A Constant State of Rage

Jerrod Miller participated in a school-work program, but he died before he got the first job he longed for.
Miller Family

A few months past his 16th birthday, Jerrod Miller longed for manhood. Throughout the beginning of 2005, the Delray Beach teen had been searching for part-time work in his hometown, but landing a first job isn't easy — even more difficult if you're a black teenager. Tall and lanky, with short-cropped hair, Jerrod had a shy streak and a tendency to freeze up during confrontations, but he was popular with the girls. He had kept on the straight and narrow, with a passion for computers and activities at church, where he earned a reputation for helping older parishioners.

On the cool Saturday evening of February 26, Jerrod probably felt more man than boy behind the steering wheel of his uncle's 1988 Cadillac. Although he'd failed his written driver's license test a few months earlier, Jerrod managed to finagle the Cadillac from his uncle from time to time, despite objections from the boy's grandmother, with whom he lived. As far as she knew, Jerrod was Miami-bound that night for a church-league basketball game.

Instead, Jerrod cruised the neighborhood. Several times, he picked up teens who asked for a lift to the dance at the Delray Beach Full Service Center School. The inelegantly named junior high school was hosting a dance in the gym for 12- to 16-year-olds. Just before 9 p.m., Jerrod motored into the west gate and pulled the Caddy up beside the gym; several teens hopped out. Only about 20 kids had actually paid their $5 to get into the dance, and some mingled outside waiting for friends to arrive.


Jerrod Miller shooting

Delray Beach

Darren Cogoni, a baby-faced, 23-year-old rookie cop with the Delray Beach Police Department, stood near the gym entrance and took special note of the car. He'd seen a similar vehicle gunning its engine and squealing its tires about 15 minutes earlier on the street running past the school. Cogoni and his partner, Kenneth Brotz, both of whom are white, walked toward the car. Both men were working for the school on off-duty detail, but they were armed and dressed in full uniform.

During the aftermath of the tragedy this night was to spawn, many have imagined what Jerrod was thinking and feeling as Cogoni stepped up to the driver's-side door and asked the boy for his license. Much of what is known about the case comes from a statement given by Cogoni hours later.

Cogoni described Jerrod as "fidgety" and "nervous." Brotz, who stood near the front driver's-side fender, recalled the boy being "jittery" and repeatedly stammering, "I'm just, ahh..." Jerrod bowed his head. Cogoni took one step backward as he continued to ask Jerrod for identification and rested his right hand on the butt of his holstered .40 caliber Glock. Undoubtedly feeling panic, Jerrod suddenly gunned the car, and Brotz stepped back out of the way of the side mirror. Several teens scrambled up the gym's concrete steps as the Cadillac barely missed grazing them.

Cogoni scrambled after the car, with Brotz not far behind. Jerrod turned left wildly and pulled between two buildings that formed a breezeway. Although this passage wasn't intended for vehicles, Jerrod raced on, the car scraping loudly as it bounced from side to side against the walls. Cogoni charged after it, pulling his handgun out of the holster. Stopping about 12 feet behind the car, he said he saw a "large, large group of people" at the end of that breezeway.

"I was close enough to see the headrest of the driver's seat through the back window, and I was able to see a silhouette of a head, of the driver," Cogoni said later. "I couldn't see any passengers in the vehicle." He took aim and fired two shots. One of the bullets plowed into the back of Jerrod's head and lodged just behind his left eye. He likely died instantly, and the car continued forward until it slammed into a cement retaining wall.

The eight months since Jerrod died have not been easy ones for his family or the City of Delray Beach. Many in the city, both black and white, reacted with outrage that one of the city's police officers had been either so cavalier or so inexperienced as to shoot a fleeing teenager.

"There was a lot of seething," says Jayne King, a white 53-year-old former teacher and community activist whose husband is black. "It had been festering for years and years and years, but the shooting just blew the lid off it."

Under public pressure, Palm Beach County's state attorney, Barry Krischer, convened a public inquest to determine whether Cogoni should face criminal charges. After a three-day hearing in April, the inquest judge found that the killing was not justifiable and that there was probable cause to charge him with manslaughter.  

Months passed as Krischer delayed making formal charges. Then, in July, Krischer unexpectedly sent the case to a grand jury, which convenes in private, and a record of its deliberations is never released. A month later, the grand jury declined to indict the young police officer.

The shooting and its aftermath have fueled long-simmering racial tensions in the city, the result largely of the Police Department's lengthy history of exonerating officers involved in shootings and the City Hall-led gentrification of Delray's east side, which is largely white.

The shooting came at a time when the city's relationship with the black community was particularly strained. One of the most valuable lines of communication between the two groups had been the Village Foundation, a black-oriented nonprofit that ran afterschool and summer programs and also organized homeowner groups. But the foundation shut down last year after losing most of its funding because of questions about how it handled public funds. At the same time, the local NAACP and some black leaders have squabbled about how to proceed during the weeks after the shooting.

