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What Does Alabama’s Attorney General Have to Hide in the Police Killing of EJ Bradford?

April Pipkins hold a picture of her son, EJ Bradford
April Pipkins hold a picture of her son, EJ Bradford
Carl Takei,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality
Dillon Nettles,
Policy Analyst,
ACLU of Alabama
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February 26, 2019

UPDATE (3/11/2019): On March 1, Attorney General Steve Marshall formally responded to our public records request by refusing to produce videos, documents, and even the names of officers involved in the killing of E.J. Bradford. In response, the ACLU of Alabama along with Bradford’s parents, Bradford family attorney Benjamin Crump, and the Alabama NAACP sued Marshall and the Hoover Police Department on Monday over their refusal to turn over evidence that’s in the public interest.

“It’s ludicrous and insulting that the state of Alabama thinks we should simply take their word about what happened, without letting us see the full and unedited video footage and without releasing the officer’s name who killed E.J.,” Bradford family attorney Benjamin Crump said. “In a state with the racial history of Alabama, why would anyone believe their account of a white officer shooting a Black man, especially when they’re trying to hide some of the evidence? It’s so unfortunate they have left us with no choice but to sue for video they don’t want us to see and for the name of the officer to be released.”

In Alabama, a family is still grieving after local police killed their son on Thanksgiving night after a gunman opened fire at a mall. But several months after the incident, the Alabama attorney general is still keeping the Bradfords, and the region’s Black community, in the dark about critical details of what happened that night. The Bradfords and the community still don’t know the identity of the Hoover Police Department officer who fired the fatal shots and the state attorney general refusing to release the evidence he relied on to decide the officer won’t face charges for taking the life of an innocent man.

Hoover Police Shoot, Then Criminalize EJ Bradford

On Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018, Emantic “E.J.” Bradford Jr., a 21-year-old Black man and licensed gun owner, reacted to an active shooter situation at the Riverchase Galleria mall by drawing his handgun and running toward the sound of shooting. Under Alabama law, licensed gun owners have broad rights to openly carry firearms in public. Witnesses said Bradford was directing other shoppers to safety, and Bradford’s actions were consistent with the NRA’s exhortations to be the “good guy with a gun” in such situations.

However, within seconds of seeing Bradford, a Hoover Police Department police officer shot him three times from behind, killing him. The officer later told investigators that he did not give a warning before he began shooting at Bradford and did not activate his body camera until after he opened fire.

In its first public announcements after the officer killed Bradford, the Hoover Police Department wrongly claimed that Bradford was the active shooter and lauded the officer as a hero. Roughly 20 hours later, the Hoover Police Department admitted that their initial announcement was “not totally accurate”— because they had in fact shot the wrong man.

Black District Attorney Unexpectedly Removed From the Case

Many community members hoped that the newly elected Jefferson County District Attorney, Daniel Carr, would conduct a fair investigation. Although his office — like every other district attorney’s office in the country — works closely with the police departments in his jurisdiction, Carr was also the first Black person ever to serve as district attorney for Jefferson County and had good relationships with local Black community leaders.

On Dec. 13, 2018, however, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall announced his office would remove Carr from the investigation, citing potential bias based on these very relationships. The first reason why Marshall suggested that he chose to take over the investigation — District Attorney Carr’s connection to police officers as witnesses in other cases — is no different from any other district attorney in the state. If the attorney general were being consistent, he would need to assert jurisdiction over every police shooting investigation rather than singling out Carr. But he has not done so.

As for the fact that District Attorney Carr has relationships with Black people in Jefferson County, this is both normal and expected for an elected official, and none of the Black people cited by the attorney general are involved in the case as alleged perpetrators, victims, or witnesses. Carr confirmed that Marshall’s concerns were discussed at the time they met, but he stated “the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office stands ready and capable to proceed with this case based on the facts and evidence once provided, and the law as it currently exists.”

This move by Marshall was highly unusual. In fact, the last time the Alabama attorney general took over a murder investigation was 65 years ago.

The Attorney General: A Young Black Man’s Death Was “Justified”

Earlier this month, the attorney general released a report concluding that the officer was “justified” in the shooting death of E.J. Bradford. The attorney general’s report characterized Bradford as a “threat” that needed “eliminating” and claimed that although the officer mistakenly believed that Bradford was the shooter, this “does not render his actions unreasonable.” The tone and language of the report reveals how little regard the attorney general had for the life of this Black man.

Regardless of what the attorney general of Alabama said in his report, E.J. Bradford’s life mattered. Black lives matter. We won’t stay quiet while law enforcement continues to inflict lethal violence against Black people and attempt to justify it.

A Call for Transparency and Accountability

Last week, on Feb. 20, the ACLU, NAACP, and the family of E.J. Bradford — represented by private attorney Benjamin Crump — jointly submitted a public records request to the Hoover Police Department and Office of the Attorney General asking for the release of all body-worn camera footage, all surveillance footage, other materials relied on in the attorney general’s investigation, the name of the officer responsible for killing Bradford and of the other officers who were involved in the incident, and materials relied on by the attorney general in deciding to assert jurisdiction over the investigation.

Especially in light of the public controversy and questions surrounding Mr. Bradford’s killing, there is a strong public interest in release of these records. Meanwhile, particularly because there is no longer a pending criminal investigation of this shooting, there is no countervailing privacy interest held by the officers involved — each of whom was on duty, in uniform, and acting under color of law at the time of the shooting. Law enforcement should provide appropriate data and comprehensive data on its practices and performance, and agencies should not shield officers from scrutiny for violations of law, policy, and community trust.

The attorney general has indicated that he may refuse to respond to the records request because of the pending criminal charges against the suspected shooter, Erron Brown. However, the burden is on him to identify which specific records or portions of records would interfere with these pending criminal charges if released before Brown’s trial. To use this as a blanket excuse to stonewall the request would be to violate the attorney general’s statutory duties under the Public Records Act, not to mention his duty to be accountable to and transparent with the people of Alabama.

We hope that the Attorney General Marshall and the Hoover Police Department will agree that with us that transparency is paramount here and agree to produce the records without a court order. However, we have set a 10-day deadline for them to make that decision, and if we don’t get a response agreeing to produce the records by March 2, we plan to sue under the Alabama Public Records Act.

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