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To Save Black Lives, Protester Bruce Franks Will Do the Unthinkable: Work with Cops 

Can he really reform law enforcement from within?

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click to enlarge Franks with his daughter, Brooke. - COURTESY OF BRUE FARNKS / @IAMOOPS
  • Courtesy of Brue Farnks / @iamoops
  • Franks with his daughter, Brooke.

Mike Brown's death only seized Bruce Franks' attention. What really launched him on a full-time crusade was the killing of VonDerrit Myers.

At about 7 p.m. on October 8, city officer Jason Flanery was clad in his police uniform working as a private security guard in the Shaw neighborhood. As he approached a group of young men, one took off running. Flanery chased him, but couldn't catch him.

Minutes later, Flanery again came upon group of young men. He thought he recognized the runner among them. It turned out to be someone different — eighteen-year-old Vonderrit Myers, who was supposed to be on house arrest (he was wearing a court-ordered ankle bracelet as a condition of bond in a gun case).

Myers fled, climbing up a front-yard hill and ducking into an alley. Flanery pursued him. He would later say that Myers produced a silver handgun and fired down at him, so the officer returned fire. Around twenty gunshots later, Myers lay dead in the gangway, a gun by his side.

Surveillance video from a nearby deli showed that Myers had shopped there right before the encounter. So a rumor quickly spread: Myers never had a gun in his hand; he only had a sandwich.

The circuit attorney launched an independent review. Prosecutors sifted through physical evidence. They tried to re-interview all police witnesses and find new ones, though later reported that "a number of witnesses declined."

Attorneys for the Myers family told local news outlets they'd heard Myers was "begging for his life," in the alley, only to be executed by Flanery. So investigators asked the lawyers several times to produce those witnesses. They never did.

On May 18, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce announced she would file no charges against the officer.

In a 51-page report, her team wrote that the physical evidence alone proved that Myers' gun fired at the officer from the gangway. Several witnesses saw or heard those shots. Furthermore, the team wrote, "no witness claims to have seen [Flanery] alter evidence in any way," not even Myers' acquaintances, who were standing nearby. Therefore, the officer's justification for deadly use of force would be insurmountable in court. No prosecutor could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he had committed a crime.

"It is a tragedy that a life was lost in this incident," the team concluded.

Two days later, about 40 people displeased with Joyce's decision showed up to her home in Holly Hills just after 9 p.m. They chanted, "No justice, no sleep!" Police arrested six of them for peace disturbance, resisting arrest and trespassing.

"It was very disheartening to see how things were rolling out," says Joyce. "We'd worked so hard on that report. I found that a lot of the protesters didn't read it."

She agreed to meet with them in small groups and let them record it, she says, but it never happened. "They wanted a town-hall meeting," she said, "not a conversation where you could talk about these things and reach some understanding."

Then Bruce Franks came to see her. He carried a copy of the Myers report.

"That thing looked like a law-school textbook the night before a final exam," she recalls. "It was dog-eared, it was highlighted, it had sticky notes all over it. And he had very thoughtful questions."

The Myers case haunted Franks, he says, because it happened three miles from his house. This is right in my zone now, he thought. Reflexively skeptical of all police narratives, he did his own investigation.

That day in Joyce's office, he spoke to her for nearly two hours.

"I didn't like her decision," he says. "But given what she got from witnesses, I understood how she came to it."

Then he told her that the Myers family deserved an explanation from her, in person. Joyce replied that she had already invited them several times, to no avail. So Franks, who knew the family personally, arranged for them to meet on June 15.

However, he says, the grieving parents bowed out at the last minute. "It wasn't the right time," he says. "They lost their only child."

"I can't imagine the heartache they feel losing their son and not having charges brought," Joyce says. "I'm not going to push it. Hopefully at some point they'll feel like they want to come talk to me."

After that meeting with Joyce, Franks felt like he could do business with her. He recently brought into her office a witness to the fatal police shooting of Kajieme Powell that occurred on August 19, 2014 — another case in which Franks is convinced an officer unnecessarily ended a black life. Franks believes that Joyce, supplied with the proper evidence, will do the right thing.

He's even given her a nickname: "J.J."

"My husband thinks it's pretty funny," she says. "I didn't even know battle rap was a thing. So then I'm at home on a Saturday morning at the breakfast table looking at YouTube battle-rap videos, and my husband's like, 'Who are you?'"

Joyce's staff is now seeking Franks' advice on a major project: the call-in program. The idea, which has shown some success in Kansas City, is to identify ex-offenders fresh off probation or parole who risk falling back into violence. They're invited to meet with a team of law enforcers, victims, other ex-cons and service providers, who deliver a delicate balance of carrot and stick: We're watching you, but we also want to help you stay straight.

On August 7, Rachel Smith, an assistant circuit attorney, called Franks into a fourth-floor conference room at the state courthouse downtown.

"We need to get the right message to the right people," she tells him. "And we want the message to be about promises, not threats."

Three gangs generate most of the gunfire in the city, she explains. The plan is to "call in" about 25 mid-level leaders from those rival groups who are newly back on the streets. They'll have to pass through metal detectors.

"My concern," says Franks, reclining in his swivel chair, "is when you get these guys to come out, you wanna be compassionate. They've had that iron fist for so long, they're going to put up a block."

Smith asks Franks if he'd like to address them.

"I'm with it," he says. "Just put me in front of 'em. Who you got from the police?"

Smith lists two high-ranking officials.

"No," he says. "I know how these young guys are. We see gray hair, it's done." He suggests a younger black female sergeant he knows. "When she talk, people listen."

As the meeting wraps up, Smith seems anxious. "I know that we as law enforcers need to do things differently," she says. "The question is how to do it."

After the meeting, Franks steps into the elevator, lost in thought. "That Rachel Smith," he says. "She give a fuck, for real. It's not fabricated. Just like J.J."

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