"Before, with the foundation, the city used to have someone they could talk to and figure it all out," explains William Harris, a consultant for nonprofit agencies in South Florida involved with black issues. "There's no one to go to now, no bridges that exist."

Thus, when Delray Mayor Jeff Perlman formed an advisory committee to review what steps could be taken to bridge the fissure between the black community and the Police Department, some questioned its legitimacy.

"We felt strongly that if you're going to address the problem, you need people who are affected by the problem to be part of the dialogue," says Romaine Martin, president of the local NAACP chapter.

The initial fury over the shooting has metastasized into a general cynicism for some of Delray's black citizens. The 31-member Black Community Task Force, which formed during a period of unity after Jerrod's death, is now largely dormant — but the reasons it came into existence in the first place live on. In June, the task force sent a memo outlining the race-related issues it believed the city must face. "To be black in Delray," the memo began, "is to live in a constant state of rage."

Black and white residents of Delray Beach coexisted agreeably during the first part of the 20th Century, although the town was clearly segregated. Swinton Avenue, which runs north and south a few blocks west of U.S. Highway 1, was — and in many ways still is — the dividing line: whites to the east, blacks to the west. In fact, a concrete wall along the avenue once partitioned off much of the black neighborhood, which had unpaved roads and shanties into the 1950s. Blacks still had access to the beach, however, and the town had one of the few high schools for blacks, which teenagers from surrounding towns attended.

But as the town's farm-based economy gave way to tourism after World War II, tensions built. By the early 1950s, tourism accounted for about 75 percent of the city's revenues, and many of Delray's officials and business owners discouraged blacks, who numbered almost half of the 8,300 residents, from using the beach. As a result, some of Delray's black residents staged a "wade-in" on the public beach in 1955, according to a documentary produced around that time by WTVK-TV Channel 4 in Miami. Their demands for the use of a decent stretch of beach or a new swimming pool were met by the City Commission's "exclusion resolution," which proposed ejecting the black neighborhoods from the city. One former mayor told the TV station that integration was "bad for the economy."

The city eventually built the swimming pool on the west side of town, but the Swinton Avenue dividing line has remained a formidable one, even after full school integration came in 1970.

"The blacks knew their place in that order," explains Dennis Murray, a black Delray native who worked for the city for 30 years. With longish hair and a face that looks much younger than his 60 years, Murray speaks deliberately about how race relations in his hometown mirror the nation's. "If you went to a restaurant, you were not allowed to go inside and order; they had a hole in the back where the blacks had to go to order the food. For a lot of the older folks, the perception is still that you can't go across Swinton at certain times."

The contrast between the east and west sides are glaring. On any given night, well-heeled diners exit I-95 on Atlantic Avenue. As they travel east, they pass brick sidewalks, lamp lighting, luscious landscaping, and newly built retail space — much of which replaced the razed stores and eateries that once served the black neighborhood. Downtown Delray, just east of Swinton, is now home to swank restaurants with alfresco dining beneath elegant canopies. After 5 p.m., on-street parking spaces convert to valet only. The crowd is mostly white.  

This high-end playground didn't happen by accident; it evolved from the city's years-long redevelopment plan, which includes condo/townhouse projects with lofty names like the Strand, Astor, and City Walk. None is aimed at affordable housing in any practical sense. And although some black residents benefited when the city bought their properties to make way for development, many residents of western Delray wonder why some of this money hasn't been lobbed in their direction.

"Right now, it's about money, about Caucasian people coming and spending money downtown," says Willie Potts, a black activist and a member of the black task force. "That's fine, but they gotta understand, that's not our scene. We can't afford no $10 for a drink or $40 for a meal. There's a lot of people in the community that make $200 a week."

Potts sports a scraggly curve of beard on his chin line, and he speaks rapidly and animatedly. He's seated at a picnic table just outside the entrance of the activity center at Pompey Park in northwest Delray, which is a hub for black social activity that includes a gym, tennis courts, and baseball diamonds. Cliques of preteens and teenagers banter with one another as they enter and exit on this weekday afternoon in September. The place is a flurry of commotion, from dance classes to aerobics.

The city spends less on programming in Pompey Park than it did in the late 1990s, Potts contends, and the inequity irks him. "Pompey Park is the biggest park in the city," he declares. "More people coming to our park than all the others combined. Why can't we get the budget to show that fact?"

The city's attention to the park, he claims, is sporadic. Earlier this year, the city replaced the gym floor, even though those who used the gym complained that the leaking roof was the actual problem. Sure enough, Potts says, the new floor was quickly ruined by the leaks.

Potts also complains about the closing of the Back Room on West Atlantic a few years ago after the city's redevelopment agency bought the property. The nightclub was the only real nightspot on the west side and a major gathering place for young black adults. The building remains standing and vacant.

