LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — For five days after an officer shot a Sudanese refugee on a Louisville street corner, small groups held vigils, stacked flowers on the sidewalk and took to social media to rant about the police.
That quiet response to the shooting ended Thursday night, when the president of the city's police union sent an open letter calling unspecified activists "sensationalists, liars and race-baiters," prompting widespread indignation and calls for his resignation.
In the two-page missive, Dave Mutchler, the president of the River City Fraternal Order of Police and a sergeant in the Louisville Metro Police Department, railed against a weak criminal justice system, promised officers would use deadly force against criminals with weapons and issued a call to supporters of law enforcement: "Soon, we may have to ask you to rise with us against the small, but very local group of people in our city who resist everything we all strive to attain," he wrote.
The city's mayor and police chief distanced themselves from his statement. Experts questioned his intentions.
City Councilman David James, who represents the district where 35-year-old Deng Manyuon was shot by an officer Saturday, was a police officer for 30 years and also served for a time as the president of the FOP. He said he was puzzled and surprised by Mutchler's letter.
Mutchler represents the city's 1,200 police officers. James said he heard from many of them Friday. Some were supportive of Mutchler's sentiments. Others, he said, feared it would worsen an already tumultuous relationship between residents and police.
"I suspect this will not serve to mend the breach between police and community members," said Dr. Lorie Fridell, a University of Southern Florida professor and expert on community and police relations. "This letter will serve to increase that divide."
Both Mayor Greg Fischer and Police Chief Steve Conrad declined to be interviewed. But both released statements saying Mutchler's letter undermined the department's efforts to bring the community together after Saturday's shooting.
Police say Manyuon attacked a woman walking down the street Saturday afternoon. Officer Nathan Blanford, responding to the call about the assault, saw Manyuon staggering across a busy intersection in Old Louisville. He was nearly hit by a car.
A video released by the police department shows Blanford approach Manyuon and Manyuon storm away, out of the frame. He then picked up a 7-foot flagpole and charged the officer, swinging wildly. The officer fired two shots, killing him.
Mutchler took particular umbrage with some of the witness statements in the hours immediately after the shooting. Kenneth Williams told various news media outlets that he saw the episode unfold and denied that Manyuon actually wielded the pole as a weapon. The video clearly debunked that account. But some on social media seized on it anyway.
"If your behavior or untruths causes harm to us or the public, we will make every attempt to have you investigated, charged and prosecuted at the local, state or federal level," Mutchler wrote in his letter. "Your idiocy and lies are what caused the destruction in Ferguson and other cities around our country and we won't be tolerating that here."
Fridell said in the past, citizens tended to assume that police shootings in their community were justified. That has changed with the advent of cellphone video cameras that have captured incriminating scenes of unarmed black men being shot or allegedly mistreated by police. Some officers have grown frustrated by the blowback.
Attica Scott, an activist and a former city councilwoman who has publicly sparred with Mutchler before, said she and other activists felt threatened and bullied by the letter. She read it to say that police officers would not tolerate dissent.
Mutchler held a news conference Thursday to clarify that the letter was not meant as a threat. But he remained defiant: He said the only people offended by the letter are those attempting to agitate the community. He believes they should appreciate that he was willing to speak honestly, while others skirt the truth out of fear of being called racist or "Hitler." Mutchler believes the letter will serve as a catalyst for community discussion.
But others believe he took the wrong tone.
Ed Connors, a former law enforcement officer who now runs the Institute for Law and Justice, said the letter read like Mutchler had "flames shooting out of his ears."
"Situations are bad enough; we don't need these kinds of inflammatory statements," he said. "We don't need the police to fan the flames. We need the police to remain calm, clear-headed and rise above the fray. They're supposed to be the better people."