrecy is not uncommon when Mississippi law enforcement kill people while on the job. The family of Reginald Johnson, who was killed by a Harrison County sheriff’s deputy in January, did not hear from MBI for 10 days; someone from the agency contacted them only after several news stories highlighted the lack of contact. Protesters’ calls for the release of body camera footage were ignored.

Parker said she felt her husband’s case might have been treated differently if there had been bystander video.

“There is no video that we know of,” she said. “There is nothing to put it out there.”

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This photo from the investigative case file shows Gulfport Police Officer Jason Cuevas, who was cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury. Courtesy of Special Prosecutor Chris Hennis

In cases across the U.S., police body camera footage has been released to the public. Chicago, for example, released footage of an officer shooting 13-year-old Adam Toledo two and a half weeks after he died.

When police in South Mississippi kill people, they almost never release body camera footage. One notable exception came in 2019, when the Moss Point Police Department released footage from the officer who killed Toussaint Diamon Sims two months after it happened.

Mississippi’s rate of police killings is the country’s ninth-highest, according to the nonprofit Mapping Police Violence.

In Harrison County, the annual rate of killings by all law enforcement agencies was just over one person per 100,000, more than three times higher than the national rate, and about twice as high as the statewide rate.

“Over five years it appears the risk was consistently high (in Harrison County),” said sociologist Frank Edwards, a professor at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice who reviewed data on police-involved deaths in Mississippi from the Fatal Encounters database for the Sun Herald. The incidents happened year after year in Harrison County at a higher rate than in every other county with a population over 100,000 but Hinds.

In Parker’s case, the lack of video footage resulted from Cuevas’s violation of his own department’s policy. Two different bills in the 2021 legislative session in Mississippi would have required punishments for officers who failed to turn on their body cameras while on duty; one bill would have made it a misdemeanor offense. Both died in committee.

Without any video footage, local media, including the Sun Herald, reported what police said about Leonard Parker’s death: That he had driven toward a police officer.

His family said the Army veteran respected police and followed rules.

“If that officer would have just done his job better, he would have probably been Leonard’s friend,” said Broussard.

Who was Leonard Parker?

To Catina, he was “a bigger than life type of person.”

From the time he was a boy in Houston, his mother said, he was a kind and gentle soul who did well in school and had many friends, though he was always closest to his big sister, Broussard, and brother, Antonio Parker.

In his senior year, his mother gave him two choices: college or ROTC. Parker chose ROTC because he wanted to pursue a military career.

He joined the Army at 18 and served 22 years, including being stationed overseas for over seven years. He was in Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War, and in Iraq the first year after the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

His list of honors includes the Bronze Star Medal for distinguished heroism and a Meritorious Service Medal.

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In his senior year, Frankie Parker gave her son two choices: college or ROTC. Leonard Parker chose ROTC because he wanted to pursue a military career. He joined the Army at 18 and served 22 years, including overseas for over seven years. Courtesy of Parker family

Parker was a devoted father to his six children. His oldest, LaTrecia Welch, was inspired by his service to join the Army herself. Parker gave her her first salute when she graduated and became an officer in 2005.

Parker and Catina met in South Carolina when he had just gotten back from Iraq.

“He had the biggest smile,” she said.

They moved to Georgia in 2007; Leonard started his job at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and he rose quickly through the ranks.

“You could rely on him, he was dedicated,” said Floretta Hardmon, the supervisor who hired him. “He also had just a wonderful personality. Always with a smile on his face.”

At work, he was meticulous. He always wore a tie, though he didn’t see clients in person. If a pencil on his desk was out of place, he noticed, said colleague and friend Sharon Hodges.

Once, Hodges and Parker were out to lunch and saw a homeless man in the parking lot. Parker, knowing homeless people are more likely to be veterans, went over and encouraged the man to get in touch with him at the VA.

“He looked at every veteran like his comrade,” Hodges said.

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Leonard Parker Jr., 53, of Covington, Georgia, was shot and killed by a Gulfport police officer early Saturday morning, Feb. 1, 2020. The officer was cleared of criminal conduct by grand jury in April. Courtesy of Parker Family

Outside of work, Parker liked to barbecue and entertain. Being a Texan, “his thing was smoked,” Catina said. He cooked all kinds of meats: ribs, turkey legs, even lamb. If he didn’t have a recipe, he would call his mom in Houston and ask for one.