City Hall is roughly nine blocks east of Pompey Park, located on property that was once largely black-owned. The mayor, a dark, stocky man with a round face that he describes as "made for radio," seems more than happy to talk with New Times about race relations in his city.

Perlman admits that there's mistrust toward city officials by many average black citizens. "We're still wrestling with a long history of strained relations that exist in this community, which is a microcosm for the rest of the country. This was a city that in the 1970s sold its golf course rather than integrating it. That's not all that long ago for some people. That's where the mistrust lies."

But at times when he speaks, he demonstrates the mindset that his critics decry most: that the city's race-relations problem is more a public-relations problem than anything else. Nowhere is this chasm of perception more glaring than in Perlman's defense of rebuilding the city's white neighborhoods first.

"The thinking was, this is easier to fix," he says. "If we get this rolling, we'll have the revenue, taxes, and money to go and do the harder stuff, which is west of Swinton. Now we have the millions of dollars it's going to take to rebuild and improve the housing stock and put sidewalks in and do drainage, everything you need to have a nice neighborhood.

"I think it was technically the right decision, but it was never explained to the west side what was going on and why."

The sanctuary of Delray's Daughter of Zion Seventh-day Adventist Church is awash in yellow on the Sunday afternoon of September 18. Dozens of people have donned canary-colored T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "No Justice, No Peace." This was Jerrod's church, and he had just joined its drum corps before he died.

This forum and "rally against injustice" had been initially planned for the days immediately following the grand jury's decision in August, but Hurricane Katrina blew in instead. Now, a few weeks later, the NAACP is spearheading a rally to keep the outcome of the Jerrod Miller case in the headlines. Jerrod smiles gently in an enlarged, window-sized photo perched on an easel in front of the pews holding roughly 150 people.  

The gathering is small, however, compared to the swell of people who turned out at meetings during the weeks after Jerrod's death. Romaine Martin, the rally leader and head of the NAACP's South Palm Beach County branch, makes an oblique reference to the rift between the local NAACP and some of Delray's black leaders. "We don't know who's for us and who's against us — you better believe it!" she shouts from the podium.

Still, there's one overarching concern they all can agree on, and that's the police use of deadly force in their corner of South Florida. In fact, just nine days earlier, a Palm Springs cop had shot to death Marc Ariot, a black 18-year-old who'd accelerated his car toward the officer. "Nothing has changed," she pronounces.

Relations between Delray's police and its black residents have been the subject of public debate for years. Under Police Chief Charles Kilgore, who ran the department from 1979 to 1990, six black police officers sued the department, alleging they had not been promoted because of race. A federal jury ordered the city to pay the officers $760,000 in 1996.

Today, out of 143 active officers serving on the force, only 13 are black, with four more now in training.

Josh Smith, a retired county administrator who chaired the Black Community Task Force, says tensions have grown under the current police chief, Larry Schroeder, a 22-year veteran of the department who replaced Richard Overman four years ago. Smith contends the department was run better under Overman.

"You have a set of circumstances where there's a great racial divide," Smith asserts. "The perception has always been there that blacks are deliberately harassed and treated differently than nonblacks." Blacks complain that they're pulled over in their cars on flimsy pretenses, such as a burned-out taillight. The stop then escalates into confrontation and full-scale car searches. Young blacks who venture downtown during the dinner rush sometimes find themselves questioned by cops.

Smith, Martin, and many others have called on the city to form a citizen review board to oversee the Police Department. The black task force described the Police Department's internal affairs investigations as "a subjective farce."

"You know, I've always had difficulty with organizations having their own members investigating complaints against that organization," Smith says.

The department's internal affairs investigations appear to favor the cops, at least when it comes to cases in which officers used firearms. From 1994 through 2004, the Delray Police Department completed nine internal affairs investigations involving officers firing weapons at another person, three involving fatalities. Police officers were exonerated each time, regardless of the race of the victims, none of whom possessed firearms.

In August 1994, Officer John Battiloro scuffled with Yvon Guerrier, a 42-year-old black man with a history of mental illness. Battiloro pulled his handgun out of his holster, he told investigators, to keep Guerrier from grabbing it, but the officer ended up killing him with two shots to the chest.

State attorney Krischer declined to press charges or send the case to a grand jury, but he did notify the department that had Battiloro been better-trained, "this tragedy could have been avoided." The IA investigator noted in his final report that he disagreed with Krischer, making the curious argument that the state attorney didn't have "sufficient factual information during the criminal investigation" to draw that conclusion.

