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Hattiesburg Mayor Addresses Police Shooting of Teenager Near High School

In a video statement today, Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker addressed the Jan. 27 officer-involved shooting of a Black teenager near Hattiesburg High School, asking the community for patience as the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations conducts an investigation. The statement followed days of protests from Black Lives Matter Mississippi activists who say they want more "transparency" from Hattiesburg officials and law enforcement about the circumstances surrounding the shooting. Screencap courtesy Mayor Toby Barker.

For the first time since one or more Hattiesburg Police officers shot a Black teenager multiple times near Hattiesburg High School a week ago, Mayor Toby Barker spoke out today. He acknowledged frustrations among activists and community members, but asked residents for patience while state law enforcement investigates the shooting.

“A week ago, there was a shooting in a neighborhood just north of Hattiesburg High School—one that involved a teenager and officers from the Hattiesburg Police Department. Thankfully, no lives were lost,” Barker said in a pre-taped video message that he shared on his social-media accounts this afternoon, though he did not take questions from the media.

“But, as with any officer-involved shooting, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation arrived shortly thereafter and took over the investigation. This is standard procedure so that a third party can conduct a thorough, full and comprehensive investigation.”

Barker is the first official to confirm that the shooting involved a “teenager.” The Hattiesburg Police Department and MBI released a vaguely worded statement on Jan. 27, the day of the shooting, saying only that “shots were fired” after police approached an “individual” with an unspecified “weapon” near the school. 

Neither law enforcement agency has responded to requests for comment from this publication or other media outlets, but Black Lives Matter Mississippi activists, who expressed frustration over a news report that referred to the teenager as a “man,” shared the shooting victim’s age with the Mississippi Free Press earlier this week. 

Barker Requested MBI Help ‘Dispelling’ Rumors

Since the shooting, local residents have shared a number of unverified rumors on Facebook, but neither HPD or MBI has released additional details since their initial statements.

“In recent days, we have asked the Department of Public Safety, through MBI, to provide the public with an update, to assist in at least dispelling inaccurate information circulating on social media,” Barker said in his video message today. “However, with understanding for MBI’s caseload—and that a state agency has its own processes that it follows—that hasn’t happened yet. We know that’s frustrating.

“I would ask that you, our citizens, be patient as this investigation continues. I would also ask that you wait for facts and avoid sharing bad information and innuendo.”

A multiracial group of women with Black Lives Matter Mississippi protest near the side of the road over the police killing of a 14-year-old.
Since a Hattiesburg Police Officer shot a Black teenager outside Hattiesburg High School on Jan. 27, Black Lives Matter Mississippi activists have held multiple public protests in Forrest County demanding answers and accountability, including this roadside protest on Jan. 27. Photo courtesy Black Lives Matter Mississippi.

Officials have not released any identifying information about the officers involved in the shooting, their status or the condition of the shooting victim, whom HPD said “was transported from the scene to a local hospital to be treated for injuries” in its Jan. 27 statement.

Identifying officers who shot someone within 72 hours of the incident is considered a national standard both to inform the public and maintain community trust, a guide for law-enforcement leaders published by the U.S. Department of Justice recommends.

After a spate of eight officer-involved shootings starting soon after Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba took office in 2017, including by officers who had shot multiple people, Mississippi’s capital city recently went through a year-long process to determine how quickly the City should identify officers involved in a shooting

By the end of the process, the task force settled on a window of 72 hours in most cases, but, like Hattiesburg, has deferred cases to MBI, which does not follow the same national transparency standard.

‘It’s Traumatizing to the Black Community’

Since last week, Black Lives Matter activists have repeatedly criticized Hattiesburg leaders and law enforcement for not providing the public with more information about the shooting. After Barker’s statement today, Black Lives Matter President Reginald Virgil reiterated those concerns.

“He did the right thing in putting something out to the people, but the thing the people want is transparency because the people are on edge. This is in the community, there are different stories coming up. And it’s not our job to tell the community they’re wrong for what they believe happened especially when there’s been no transparency from the police department about what is unfolding,” Virgil told the Mississippi Free Press late this afternoon.

Mississippi President Reginald Virgil, seen here speaking to a crowd at the University of Southern Mississippi campus in Aug. 2017 about the white supremacist rampage that happened in Charlottesville, Va., that month
“A lot of people assume Black Lives Matter is anti-police. We are not anti-police. We’re anti-police brutality,” said Black Lives Matter Mississippi President Reginald Virgil, seen here speaking to a crowd at the University of Southern Mississippi campus in Aug. 2017 about the white supremacist rampage that happened in Charlottesville, Va., earlier that month. Photo by Ashton Pittman

He said that he and other activists had heard conflicting sources from sources outside the Black community, including ones sharing an unverified version of events that could be viewed as more favorable to police than some earlier accounts.

“If that is the case, then why won’t they be transparent with the people in the community and the families? Because by that not happening, it has really caused shock, and it’s traumatizing to the Black community,” Virgil said.

He also sought to correct what he sees as a misconception about the goal of Black Lives Matter activists.

“A lot of people assume Black Lives Matter is anti-police. We are not anti-police. We’re anti-police brutality,” Virgil said.

‘There Will Be Accountability’

Barker acknowledged concerns about transparency and accountability in his video statement this afternoon.

“Any shooting is a tragedy. Any shooting that involves a young person is heartbreaking. And when an incident involves a police officer, I understand the heightened tension and scrutiny that accompanies that event,” he said. “While I will not compromise an ongoing investigation, I do want you to know the following.

“Since day one of our administration, we have endeavored to be transparent with you about our challenges, our shortcomings and how we are moving forward. If an officer acted unprofessionally or in a manner inconsistent with his or her training and department standards, there will be accountability.”

Any “failures” in that “process” that the MBI investigation might identify “will be fixed,” Barker said.

“But also understand that if someone breaks the law and threatens the safety of the public or school children or an officer, that individual should be prosecuted,” he said.

The Hattiesburg mayor did not say when he expects MBI or other officials to make more information available.

“My request to you is to be patient. I know it’s not easy. But I am confident that when the investigation is complete, we’ll have an opportunity to evaluate what went right and what did not, to get better and to come out stronger as a community,” Barker said.

You can watch Mayor Barker’s video statement below.

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