A Constant State of Rage

In Delray Beach, cops have a remarkable history of shooting black suspects — with impunity

She'd been particularly fond of her daughter-in-law. "This was her day, the day she died, and here I am, standing there, trying to defend and ask for justice for the death of her son, her child," she says.

The last words Miller heard Jerrod utter were after she told him to be home from the basketball game by midnight on that Saturday. "Thanks, Nana. I love you," he responded without drama. The Seventh-day Adventist church they attend always tries to keep its teenagers together on Saturday nights, perhaps with bowling or skating or some other group activity. Miller remains uncertain why Jerrod didn't go to the Miami basketball game as planned. Perhaps the lure of driving a car was too enticing.

She learned that something had gone wrong when one of Jerrod's sisters received a phone call at home from a friend who told her that the police had chased Jerrod and that he'd run into a wall. When Miller arrived at the school property, no police officer would tell her anything about who was driving the white Cadillac that had crashed against a wall. When the ambulance finally pulled away, she followed it in her car but suspected the worst. "I'm not dumb," she declares. "No lights, no siren — what does that say?"

Jerrod Miller participated in a school-work program, but he died before he got the first job he longed for.
Miller Family
Jerrod Miller participated in a school-work program, but he died before he got the first job he longed for.
Jayne King says Jerrod's death blew the lid off racial tensions in Delray Beach.
Colby Katz
Jayne King says Jerrod's death blew the lid off racial tensions in Delray Beach.
Delray Beach

A large group of family and friends gathered outside the emergency room, although no one would give Miller any information. She prepared for the worst when police squad cars parked nearby.

"They knew he was dead, so they thought it was going to be a riot," she says. "I called my pastor, and he called everybody together, and we had prayer. He said, no matter what the outcome is, let's stay calm."

That evening remained nonviolent, but during the next few days, rage built with the news that a white cop had shot a black teenager in the back of the head. It looked like the city might blow apart.

Instead, local black leaders and the NAACP joined together to funnel that anger into action.

"We only had one mission," declares Smith, the black task force chair. "To follow through with the wishes of the community based on extensive input from the community." Those issues included a citizen police review board, use-of-force policy, recruitment of black officers, funding for Pompey Park, and economic development.

Smith says that Perlman had agreed to meet with the task force, but then the mayor formed his own committee, which he says was necessary because the NAACP and the task force couldn't agree on what they wanted.

The city immediately hired an outside consultant to review the Police Department's use-of-force policy, which is expected to be completed later this year. The advisory committee also recommended forming a citizen committee to make recommendations to the police chief, but it would possess no investigatory or review powers. Perlman views this as the will of the black community, as expressed through the advisory committee.

Jayne King, who's a member of the black task force, says that "people perceived that this was his way of setting up a kind of shield, to have no direct confrontation."

The NAACP's Martin describes the mayor's advisory committee as comprised of "former elected officials, people that work directly for the city one way or another, or receive city grants — what I'd call conflicts of interest. And it did not include people in the community who really felt affected by racism."

Regardless of perceptions over what the city is or isn't doing, the deepest furrow of cynicism over Jerrod's death was dug by the State Attorney's Office.

William Albury, an elder at Jerrod's church with a bantam build and intense eyes, knew Jerrod well. He's closely followed the repercussions. "Whatever chasm existed in terms of the relationship between law enforcement, the judicial system, and the black community before, it got even wider," Albury says.

Under intense public pressure, state attorney Krischer announced in March that he'd requested a public inquest with a straight-forward objective: Determine if probable cause existed to charge Cogoni criminally in the death of Jerrod Miller. After one false start, in which a judge recused himself for possible conflict of interest, the inquest job fell to Debra Moses Stephens, a black judge who had been a public defender in the past. After presiding over a three-day, packed-to-the-walls hearing in April, Stephens determined that the shooting death wasn't a justifiable use of deadly force by a law enforcement officer and that probable cause existed to charge Cogoni with manslaughter.

What became clear to everyone listening to the testimony was this: None of the more than 30 witnesses had seen anyone standing in front of Jerrod's car as he drove down the breezeway. Not even Cogoni's partner could say for certain there was someone in harm's way.

Months after the inquest, Jerrod's grandmother still shakes her head over Cogoni's actions. "I have yet to understand how anyone could shoot someone in the back of the head that's driving a car and say they were fearing for the lives of kids that were in the way of the car. If you disable a driver of a car, the car is now out of control. So now the kids' lives would be truly in danger."

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