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The Death of Meat-Meat: What Happened After Cops Killed a Mentally Ill Black Man on Camera

How the police shooting of a mentally ill black man has flown under the radar in 2016 America.

by Michael Edison Hayden
Sep 19 2016, 4:00am

A family photo of William Demetrius "Meat-Meat" James at the site of his death in June. All photos by Justin T. Gellerson

William Demetrius "Meat-Meat" James stepped outside his bedroom looking like he had just seen a ghost. Vernon Dozier, an officer with the Norfolk, Virginia, police department, was waiting for him to come downstairs. But Meat-Meat lagged at the top of the staircase, rocking back and forth, his arms hanging limply at his sides.

It was June 2, and the men were inside the house Meat-Meat shared with several family members in Norfolk's Tidewater Gardens housing projects. Dozier and his partner, in the neighborhood hunting car thieves, had been called over by a family friend after Meat-Meat struck his sister Bridgette in an episode that may have stemmed from his schizophrenia. Wannekeya "Tweety" James, Meat-Meat's niece, Sylvia Riddick, a friend of the James family, and a sprinkling of other family members and friends were also in the house—as many as 12 people in all. Dozier's partner was standing just outside the front door, peering over his fellow cop's shoulder.

What happened next is disputed, as these situations often are, though the result is not: After a few frenetic, confused moments, Meat-Meat was shot dead by multiple rounds from the officers' guns.

Tweety and Riddick both say Dozier never touched his Taser, which he might have used to subdue Meat-Meat without killing him. According to them, the officer kept his hand on his gun while looking up at the man the family hoped he would help. After a few moments, Meat-Meat emitted a prolonged series of loud hooooowaaah sounds—"karate noises" is how his family described them to me, inspired by Kung Fu films. He shaped his body into a kind of martial arts position, or as one of his sisters put it, "something from out of The Matrix."

At least one of the officers was wearing a body camera. NAACP officials and a few local reporters who have seen the footage believe Meat-Meat was holding a knife and may have swung at Dozier in those critical moments. His family maintains the object in his hands in the video is blurry. Meat-Meat was simply trying to escape the house, they insist, and could never seriously hurt anyone. Family members have also suggested a blade recovered by cops was planted by police, and that the body-camera footage they and others have seen was doctored.

According to his family, Meat-Meat jumped down a few steps in the direction of Dozier, and in a split second, the cop opened fire, shooting three times before his gun jammed on the fourth attempt. Dozier's partner, Chad Wacker, pushed him to the side and allegedly fired six more times into Meat-Meat's body.

"I really believe that that first shot took his ass out." —Josette Horne

Neighbors recall hearing as many as 16 or 17 gunshots coming from the James home that evening. Nobody could be sure about the exact number, but Earl Fletcher, a 56-year-old retired auto technician who lives a few houses down the block from the James place, said it "sounded like Iraq."

To Josette Horne, partner to Meat-Meat's sister Bridgette, it doesn't matter how many shots were fired—what matters is that a mentally ill man died at the hands of police.

"I really believe that that first shot took his ass out," she told me.

Various family members and friends recall officers dragging Meat-Meat's body down the stairs and outside. Fletcher remembers it, too, and said Meat-Meat's feet were even sticking out of the door at one point, exposed to the block. Family members also said their cell phones were confiscated and everyone was ordered to evacuate the house. (Norfolk PD would not confirm or deny that this happened.) They said the officers clumsily tried to put handcuffs on Meat-Meat long after his body stopped moving.

The block absorbed the scene in a state of shock. Family members said that Dozier, whom they had known for years, suddenly looked like a total stranger. "Why did this happen? Why couldn't he call someone who knew how to deal with mentally ill people?" Bridgette James asked about the shooting.

Riddick, the family friend, remembers being told to leave by officers, and scrambling in front of the house to get a better idea of what was happening. By then, she said, Meat-Meat's body had deformed, swelling up from the damage caused to his internal organs by so much gunfire. She saw Dozier perform CPR on Meat-Meat outside and recalls telling him, "What do you think you're doing? He's already dead."

