Family seeks answers after black drummer killed by officer

AP News
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Posted: Oct 21, 2015 3:56 PM
Family seeks answers after black drummer killed by officer

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — The family of a black drummer and public housing inspector killed by a plainclothes officer is demanding answers after he was fatally shot when his car broke down on a dark interstate exit ramp in affluent Palm Beach Gardens.

Officer Nouman Raja, who had been investigating local burglaries, stopped his unmarked car early Sunday morning to check out what he thought was an abandoned vehicle, Palm Beach Gardens Police Chief Stephen Stepp said. Instead, "he was suddenly confronted by an armed subject" and fatally shot 31-year-old Corey Jones, Stepp said.

Investigators recovered a handgun on the ground that matched a box found in the car, Stepp said. Records indicate Jones purchased the weapon legally only three days before. Raja's car did not have a dashboard camera and the department's officers do not wear body cameras, the chief said.

Police have not said what caused the confrontation between the men or whether Jones knew that Raja was a police officer.

"It would be premature to say we have all the facts and speculate as to what took place based on unconfirmed accounts," Stepp told reporters.

The state's legislative black caucus called on the governor to launch an independent investigation by the state law enforcement agency. Family members and friends were stunned by Jones' death, describing the housing authority inspector who moonlighted as a drummer in local bands as nonviolent. He was raised in a church-going family that includes pastors and a bishop.

He had been returning from playing at a local bar when his car broke down, local media reported. He pulled over and called a friend, who had come and unsuccessfully tried to help him get the car running. The friend left and Jones called a tow truck, which hadn't arrived when Raja pulled up on the exit ramp near a busy intersection and several upscale shopping centers.

An uncle, Fred Banks, said Wednesday that the confrontation could have resulted from mistaken identity and Jones may have thought he had to defend himself.

"If (Raja) had clothes on identifying him as an officer (the shooting) probably would never have happened. Corey probably got scared," Banks said. "He wouldn't attack anybody."

His grandfather, the Rev. Sylvester Banks Sr., told reporters Tuesday that Jones had never been in trouble and was "about doing good."

"He was just a lovely grandchild," Banks said. "I didn't even know he had a gun."

Jones' only previous run-in with police happened in 2007 when he got pulled over in Miami Beach for having tinted windows. He was arrested after the officer noticed a handgun in his car and, at that time, did not have a concealed weapons permit. Prosecutors dropped the case for unknown reasons.

Jones was a graduate of the University of Akron with degrees in business administration and music, and mentored at My Brother's Keeper, an organization for black youth, according to his LinkedIn page.

Fred Banks said Jones organized monthly jam sessions where dozens of musicians from all over South Florida would come to the church and play gospel music, and sometimes a little R&B, until the middle of the night.

The shooting is the latest to happen during a national debate about police use of weapons, particularly in cases involving African-Americans. Jones' family is being represented by prominent civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, who also represented the Trayvon Martin family among others, and a rally is planned Thursday at the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department. The Rev. Al Sharpton is expected to attend.

Stepp said police shootings rarely happen in the city, which is 89 percent white and has a median income far above the Florida average, according to the U.S. Census. The city is home to tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams.

Jones lived in Lake Worth, which is south of Palm Beach Gardens.

The shooting is being investigated by the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office, which has not issued any public statements.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has said he offered state agents to help with investigations already underway, but he has not asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to undertake its own probe.

Rep. Bobby Powell, a Democrat from Riviera Beach, said having a state investigation would "restore confidence" to the local community.

According to city records, Raja, 38, had no disciplinary actions or complaints since joining the Palm Gardens force last April. Previously, Raja worked seven years at the Atlantis Police Department, another small city in Palm Beach County. Police haven't said what race he is.

Atlantis Police Chief Robert Mangold said Raja had only minor infractions during his time there and that he also was an adjunct criminal justice professor at Palm Beach State College. Mangold also said Raja spoke several languages.

A man who answered the door at the officer's home Wednesday quickly shut it and declined to answer questions. The home was being guarded by a sheriff's deputy.

Jones and his brother, former NFL wide receiver C.J. Jones, were close friends with Pro Bowl defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, a longtime member of the New England Patriots who now plays for the Houston Texas. Wilfork tweeted after learning of Corey Jones' death that he was "a good dude a standup guy" who was raised in the church.

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Associated Press writer Curt Anderson in Miami and Gary Fineout in Tallahassee contributed to this story.