Londyn, Leonard and Catina’s only child together, was 6 years old in January 2020. Whatever she wanted to do, Leonard wanted to do, Catina said. She loved the beach, so they visited every year.

When pictures of his grandchildren started to fill his desk, Hodges joked with him. “I laughed and said, ‘You really getting old now!’” she said.

After Parker was killed, Catina heard from friends and colleagues from the military and the VA who were as desperate for answers as she was.

“Because they didn’t understand how you could go and fight wars and come back and be killed at home,” she said.

Law enforcement remains silent

When a Mississippi law enforcement officer kills someone on the job, MBI handles the investigation. In Parker’s case, the Biloxi Police Department assisted with the crime scene investigation.

Typically, a local district attorney handles the presentation to a grand jury. But the Harrison County District Attorney’s office recused itself on Feb. 3, 2020, because an employee’s family had a “close relationship” with the officer involved, according to District Attorney Crosby Parker.

“I’m not going to get into the identities of anybody (in my office), but as you know as a prosecuting office, we have an ethical obligation to not only avoid an ethical conflict of interest but the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Parker said.

The office never contacted Parker’s family to tell them they had stepped away from the case.

A “toolkit” for prosecutors and communities dealing with fatalities involving officers — produced by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice with input from law enforcement and citizens from around the country — recommends a local prosecutor “connect with family impacted by incident” within 24 hours of a fatality.

The toolkit also recommends investigators provide updates to family before releasing information to the media. Finally, it urges investigators to “meet standards of transparency, i.e. release video footage within 10 days.”

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The street where Leonard Parker was shot dead-ends and sees little traffic. Most residents are retired; some have owned homes there for decades, neighbors said. Justin Mitchell [email protected]

Crosby Parker said in response to a Sun Herald inquiry that his office is reviewing the way it handles these kind of cases to ensure families are informed about the legal process.

He noted that in this case his office recused itself within two days and had no information about what happened.

Because of the recusal, the responsibility to contact someone fell on MBI, the agency assigned to investigate the case, he said.

“There is no process that is perfect, and if our office has let somebody down by not providing information regarding the process, we want to be able to do that,” Crosby Parker said. “If it didn’t happen in the Parker case, it should have, whether it was us, MBI or another agency that was involved in the case.”

Special prosecutor for Harrison County case

The Harrison County DA’s office had initially asked the state Attorney General’s office to take over, but Lynn Fitch had just taken office and was still staffing up, so instead her staff asked other district attorneys to take over.

Matthew Sullivan agreed to handle it after two others turned it down, documents the AG’s office provided in response to a records request show. Sullivan was then district attorney for the 13th Circuit Court District, over four counties between Jackson and Hattiesburg.

Sullivan, who is now a circuit judge, told the Sun Herald that he always agreed to help other DA’s when they had a conflict.

In 2020, his office won indictments in two high-profile cases involving law enforcement officers. A former Laurel police officer was indicted on manslaughter charges for shooting and killing a Black woman after he had left the force. The same officer and a colleague were indicted for aggravated assault in the 2018 beating of a Black man while they were on duty.

Cases involving possible police misconduct are tough, he said, because of the close relationships prosecutors have with the officers they rely on to do their jobs.

“You didn’t become a prosecutor ’cause you dislike law enforcement,” he said. “If you did, you don’t have any business as a prosecutor, ’cause you have to work with them. You depend on them to produce good evidence so they can make you look good as a prosecutor and you can win the case.

“When one of them potentially does wrong, it weighs heavily on your heart. You gotta be a big boy about it and just do your job.”

In June, someone from MBI delivered the findings of their investigation to Sullivan’s office: two three-ring binders, each about two inches thick.

The binders, and the job of prosecuting the officer who shot Parker, landed on the desk of then-Assistant District Attorney Chris Hennis. Sullivan said he chose Hennis because he was the most experienced, “with the maturity and the wisdom” to handle a potentially controversial case.

At 17, he had joined the Marines. Hennis’ four-year tour of duty took him to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Parker was stationed in Saudi Arabia during that same conflict.

Before becoming an attorney, Hennis had also served as a Mississippi state trooper for seven years.

Hennis started looking through evidence, which included statements from “numerous witnesses.”

It was his first time working on a case in which an officer killed someone.

“We present the case and the evidence to the grand jury,” he said. “And don’t take a position either way so as not to influence a grand jury either way.”

He was planning to present the evidence in December, but then he and his entire family got COVID-19.