Fletcher remembers the cop saying something to the effect of "Oh man!" over and over again, pacing back and forth in front of the house. Riddick, too, said Dozier was distraught, ripping off his vest and throwing it on the ground along with his badge. He hit himself in the head, she said, and began yelling.

"I fucked up! I fucked up!"

Bridgette James, whose home Meat-Meat lived in and who was struck by him in the incident that ultimately led to his death at the hands of police. All photos by Justin T. Gellerson

Meat-Meat's name is relatively unknown among the growing list of police shooting victims in America. His killing didn't register nationally like those of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, victims of police violence whose deaths are among the latest that symbolize the ongoing crisis between black men and local law enforcement. But to the people of Norfolk, who have endured five fatal police shootings so far this year, what happened to Meat-Meat that evening is a symptom of a plague afflicting their city of 250,000.

"They're murdering us," Sylvia Riddick told me.

"The James family needed help, and when they got it, a life was ended." —Michele Jawando

By the Norfolk Police Department's own count, fatal police shootings in the city in 2016 include Keith Richardson, a 58-year-old white man who was shot in January; Tyre Privott, a 25-year-old black man who was killed in March; India Beaty, a 25-year-old black woman also killed in March; Eric Wakup, a 31-year-old white man killed in April; and Meat-Meat. Police say no body-camera footage was retained of any of the fatal shootings this year—except for Meat-Meat's death.

Joe Dillard, Jr., head of the Norfolk chapter of the NAACP, described Norfolk as a "boiling pot" of tension, one he says could spill over into a "Ferguson-type situation" if damage is not repaired between police and residents.

Fletcher, the James's neighbor, said tension with the police in the neighborhood has "been this way for years" with no one paying attention to it. "You know how at war they keep killing people without knowing who is who? It's the same thing that's going on here [with police violence]," he told me.

There have been no major protests over Meat-Meat's death, at least in part because the body-cam footage has not been released to the public. Besides the Norfolk NAACP and three reporters from the Virginian-Pilot, several members of the James family, along with a lawyer, Jon Babineau, have seen it. For their part, the Virginian-Pilot reporters claim the knife is visible in the footage, especially when it's slowed down.

The James family rejects that interpretation.

"He has something in his hands, but it's blurry," Bridgette James told me after seeing the video for the first time last week. "Plus Meat-Meat was going for the door when they killed him."

These conflicting accounts are further clouded by Meat-Meat's inherent vulnerability and instability as a diagnosed schizophrenic. Michele Jawando, a police reform advocate at the Center for American Progress who studied at Hampton University, near Norfolk, thinks the James shooting was the result of the failure of city officials to train officers on how to deal with mentally ill people—a problem that has affected towns and cities across the country. As many as half of the people killed by police in America in any given year suffer from some kind of disability, according to a report released this year by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

"The James family needed help, and when they got it, a life was ended," Jawando said.

She added that black neighborhoods are disproportionately likely to lack mental health resources, making police shootings that much more prone to ensnare black men and women. Following the recent string of shootings, the Virginian-Pilot reported that "as funding for mental health [in the state] has dried up, police have increasingly been called to deal with mentally ill people in crises. That has resulted in a corresponding increase in violent encounters with them."

A photo distributed by Norfolk Police at a June 3 press conference, which they claim shows the knife Meat-Meat James brandished just prior to his death.

That overextension of police is what Lawrence Carter-Long, who co-authored the Ruderman Center report and works for the National Council on Disability, said is a result of holes in America's safety net. He added there are a range of disability issues that officers may not understand, using the example of deaf victims who police may treat as being non-compliant because they can't hear, and said that Meat-Meat's death falls into that category.

Cities across America have grappled with similar problems. Recent unrest in Milwaukee over police killings was sparked by the death of Sylville K. Smith, a 23-year-old who had battled mental health issues. Dontre Hamilton, who was killed by Milwaukee police in 2014, also struggled with mental health woes. In March 2014, police in New Mexico shot James Boyd, a 38-year-old man suffering from schizophrenia in an incident that received national media attention because it was recorded by cameras mounted on the officers' helmets. Vachel Howard, a 56-year-old black man believed to suffer from mental illness, died in 2012 shortly after being placed in a choke-hold while in the custody of the LAPD. A video of the incident, published by ProPublica this August, appears to show officers laughing after Howard's body stops moving.