In March 1999, Officer Vincent Gray pursued Steven Adderly, a 27-year-old black man who had allegedly tried to sell drugs to an undercover cop. When he discovered the buyer was a cop, Adderly drove off recklessly on Dixie Highway in Delray. Joining the pursuit, Gray maneuvered his squad car in front of Adderly's car, and the officer fired six shots at the driver, who was wounded twice. Gray told investigators that he fired because he believed the driver was going to smash into him. But another officer on the scene said Gray had continued to shoot even after the car had passed. Gray was exonerated by an IA investigation.

In July 2002, William Vosburgh, acting as if he had a gun beneath a shirt he had wrapped around his hand, robbed Oxycontin from a Walgreens drugstore and left in a taxi. Officer Richard Jacobson caught up to the cab when it stopped for gasoline, at which time Vosburgh jumped out of the car and started walking away. When Vosburgh, who was white, turned, Jacobson told investigators, he lifted his arms as though he were holding a gun. Jacobson killed him with one shot to the abdomen. Vosburgh did not have a gun, but Jacobson was exonerated. The city settled a lawsuit by paying $12,500 to Vosburgh's family but did not admit liability.  

Last October, two Delray officers fired 16 shots into a Chevy Impala, killing 23-year-old Ralph Brown with seven shots and seriously wounding Paul E. Stevens. Brown and Stevens had jumped into the car after police arrived at a private home, whose owner had dialed 911 fearing the two black men were there to rob or beat him, as he alleged they'd done in the past. One of the police officers told investigators that he was trapped between the oncoming Impala and his squad car and feared being crushed. In January, Krischer cleared both officers.

Jerrod Miller lived on a relatively treeless street in southwest Delray, a neighborhood of modest-sized ramblers built in the pre-cul-de-sac era. It remains home to his grandmother, Phyllis Miller; his twin brother, Sherrod; and two sisters.

Although the house is hardly spacious, the step-up living room remains more ornamental than utilitarian; the workhorse rooms are the dining room and the small den that holds the TV. On a weekday afternoon in September, the Miller siblings and several friends have jammed into the den and are noisily watching a football game.

Phyllis Miller sits at the end of her long, wooden dining room table, sipping a soft drink and snacking on M&Ms. A framed painting of Martin Luther King Jr. hangs near the head of the table, and several paintings of African-Americans cover other walls.

She's a compact woman, with short hair and large gold glasses and a firm but gentle voice. She's given to sighing while collecting her thoughts. It's no understatement when she states, "I have been trying to deal with the situations here."

She explains how Jerrod's death affected his twin brother. "Sherrod was always the quieter one," she says. "Jerrod was more open, talkative. Since this happened, [Sherrod] has been even quieter. He stays in his room or goes to his other grandma's house. He doesn't want to talk to anybody. I leave him alone."

His brother's death came only a year and a half after their mother died suddenly of a heart attack at age 36. The anniversary of her death landed on the day of the rally, which only made the day more difficult for Miller. As the day's most passionate speaker, she'd stood before the crowd and pleaded, "To law enforcement, I say, respect our right to live. Don't allow a badge to make you feel that it gives you the authority to take a life."

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?"

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."

Stephens' decision wasn't binding on Krischer, who as a former defense attorney had represented police officers in cases involving excessive use of force. So as weeks turned into months after the inquest, a mood of skepticism spread. In late July, Krischer announced that he'd be sending the case to a grand jury — the very same secretive process that the inquest was intended to replace, critics said. Krischer's primary stated reason was that Stephens had based her decision "in part on hearsay and other inadmissible testimony."

The grand jury chose not to indict Cogoni. The City of Delray fired him immediately — an action that many thought was overdue but that only kindled more ill will.

"I think it was a fulfillment of the expectations — cynical expectations — of the black community," King says of the grand jury outcome, laughing ruefully. "They thought, there is no justice served, it's just another of the same old, same old tactics for the white man to be in power. The people in the justice system were going to protect their own."

Even Mayor Perlman is nonplussed. "I think there was a lack of leadership from the State Attorney's Office on this issue," he says. "Why do an inquest? I just didn't understand why it played out the way it did."

For some blacks in Delray, the answer is apparent.

"There's no way that Barry Krischer, while he's state attorney, would make a police officer go to jail for killing a black man," black activist Potts asserts. "He never has in the past; he never will in the future. He took the political way out with the grand jury."  

Miller, a devout Christian woman, says she's tried to give Cogoni the benefit of the doubt. "I thought, maybe he panicked. He's a rookie, so he's not used to handling these kinds of situations. Perhaps the first thing that came to his mind was, 'If I let this get away, they're going to think that I can't handle my job.' But then when I heard his testimony, it wasn't about that he could handle his job; it was to show that he could shoot straight."

From her home that still aches over a missing brother and grandson, Miller shows the same steely resolve she displayed at the rally. "When I speak, I'm not just speaking for Jerrod," she declares. "I feel for the ones who've already been killed, for those who are leaving the house and we don't know what's going to happen to them."

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