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Memphis police urge calm after black man’s killing, unrest

Memphis unrest

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Police appealed for calm in a tense Memphis neighborhood Thursday where about 35 officers were injured by a rock-throwing crowd following a black man’s shooting death by U.S. marshals on a fugitive task force.

Elected officials condemned the violence, and the police chief pleaded for patience while the shooting is investigated. But unanswered questions left many people angry as they bitterly recalled a litany of police-involved shootings around the country.

Shortly after the task force shot 20-year-old Brandon Webber early Wednesday evening, people began to gather in the area and their numbers grew as people livestreamed the scene on social media. Memphis police initially responded in street uniforms, then returned in riot gear as people threw rocks and bricks.

Mayor Jim Strickland said about 35 officers were injured, raising the toll significantly from 24 earlier. He had said six needed hospital treatment.

Officers cordoned off several blocks in the Frayser neighborhood north of downtown and arrested three people. By 11 p.m., officers had used tear gas and most of the crowd dispersed, police director Michael Rallings said.

Early Thursday, officers on horseback patrolled, and lines of police cars with flashing blue lights were parked along the street. An ambulance waited at the outer edge, and a helicopter flew overhead.

Webber's home sits in a residential area of the working-class neighborhood of north Memphis, where a tense calm hung over the neighborhood Thursday afternoon. The police presence was minimal, with two police cars parked in front of a nearby fire station. No uniformed officers were visible.

Memphis unrest

About 20 people stood outside of Webber's one-story house, and others gathered nearby. One woman wept loudly and hugged a man as she cried. An Associated Press reporter standing across the street from the home was asked by a young man to leave.

The Rev. Andre E. Johnson was standing among the protesters when tear gas was released Wednesday night. He said he heard no police order to disperse.

"All of a sudden, tear gas came out, and of course, people then began to disperse," Johnson said, adding his eyes and throat stung from the gas.

Johnson said people are upset because they still do not know why marshals sought to arrest Webber, whom he called a beloved member of the community.

"The problem with it is they feel that police and the administration and city officials do not treat them as humans," Johnson said. "That's what it really boils down to: You are not worthy of an explanation."

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Keli McAlister said the Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force went to a Frayser home to look for a suspect with felony warrants. He said marshals spotted the man getting into a vehicle and it then proceed to ram task force vehicles several times before he got out with a weapon.

Marshals then opened fire, killing the man. McAlister did not say how many marshals fired or how many times the man was shot.

The TBI identified the dead man as Webber. Authorities provided no details about the charges that prompted the task force's interest in him. A criminal history for him released by the TBI lists two arrests, in April 2017 and April 2018, on charges including weapons possession, drug dealing, and driving without a proper license. Court records show the 2018 charges were not prosecuted and the 2017 charges were dismissed.

His father, Sonny Webber, told The Associated Press by phone that his son leaves a 2-year-old boy and a young daughter, with another daughter on the way: "He would have had three children. Now he'll have a child that he won't get to meet."

The TBI is routinely called in to investigate police-involved shootings in counties around the state. TBI investigators then give their report to the local district attorney, who decides whether to pursue charges against officers involved.

The police director implored residents to wait until the TBI finishes its investigation and refrain from spreading possible misinformation about the shooting. "I need everyone to stay calm," Rallings said.

The mayor, Strickland, expressed pride in the city's first responders.

"I'm impressed by their professionalism and incredible restraint as they endured concrete rocks being thrown at them and people spitting at them," the mayor tweeted.

At least two journalists were injured, multiple police cars were damaged, a fire station's windows were shattered and a concrete wall outside a business was torn down, he said.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally said "lawlessness like this cannot and will not be tolerated in the state of Tennessee."

Memphis area police shootings in the past four years have prompted sporadic protests.

Among them, Darrius Stewart, an unarmed 19-year-old, was fatally shot during a fight in 2015 with Connor Schilling, a white officer who was trying to arrest him on outstanding warrants. A Shelby County district attorney recommended Schilling be charged with voluntary manslaughter, but a grand jury refused to indict.

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