Eventually, the grand jury hearing was set for March 25. Hennis said he reached out to witnesses mentioned in the file and began preparing them to testify.

He called Derrian Tremaine Markray, who was in the truck with Parker, but never heard back, he said. Instead, the video of Markray’s interview with investigators would be played for the grand jury.

Widow left out of legal process

In late February, Hennis got an email from Ward, who said she was representing Leonard Parker’s widow.

“I was genuinely surprised when I found out there was a Mrs. Parker out there,” Hennis said.

He had missed the brief mention of Catina Parker in the investigative file. Hennis said it wasn’t a big surprise that she wasn’t more prominent in the file, since she had not been at the scene in Gulfport. But he was troubled that she may have been shut out of the process.

Hennis had a conference call with Ward and Parker before the grand jury met.

“I felt like it’s important to keep the victim’s family updated,” he said. “And what’s going on in the legal process. ’Cause a lot of people don’t understand the legal process. They’ve already been through — whatever crime they’re a victim of, they’ve already been through the incident, and if they don’t understand the legal process, to me it just adds to it.”

He was concerned enough to reach out to MBI, who told him that a victim’s advocate in their agency had reached out to Catina at some point in 2020.

She told the Sun Herald that wasn’t true.

“No one from the police department has ever reached out to me,” she said, and the only public official who did reach out was the coroner.

The Sun Herald told Hennis that Parker said she had no contact with law enforcement after Switzer’s phone call on Feb. 1, 2020.

“It would be a problem to me” if MBI had never reached out to her, he said.

MBI told the Sun Herald someone did contact Parker’s widow but did not provide any more details.

Secrets of the grand jury

In Mississippi, state law makes grand jury proceedings secret, and anyone who testifies cannot speak of their testimony for six months.

It is not clear which witnesses testified in person, and whether the accounts they delivered to the grand jury may have differed from their interviews right after the shooting.

The prosecutors presented the evidence, and Hennis said the grand jury saw and heard “the complete investigation,” including all of the material he later gave the Sun Herald.

The grand jury gathered to consider the evidence in Parker’s case on the case on March 25. It took all afternoon, he said.

The next day, Ward said, Hennis told her a decision had been reached, but that local grand jury rules prevented him from sharing it for 10 business days. For Catina Parker, who had thought she would be able to learn the decision immediately, the wait was agonizing.

Yet again, Parker’s loved ones felt that Mississippi’s justice system had left them “a family just out here in limbo.”

On April 4, Londyn celebrated her eighth birthday, her second without her dad.

On April 5, the grand jury’s decision was released in the form of a brief “Partial Report,” a copy of which was obtained by the Sun Herald.

“After full and deliberate consideration of all the facts and circumstances leading up to the February 1, 2020, shooting of Leonard Parker, Jr., and the circumstances as they existed at the time of the shooting, the Grand Jury finds no criminal conduct on behalf of the officer involved from the Gulfport Police Department,” the report said.

“Therefore, we find that no further action is warranted by this body.”

That decision is typical in the United States. While police kill about 1,000 people every year, only 140 officers have been charged with manslaughter or murder for shooting someone while on duty since 2005, according to Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University.

Ward called Catina to tell her the news.

“It felt like I lost my husband all back over again,” Catina Parker said.

The summer after her husband died, she had watched as millions of Americans poured out into the streets, chanting the names of Black people killed by police officers and demanding accountability.

It was painful to see so many killings. It was even worse to feel that other families were working toward some kind of justice while her husband remained nearly anonymous.

After hearing the grand jury’s decision, she said she felt like she wasn’t doing enough. But it was hard to know what to do.

“If it was me, I know he would be fighting, he would be doing something, and I feel like my hands are tied, because I don’t have any information.”

Getting more information?

The finality of the grand jury’s conclusion should have meant more information was available to the family. But it didn’t.

The investigative exemption in Mississippi public records laws is intended to apply to ongoing investigations, said Leonard Van Slyke, a Jackson attorney who specializes in open meeting and records laws.

After the grand jury ruling, the Sun Herald filed a new records request with the Gulfport Police Department. The department turned over only a single incident report, which named Parker a “suspect” for “aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer” and did not mention he had been shot and killed.

The investigative file the Sun Herald later obtained contained 15 written reports from Gulfport officers who responded to the scene that night.

“Anything involving that investigation should become public record when a decision has been made not to prosecute,” Van Slyke said.

To deny all of the remaining records, including any camera footage, “is just pushing the investigative exemption to the limit,” Van Slyke said.

