Michael Jennings wasn’t breaking any laws or doing anything obviously suspicious; the black minister was simply watering the flowers of a neighbor who was out of town.
Yet there was a problem: around the corner, Amber Roberson, who is white, thought she was helping that same neighbor when she saw a vehicle she didn’t recognize in the house and called the police.
Within minutes, Jennings was in handcuffs, Roberson apologized for calling the emergency health services, and three officers were talking to each other about how everything could have been different.
Harry Daniels, a lawyer representing Jennings, said he intends to file a compensation claim with the city of Childersburg and then file a lawsuit. “This should be a lesson learned and a training tool for law enforcement on what not to do,” he said.
A 20-minute video of the episode recorded on one of the agents’ body cameras shows how quickly a quiet evening on a quiet residential street turned into another potentially explosive situation involving a black man and law enforcement. white.
“What are you doing here, friend?” Officer Chris Smith asked as he approached Jennings, who was holding a hose with a jet of water falling on the plants next to the driveway outside a small white house.
“Drinking flowers,” Jennings replied from a few yards away. There were lawn decorations around a mailbox; Fresh mulch covered the beds. It was over an hour before sunset on a Sunday in late May, the kind of spring evening when people are often out taking care of plants.
Smith told Jennings that a caller said he saw a strange vehicle and a person who “shouldn’t have been here” at home. Jennings told him that the SUV he was talking about belonged to the neighbor who lives there.
“I should be here,” he added. “I’m Pastor Jennings. I live across the street. “
“Are you Pastor Jennings?”
“Yes. I am looking for their home while they are away, watering their flowers,” Jennings said, continuing to sprinkle water.
“OK, well, okay. Do you have, like, ID? ”Smith asked.
“Oh no. Dude, I’m not going to give you ID,” Jennings said, turning away.
“Why not?” Smith asked.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” replied the pastor.
Jennings, 56, was born in rural Alabama just three years after George C. Wallace promised “segregation forever” at the first of his four inaugurations as governor. His parents grew up in a time when racial segregation was the law and blacks were expected to act with deference to southern whites.
“I know the background,” Jennings said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, the agents who confronted him on May 22 work for a majority white city of about 4,700 people located 55 miles (88 kilometers) southeast of Birmingham along US 280. Whites control City Hall. and the police department.
Jennings entered the ministry not long after graduating from high school and hasn’t strayed far from his birthplace, nearby Sylacauga, where he runs Vision of Abundant Life Ministries, a small nondenominational church, when he’s not gardening or selling. items online. In 1991, he said, he worked in the security industry and then trained to become a police officer in a nearby town, but quit before accepting a full-time job.
“That’s how I knew the law,” he said.
Alabama law allows police to ask for someone’s name in a public place when there is a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime. But that doesn’t mean a man innocently watering flowers at a neighbor’s home must provide identification when asked by an agent, according to Hank Sherrod, a civil rights attorney who reviewed the full police video on request. of the AP.
“This is an area of the law that is pretty clear,” said Sherrod, who has handled similar cases in northern Alabama, where he practices.
Handcuffed and sitting between two shrubs on the porch of his neighbor’s house, Jennings told Smith and Gable how his son, a university athletics administrator, was “arrested and profiled” unfairly in Michigan after a young woman at a competition. cheerleader had said that a black man had hugged her.
Jennings said she felt “anger and fear” during her interaction with Alabama police officers, not only because of what happened to her son, but also from the weight of past police killings – George Floyd , Breonna Taylor and others – as well as low-profile incidents and shootings in Alabama.
“That’s why I couldn’t resist,” he said.
Jennings was already in the back of a patrol car when Roberson, the white woman who called the police, emerged. Jennings, she told agents, was a neighbor and friend of the homeowner, Roy Milam.
“OK. Do you have permission here to water the flowers?” Smith asked.
“It could, because they are friends,” he replied. “They went out of town today. He could water their flowers. It would be completely normal ”.
Milam told the AP that was exactly what happened: He had asked Jennings to water his wife’s flowers while they were camping in the mountains of Tennessee for a few days.
Moments later, agents told Roberson that a license plate check showed that the golden sports utility vehicle that prompted his call in the first place belonged to Milam. They took Jennings out of the patrol car and he told them his first and last name.
“I didn’t know it was him,” Roberson told police. “I am sorry for that.”
The officers spent much of the remaining time on the scene in an argument that began with a question from Smith: “What are we going to do with him?”
After evaluating several options, they settled on the charge of obstructing government operations which was dismissed within days by the city court. Police chief who asked for his dismissal after reviewing the 911 call and bodycam video, Richard McClelland, resigned earlier this month. City officials didn’t say why he stepped down, but city attorney Reagan Rumsey said he had nothing to do with what happened to Jennings.
Childersburg’s interim police chief, Captain Kevin Koss, did not return emails seeking comment.
Michael Jennings is still friends with Milam, the neighbor with the flowers. Milam, who is white, said he feels guilty about what happened, and the two men will continue to watch each other’s homes, just as they have for years.
“He’s a good neighbor, for sure. There is no doubt, “said Milam.
Jennings also spoke with Roberson recently for the first time since arrest.
The pastor, who lives less than a third of a mile from the police station, said he hadn’t seen any of the three officers involved in his arrest since that day. He believes all three should be fired or at least disciplined.
“I feel a little paranoid,” he said.
However, he still mentions the police cars passing by his neighborhood, in part because of the Christian call to be nice to others.
“You should love your neighbor no matter what happens,” he said. “But you heard the saying: ‘Keep your enemies close too'”.
Reeves is a member of the AP race and ethnicity team.