Incidents like these are so common that Hillary Clinton's campaign highlighted the phenomenon when rolling out her mental health plan last month, noting "as many as one in every ten police encounters may be with individuals with some type of mental health problem." Donald Trump has broached the topic as well, mostly relegating his end of the discussion to mass shootings perpetrated by people suffering from mental illness.

Though many police shootings are blamed on overly aggressive or simply racist cops, some tragic situations are clearly the result of an overtaxed officer lacking adequate training to help a person with special needs. Occasionally, these incidents can bring an entire city to its knees, as in Milwaukee this August.

"These officers are not trained for social work," Carter-Long said. "It's a recipe for disaster."

Quashelle James. After Meat-Meat struck his sister Bridgette, Quashelle's friend Dominique summoned the cops who ultimately killed him.

William Demetrius "Meat-Meat" James was born in October 1972, the youngest of seven children and the brother to a twin who died at birth. He was short, but pictures from his youth show a handsome, confident man. Family members remember him as a "Casanova" with girlfriends to spare.

After dropping out of high school, Meat-Meat traveled with a woman to New York with dreams of starting his own roofing business and building a family. But before long, he returned to live at home in Virginia, leaving behind his wife and at least two children.

Down South again, Meat-Meat suffered from depression. But he joined a roofing company, where he got steady work during the 1990s, until a truck accident killed a close friend and coworker. Meat-Meat survived that accident, but the experience stayed with him.

"He just didn't want to get back up on the roof after that," his sister Sharon said.

Work was sporadic in the following years, and Meat-Meat drifted. He loved to go to the public library, take walks, and smoke pot. Frequently, he would imitate Kung Fu films. Sharon recalls once seeing him in the backyard, acting out improvised martial arts moves with a long stick used for painting, spinning it and swinging it like Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles .

"He would never hurt anybody. He just balled up when there was trouble, that's all. He just balled up." —Keon Wilson, Meat-Meat's son

In 2009, Meat-Meat walked over to buy a smoke from the "cigarette lady" in Tidewater Gardens who sold "loosies"—individual, untaxed cigarettes—from her home. According to his family, an officer stopped Meat-Meat, and a dispute unfolded. The female cop allegedly sprayed him with mace before he grabbed it from her and sprayed her back. Three officers subdued Meat-Meat, and multiple family members claimed the officers "beat him up."

Meat-Meat was charged with three counts of assault and battery against a police officer, and one count of obstructing justice, according to documents provided by the family. He entered a plea of not guilty on grounds of insanity, and was acquitted, spending the next several years in a mental hospital. Documents provided by the family show a diagnosis of "schizophrenia, paranoid type, cannabis dependence, alcohol dependence, and depressive disorder."

Meat-Meat's illness became apparent to pretty much everyone who knew him after his release in 2013. He ignored his appearance, and began talking to himself. But according to family and neighbors, local police—including Officer Dozier—held a grudge over the 2009 incident.

Meat-Meat had been arrested at least once for trespassing in recent years, wandering through a high school field after hours and trying to shake out the voices in his head. When cops would ask him who he was walking with, he had a litany of bizarre answers: "Jesus Christ James." "Muhammed James." "I'm a Cherokee Indian."

After being released from Norfolk City Jail for the trespassing incident at the end of 2015, Meat-Meat made most of his money via handouts. Family and friends would dispatch him to the nearby Shell gas station convenience store, the McDonald's, or Popeye's, and let him keep little bits of money from their change. Workers at the Shell station remember him as happy, if quirky, and "definitely not a troublemaker."

About a month before the shooting, while on one of his salutary walks, Meat-Meat crossed a basketball court outside his neighborhood, where a group of young men and women selected him for a beating as part of a "gang initiation ceremony," according to Horne, his sister's partner. "Maybe they thought he didn't belong to anyone because of how he looked," she said.

One of Meat-Meat's sons, Keon Wilson, 23, said his father told him he got down on the ground and formed his body into a ball in order to absorb the beating that night, rather than attempt to run or fight back. "He would never hurt anybody," Wilson told me. "He just balled up when there was trouble, that's all. He just balled up."