He called the failure to provide all the records “troublesome.”

It appears, Van Slyke said, that Gulfport police “do not feel they are accountable to the public for that information.”

Hennis said he gave the Sun Herald copies of his files because he saw no reason not to. He said he checked with the Department of Public Safety, and no one could point to any legal reason he had to keep the documents a secret.

In at least one other case in Mississippi, a district attorney released the evidence files, including body camera footage, to the public. In that case, a white police officer had shot and killed a Black man during a 2015 traffic stop.

“I think it just breeds distrust with the system if you’re withholding information that it’s not necessary to withhold,” he said.

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The Gulfport Police Department declined to share its use of force policy with the Sun Herald after an officer shot into a pickup truck and killed Leonard Parker. Justin Mitchell [email protected]

But Ward, who is representing Parker’s family, said they have not been able to get documents from Hennis.

Ward also filed a new records request with MBI shortly after the grand jury report. But MBI never responded, she said. By law, agencies have seven days to at least acknowledge public records requests, and can get an additional seven working days to produce records.

The day after Hennis gave the Sun Herald the complete investigative file, MBI finally responded to the records request reporters had sent on April 9. The documents MBI provided included synopses of witness interviews, just a fraction of the full investigative file.

It is not clear why MBI responded to the Sun Herald’s request but ignored the nearly identical request made by Ward on behalf of the Parker family.

“We call firmly and loudly on officials to meet their legal and ethical obligations in this case and comply with our requests for documents, videos and information,” Ward said.

Family speaks out about Coast police killing

In April, the family’s lawyers announced that they plan a civil lawsuit against the Gulfport Police Department. The firm worked for George Floyd’s family on their civil suit against Minneapolis, which the city settled for $27 million.

For Parker’s family, the grand jury decision had brought no closure. The single incident report the family received from Gulfport a year after Parker’s death redacted Cuevas’s name and contained no information about the shooting.

“I want the investigative report, I want the camera (footage) the police was supposed to have on him,” Frankie Parker said. “I want to see what the grand jury heard.”

The grieving mother is certain of one thing.

“My son stayed on the right path.”

In Gulfport, the people who witnessed Parker’s shooting are still dealing with what they saw that night.

Shelly Owens said her family members don’t talk much about that night. But she can’t forget the sight of Parker’s body falling from his truck into the street, and the officer’s gun pointing at her as she ran to her relatives. She thought he would shoot her, too.

She had never had a bad experience with law enforcement before, but Leonard’s killing shattered her trust. For a long time, she felt anxious when she saw police cars.

When she read the Gulfport Police Department’s explanation two days after Parker’s death, she said, she was “so furious.”

“That is not how that happened,” she said. “The character they created for Leonard Parker is not the character that he really is.”

Read Part 3 of Shot in the Dark here.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why we reported this story

After George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sent millions of Americans into the streets to demand justice and respect for Black lives, the Sun Herald wanted to find out how killings by police on the Coast had been handled by local law enforcement.

We knew Leonard Parker, Jr., a 53-year-old Black man from Covington, Georgia, had been shot and killed by a Gulfport police officer on Feb. 1, 2020. But there was almost no other information available.

The explanation released by the Gulfport Police Department raised more questions than answers. It did not make clear how Parker was related to the scene to which officers were responding. It did not say how fast Parker had been driving or whether he had any contact with the officer before he started shooting.

It did not name the officer, and it did not explain why he had opened fire instead of moving from the path of the vehicle. And we could find no reporting that answered the question of who Leonard Parker was, from the perspective of the people who loved him.

When communities feel police have taken a life without cause, trust in law enforcement erodes. And Black families and communities are disproportionately affected by over-aggressive policing, including killings by police.

We decided to try to learn as much as we could about what happened on 25th Street in the early morning hours of Feb. 1, 2020.

We didn’t know what we would find when we started asking questions. But as journalists dedicated to holding public officials accountable for their actions in every Coast community, we knew it was important to critically examine law enforcement’s claims about why a Gulfport officer killed Leonard Parker.

Margaret Baker is an investigative reporter whose search for truth exposed corrupt sheriffs, a police chief and various jailers and led to the first prosecution of a federal hate crime for the murder of a transgendered person. She worked on the Sun Herald’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina team. When she pursues a big story, she is relentless.

Profile Image of Isabelle Taft

Isabelle Taft covers communities of color and racial justice issues on the Coast through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms around the country.