Police’s Shifting Account of Black Man’s Death Raises Suspicion in Savannah, Georgia

A photo of Mr. Boyd at his mother’s home.
Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

The official story of Ricky Boyd’s fatal encounter with law enforcement officers changed, then changed again.

Savannah’s interim police chief, Mark Revenew, initially said that Mr. Boyd, a murder suspect, had fired on officers while they were trying to arrest him in front of his home in a workaday suburb far from the fountains and oak-shaded squares of the city’s historic core.

Hours later, the police released a statement that did not mention Mr. Boyd doing any shooting, though it did say that he “confronted officers with a gun.” Then the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stated that Mr. Boyd had been armed with a BB pistol.

Now the family is insisting that Mr. Boyd, 20, an African-American restaurant worker, was not armed at all. Their lawyer has accused the police of lying, and he claims that a photo taken by a neighbor just after the January shooting shows the BB pistol on the ground, a puzzling 43 feet from where Mr. Boyd fell.

On Thursday, Mr. Boyd’s mother, Jameillah Smiley, went before the Savannah City Council and asked the city to release a police body-camera video that she says shows that her son was unarmed. State Senator Lester G. Jackson III, the head of Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus, has sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, asking the Justice Department to take over the investigation from local authorities to “help avoid potential bias.”

And Savannah — the elegant, troubled jewel of the Georgia coast — found itself confronting, yet again, the question of whether its police force can be trusted.

The question has dominated the public conversation in many American cities at a time when technology can make the most obscure police encounter combustible. But it comes at a particularly sensitive moment for Savannah — a city of 147,000 people famous for its fine old buildings and Southern charm, but burdened with an outsize violent crime problem, a 25 percent poverty rate, and a police force stained by the 2014 conviction of its former chief, Willie Lovett, on federal extortion, gambling and obstruction charges.

Mr. Lovett’s well-regarded replacement, Joseph Lumpkin, reinstilled some public confidence in the police force. But Mr. Lumpkin moved to a new job in January, and the city is on a nationwide hunt for a new police chief.

Alicia Blakely, an activist with the Savannah chapter of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, said that if evidence of a cover-up emerges in the Boyd case, “just imagine — if that happened, that means the trust is completely out of the window.”

Savannah has long been a city starkly divided between rich and poor, black and white. Its growing success as a magnet for tourists, wealthy retirees and film and television productions has thrown its pervasive problems into even sharper relief.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Richard Fausset