Sylvia Riddick, a James family friend present at the time of Meat-Meat's death

Officer Dozier had been in the James home on multiple occasions, according to family members, who maintain he knew Meat-Meat had been hospitalized for mental illness in the past—and that he battled against voices inside of his head every day of his life. But Dozier had a reputation for engaging with the local black community; Bridgette James, Meat-Meat's sister, who is still grieving over his death and demanding answers, told me she knew Dozier too well to hate him. "In my heart I forgive him for what he did," she said.

A man named Dominique, an acquaintance of Quashelle James, Meat-Meat's niece, waved Dozier over to the house to help them deal with his episode because Dozier seemed like a familiar face, one at least some of them thought they could rely on.

Bridgette told me that Dominique, Quashelle, and Tweety are visible on the body-camera footage as officers approached their home, waiting for assistance.

"When we're wrong, we should say we're wrong. But when we're right, we should show the family members, let them see how we came to a decision to shoot." —Mayor Kenny Alexander

The Norfolk Police Department declined to comment on whether Dozier had been inside the James house previously or whether the officer knew Meat-Meat, though neighbors of the James family bolster their claims that he had. JoAnn Hughes, a police spokesperson, did tell me city cops receive training in "how to deal with people who are experiencing crisis situations." (She declined to comment on how that training was or wasn't employed during the call that led to the shooting.) For the time being, as is typical when it comes to police officers that kill people in the line of duty, the cops in question have been placed on administrative duty.

As is also typical in controversies over police shootings, a debate has emerged about whether the cops should make the body-cam footage of the incident public for the sake of the transparency. Sid Heal, a retired commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, told me that cops are in a difficult position when deciding what to do with body-camera footage like this. "Once it's in the public domain, there's no getting it back," he said.

Heal added that eventually all footage would likely have to be released to the public, and that such a release would probably come after investigations are complete.

Mayor Kenny Alexander, Norfolk's first black mayor, who assumed office in July, won fans in the black community by advocating for the public release of footage. He seemed satisfied, however, when police agreed to show the footage to the family in late August. "That's what we should be doing," Alexander said. "We did it the right way. When we're wrong, we should say we're wrong. But when we're right, we should show the family members, let them see how we came to a decision to shoot."

But the James family wants the footage to get out there so the public can determine whether Meat-Meat was carrying a knife at the time he was shot, and whether or not he posed a threat to police at the time he was killed. Dillard has called for the FBI to investigate this or other police shooting incidents in Norfolk, though the Bureau decline to confirm or deny its involvement. (The NAACP leader added that he would also be reaching out directly to the Department of Justice in the coming weeks.) A representative of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU said the organization is aware of the James shooting, and looking into a "pattern" of police shootings in the state of Virginia.

The James family also told me they were angered by the police decision to go to the NAACP before them with the footage, and that they don't believe Dillard represents their interests. Some family members went so far as to say they heard a rumor Dillard is an ex-cop working in collusion with the police force, a notion he flatly denies. That claim underscores the deep mistrust residents of Tidewater Gardens hold toward authority figures—including some in the black community—in the wake of Meat-Meat's death.

"We don't know him," Meat-Meat's sister Bridgette told me of Dillard, her face firming up into a scowl. "That man never met my brother."

Josette Horne, partner to Bridgette James and a witness to Meat-Meat's death

Cops were ubiquitous on the day Meat-Meat was killed—it seemed like everybody in Tidewater Gardens was talking about the stolen car that brought cops to the area in the first place. Sirens blared and squad cars clogged the roadways.

Meat-Meat was dispatched to the post office that day to send off a rent check, and he almost certainly would have noticed the commotion. Kierra Edwards, who works the 11 AM to 7 PM shift at the Shell station, told me he came through the convenience store "probably at least four times" that day.

Edwards was among the last people outside of the immediate family to see Meat-Meat alive. She said the final time he came into the store that day was to buy two Icehouse tallboys, and that he was in good spirits when he did so.

Shortly thereafter, Edwards saw him walking home with the tallboys and passed him in her car, playing music for him, something she liked to do from time to time. First, she played "Give Me a Try" by Sizzla, featuring Rihanna, and Meat-Meat danced. His dancing made her laugh, so she turned up the volume and played another song, "Panda," by the Brooklyn-based rapper Desiigner, and told him, "Show me what you got Meat,'" to which he responded by " gettin' it, like he was in a video."

