By Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., The New Tri-State Defender
In 1973, Memphis was in a volatile situation: the Memphis Police Department and the African-American community were at war. The points of contention were police brutality, the use of deadly force and the appointment and promotion of African-Americans within the department.
For many, it seemed like an ongoing open season for Memphis law enforcement officers to kill African Americans. Two years earlier, teenager Elton Hayes ended up dead after he and two others were in a high-speed chase that involved Memphis police and sheriff’s deputies. The law enforcement version had Hayes dying in a traffic accident.
Others contended Hayes was beaten to death by officers.
Memphis was pushed to the edge of riots, with unrest seething in every segment of the African-American community. In Orange Mound where Hayes lived, there were reports of rock throwing, fire bombings and vandalism. Students left schools in large numbers and congregated on Park Avenue to vent their frustrations and grief.
After several reports of students throwing rocks and bottles at passing cars, police cut off traffic between Pendleton and Hanley and ordered in helicopters. Mayor Henry Loeb declared a citywide curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Memphis was a powder keg with the potential to explode with a spark of indignation and/or disrespect. In early December of 1973, an all-white Criminal Court jury would find eight officers not guilty of murdering Hayes and beating a companion.
African-American leaders – individually and collectively – demanded changes in the use of deadly force and an end to the harassment of African-American citizens. On Oct. 3, 1974 amid rallies, negotiations and petitions, a Memphis police officer fatally shot 15-year-old Edward Garner, a fleeing suspect.
Ironically, the patrolman, Elton Hymon, was African American. I talked with him recently as I sought to put his story into the context of the times.
Hymon, a rookie, had joined the Memphis Police Department in July of 1974 and was introduced to the Memphis-style culture of law enforcement.
“The N word was used often and without hesitation or repercussions and several white officers proudly notched their revolvers for every African-American they had killed,” he said.
Among many white officers, he continued, there was a practice of carrying a “drop gun” to place on a shot or killed suspect to justify use of deadly force.
“I heard all too often that the ‘drop gun’ had kept a many good officer from going to jail.”
At about 10:45 p.m. on Oct. 3, Hymon and his partner were dispatched to a burglary in progress in South Memphis. On the scene, a neighbor warned that the suspect was still in the house. Hymon’s partner covered the front as Hymon rushed to the backyard, where he encountered a suspect, who bolted for a fence.
Hymon ordered him to halt. When the suspect showed no signs of stopping, Hymon fired a shot that struck him in the back of the head. As an ambulance transported the suspect to a local hospital Hymon “began to pray that the suspect would survive.”
“Later on, I learned that the suspect died in surgery and I became unraveled and shaken to my very core,” he said.
“I had to go into the precinct for the initial investigation. I was shaking so badly, the supervisor offered me a shot of bourbon and counseling. I refused the counseling but drank the bourbon immediately.”
That October night was one of the darkest moments in his life, Hymon recalled. And no, he didn’t have a “drop gun” when he shot Garner.
Hymon completed his routine suspension and investigation and returned to a hero’s reception at his precinct.
“What I resented was the implication that after killing an African American I was acceptable,” said Hymon.
Garner’s father, Cleamtee Garner, knew that his eighth-grade son had done wrong but not enough to warrant being fatally shot. He secured the support of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP and attorney Walter L. Bailey Jr. took on the case, which eventually was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 30, 1984.
A civil lawsuit, Tennessee vs. Garner was about the use of deadly force in apprehending a suspect. Bailey was pleasantly surprised when the National Association of Police Officers filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief.
“I strongly felt these police officers wanted some guidelines on the national level,” said Bailey.
Officer Hymon had followed the policy of the Memphis Police Department and the law of Tennessee in shooting Garner.
The state statute read: “If after notice of the intention to arrest the defendant, he either flees or forcibly resists, the officer may use all necessary means to effect the arrest.”
Herein is the problem: when Officer Hymon pulled the trigger of his police revolver, he instantly became judge, jury and executioner. No witnesses, no proof, in the darkness of night and no prima facie evidence.
Bailey had tried two previous cases on the very same premise – unarmed fleeing suspects, who pose no threat to the police officers or any other person should they escape, should not be the victims of deadly force. In both instances, the governing policy and statute regarding deadly force had been ruled constitutional.
On March 27, 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under the Fourth Amendment, when a law enforcement officer is pursuing a fleeing suspect, the officer may not use deadly force to prevent escape unless the officer has probable cause to believe the suspect poses a threat of death to the officer and others. The use of deadly force without probable cause was held to constitute an unreasonable seizure.
Asked what made the difference in the Tennessee vs. Garner case, Bailey said, “officer Hymon told the truth.”
“The truth was young Edward Garner did not pose a threat to him or anyone else, he knew Garner was unarmed for he saw his hands as he attempted to scale the fence.
“We could have well lost that case if officer Hymon had testified to the contrary, as the police culture demanded. I feel very strongly that the testimony of officer Hymon has saved thousands of lives and he truly is an unsung hero.”
As we celebrate African-American History Month, the career of Officer Elton Hymon is worthy of recognition and celebration. He served and protected our community for 35 1/2 years, became an ordained minister, served the children of our school system and provided personal security for Dr. Willie W. Herenton, the first African American elected mayor of Memphis.
In 2009, Hymon retired with the rank of captain. He never hit a homerun in Yankee Stadium, never ran for a touchdown at Soldier’s Field nor connected from behind the three-point line at FedExForum, yet he is imminently worthy of being our hero.