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LAWTON, Okla. — Nearly two months after police shot and killed a fleeing Zonterius Johnson outside his birthday party, tensions continue to grow as the city refuses to release body cam footage of the shooting.
Officers from the Lawton Police Department chased and shot to death 24-year-old Zonterius “Zon” Johnson outside a local business on January 17. The next day, friends and relatives gathered at the Lavish Lounge to honor his life and reveal conflicting accounts of what happened, according to a previous report from theBWSTimes.
Most recently, protesters confronted armed squads of officers outside the Comanche County Courthouse on Tuesday, March 2. Chanting “justice for Zon,” the fury in their voices overshadowed the grief in their hearts.
“Y’all aint protecting and serving shit,” said Darezanae Porter near the 8:15 minute mark in a Facebook Live video. She was only a feet away from LPD officers as she recorded on her phone. Porter is the girlfriend of Zonterius, a mother of their three children, and a student of the law. She was there the night of the shooting. “Y’all shoot first and don’t even ask questions,” she said to the officers.
City assassinates Zon’s character while hiding body cam footage
While LPD maintains their story that Zon turned toward officers with a weapon when he was shot, Zon’s loved ones and bystanders who were there that night continue to believe Zon’s killing was unjustified. For instance, LPD claims they arrived at the location to perform a routine compliance check. According to them, Zonterius brandished a weapon while out in the parking lot, causing officers to chase him down the street.
But party guests and workers at Lavish Lounge, a recently opened black-owned business, say the officers stormed onto the scene with guns drawn, looking to harass a group of black partygoers.
The city’s unwillingness to release footage of the event represents a pretty common response among police departments across the country. It usually occurs when officials want to avoid a lawsuit or violent uprising. What’s also common, and perhaps more infuriating for the community, is that LPD had no problem assassinating the character of a deceased man.
The Lawton Police Department’s Chief James Smith immediately handed over the investigation to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), claiming they can’t comment on an open investigation. Yet, they had no problem commenting on their findings from an initial OSBI report that claims Zonterius had a weapon and brandished it in front of officers.
It seems extremely convenient that the only thing investigators can reveal right now are facts that paint Zon as a criminal and an officer’s actions as justifiable homicide. The question burning in the minds of protesters, relatives, and community members continues to be: “If the officers did nothing wrong, why won’t you release the body cam footage?”
It’s a question that led protesters like Darezanea Porter to the Comanche County Courthouse. As protesters approached the building, officers armed with what looked like lethal weapons blocked the entrance.
Unarmed protesters confront militarized Lawton Police Department
As unarmed and mostly black protesters faced squads of armed officers, the protesters used the only weapon they had. Their voices.
“They’d shoot you too if you didn’t have a badge,” one protester could be heard saying to one of the few black officers at the scene. “Yo kids, yo momma, yo daddy, yo uncle. They’d shoot you too. How do you sleep at night knowing they killin’ your people?”
Another protester hurled more direct words as more armed officers approached the crowd. “We ain’t scared of y’all with them guns. Y’all bitches without ‘em. Why would we be scared with ‘em. The fuck?”
Others drew parallels between LPD’s militaristic response to unarmed black people seeking body cam footage and the U.S. Capitol Police response to hordes of violent white supremacists.
“Do yall understand the difference between a riot and a protest? A riot is what they did at the Capitol. Where the fuck was the tear gas and rubber bullets January 17,” Darezanea Porter asked.
Porter, Zonterius’ girlfriend, was also pulled over by LPD during the protest. She claims they ticketed her for not driving through the protesters.
“Yup they got me pulled over for not running the citizens of Lawton over,” Porter said 25 seconds into another Facebook Live video. They was walking and marching in the street and [LPD] wanted me to run ‘em over. They’re being very irrational.”
Support for Zonterius “Zon” Johnson grows
People from around the country joined Lawtonians in making their way from the Courthouse, to the Police Station. Participants chanted “no justice no peace,” and called for the release of the body cam footage.
Back in February, Black Lives Matter also joined the calls for transparency. Rev. Sheri T. Dickerson, director of Black Lives Matter Oklahoma City, held a press conference with Zon’s family. She asked LPD to bring transparency, accountability and closure to the grieving family and community.
“Another black life has been taken and there has been no recompense. We are here to support this family,” Rev. Dickerson said. “We’re asking for the body cam to be released so that we can see exactly what happened.”
As the City of Lawton continues to deny KSWO’s repeated requests for the body cam footage, it’s important to point out the difference between what the City of Lawton can’t and won’t do.
TheBWSTimes reached out to the Lawton Police Department, which refused to comment. LPD directed all questions to the Comanche County District Attorney’s Office. As of March 3, neither the OSBI’s final report nor the Medical Examiner’s report had been turned in to the DA’s office, according to a receptionist. Recently, Lawton Mayor Stan Booker told KSWO no action will be taken on body cam footage until those reports come in to the District Attorney’s Office.
Withholding body cam from public is a choice, not a requirement by law
The City of Lawton is following a standard process for officer-involved shootings. But officials can choose to release the body cam footage at any time. Regardless of whether the DA plans to file charges against the officers, he can choose to offer the family closure and transparency now if he wanted to.
When asked whether the City of Lawton can release body cam footage before the end of the investigation, a representative from OSBI told theBWSTimes it would be up to the Police Chief and City Attorney to make that choice. She explained how the Oklahoma Open Records Act has an exemption that makes it illegal for the OSBI to turn over this kind of information. But local departments are free to use their own discretion.
“So it would not come from us. However I am not aware of any law that prevents any other department from doing that,” said OSBI Public Information Officer Brook Arbeitman.
Mom demands body cam footage, officers prosecuted
City leaders are making the controversial choice to keep the community waiting. Meanwhile, the response from officers sworn to protect and serve seems to be adding fuel to the fire.
Protesters confronted squads of armed officers standing in formation. They defended the Comanche County Courthouse as if they were facing a mob of white supremacist terrorists. But these weren’t terrorists. These were members of a community grieving over the loss of their brother, son, friend, and dad. Their voices echoed the calls for justice that Zon’s mother, Meyoshia Gray, uttered at February’s press conference.
“I think we should know who killed Zonterius. And I believe they need to be prosecuted like any other person that breaks the law,” Gray said. “The picture they painted of my son is not right. He was loved by everybody. I demand the body cam. I deserve closure.”
Zonterius “Zon” Johnson is survived by his three children, his girlfriend, parents, grandma, relatives, and friends.