"Fuck it up, Meat!" Edwards recalls yelling before driving off. The song's video deals with the subject of police violence, but all Edwards remembers is Meat-Meat's goofy dancing. "He was dancin' like you wouldn't believe," she said, laughing. "Please write down in your notebook that Meat-Meat was gettin' it."

Earl Fletcher, the neighbor, was outside talking to a traveling salesman about his beloved Dallas Cowboys before the shooting taking place. "Meat-Meat never bothered nobody," he told me. "Sometimes he used to go to the Shell station to buy some cigarettes, that's about it."

Fletcher added that his 13-year-old nephew was playing "curb ball," a makeshift street game, at the time of the incident, and that the shooting traumatized him. He recalls Dozier and his partner being just up the block, discussing the stolen car with a crowd of fellow officers. Fletcher doesn't remember whether Meat-Meat exchanged any words with the cop before going into the house with his beer, but family members believe he did, because Meat-Meat seemed frightened upon returning.

"Why'd you call the police on me?" his sister Bridgette said he asked her.

Meat-Meat then had what family members describe as an "episode," punching Bridgette James in the face. She said the blow was not hard, but still enough to scare her daughter Quashelle. Meat-Meat had never raised a finger against her before that day, according to Bridgette.

(Dillard, of the NAACP, told me when he met with the family after the shooting they denied Meat-Meat had ever thrown a punch. The James family, for its part, denied changing their story, and told me Dillard did not spend enough time with them to hear their account in detail.)

"This video has been cut up like a motherfucker." —Bridgette James

Whatever caused Meat-Meat's outburst—whether it was the police outside of the house or tensions inside it, or both—Tweety and Josette both said that they had never seen him look so frightened. When Dominique called Dozier over, Quashelle said he and the officer exchanged words before he entered the house. "What happened?" Quashelle said Dozier asked before entering the James house.

"My uncle goin' crazy," she remembers saying. "But he aiight."

"His adrenaline was up," Tweety James claimed of Officer Dozier's mood that day, referring to the stolen car incident.

Dozier stepped through the screen door, and his partner, Officer Wacker—who family and friends didn't recognize from the neighborhood—lingered close behind. Josette Horne recalls at least a dozen people in the house at the time, including the two officers, when Meat-Meat was shot.

Dozier called up the stairs for Meat-Meat, and no one in the family remembers anyone saying anything else after that until cops pulled his dead body outside.

According to the account of the body-camera footage published in the Virginian-Pilot, however, someone gasped "Oh my God!" before the bullets began to fly.

The James family gathered with close friends and kids from the neighborhood in front of the home of Bridgette James

Mayor Alexander announced last month that state police will investigate every time a Norfolk police officer shoots someone to death going forward. But seeing the body-cam footage has renewed the trauma the James family experienced at the time of Meat-Meat's death—especially because at least some of them believe the recording was doctored.

"This video has been cut up like a motherfucker," Bridgette James told me, sobbing. "This don't make any sense."

Josette Horne, the family friend, agrees. Meanwhile, some family members have been unable to stomach looking at the footage at all. "I can't watch my brother being shot to death," Sharon James texted me. Tweety, for her part, said she didn't need to see the clip to learn the truth.

"I know he didn't have no knife," she told me.

Bridgette James said she has a lawyer now, named Jon Babineau, who watched the footage with her at the police station and who she hopes will help file a lawsuit. But when I called Babineau, he told me that he "would not likely be taking the case forward."

"I want so badly to help the James family," he said. "Bridgette is a very kind woman. She lost a brother. I can't imagine how painful this must be for her."

The attorney called the case "a failure of our mental health care system," but added that in his opinion, the threat faced by the police was "emergent"—which is to say quite real.

I asked if Meat-Meat was trying to escape when he was shot. Babineau said that in his opinion, he was. "He was going for the door," the lawyer said.

Babineau acknowledged that the footage was blurry, as the family has claimed. But when it was slowed down, the doubt melted away.

In Meat-Meat's right hand, he said, he saw a knife.

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