It’s been a year since 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones was killed by members of a Detroit Special Response team. The case garnered national headlines for all of the obvious reasons: an innocent child caught in police crosshairs, another black life taken in a city filled with heartache. But little Aiyana’s death was unique because it seemed to embody all that had gone so hopelessly wrong in our entertainment-driven society. The Special Response team that night had been followed by a camera crew shooting an episode of the A&E reality drama "First 48." David Simon couldn’t have scripted it better.
It’s still unclear whether the raid or Aiyana’s subsequent shooting was caught on tape. A&E has since stopped filming the series in Detroit, due largely to legal maneuvers by Mayor David Bing to ban commercial cameras from filming police work. A civil suit filed by the family’s attorney Geoffrey Feiger says the filming influenced police officers to act more aggressively than normal, therefore making the network partially liable for the child’s death. "Detroit 187," a fictional TV drama, made its much-heralded debut months after the shooting, but was recently canceled.
What’s left beyond the view of the cameras is a host of mostly unanswered questions: How does a community respond? How does a family heal? How is a notoriously embattled police department held accountable?
Some details of the shooting have been widely publicized in official corner’s reports. Others have become the stuff of urban legends. All of them agree that the child was asleep on a sofa with her grandmother, Mertilla Jones, when police charged into the home in the early morning hours of Sunday, May 16, 2010. The grandmother may or may not have fought with officers as they entered the room. Aiyana was shot in the head, may or may not have suffered severe burns from a flash grenade officers threw into the room.
Some say her father, Charles Jones, was then forced to lay face down in his daughter’s blood while police searched the home for a murder suspect, later identified as Chauncey Owens, who was found in an upstairs apartment.
Others counter that if that sort of morbid detail is true, Charles Jones brought that twisted irony onto himself. The elder Jones has been accused of being involved in 17-year-old Ja’ Rean Blake Noble’s slaying, which precipitated the raid. Owens has since pled guilty to Noble’s murder, and has agreed to testify that Charles Owens provided him with the gun used in the shooting.
Yet community activists say that, as sad as the entire case may be, focusing on the father’s potential criminal charges are beside the point.
"These spin doctors have created a classic divide and conquer in the community," said Roland Lawrence, founder of the Justice for Aiyana Stanley Jones Committee. "Aiyana’s family had to move out of the neighborhood because of death threats. People can’t clearly get to the tragedy as it was and is, which was the military-like way the police busted into someone’s house, purposefully and consciously, to create a good "48 Hours" episode and in the process they killed a little girl."
The police department certainly hasn’t instituted any meaningful changes. Though police protocol was harshly criticized for being militaristic in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, very little has come of those critiques. Statistics for violent crime in the city were actually on the decline under former Police Chief Warren Evans, but he was later forced to resign after a scandalous, shoot-em-up video for another reality TV show went public.
"I wanna bring to the people’s psyche and consciousness to the fact that what happened to Aiyana Jones is happening at a rate of 40,000 per year, and it could happen to them at any point," Lawrence said about the police raids. "People need to start addressing that issue big time."
On Monday afternoon, members of the Justice for Aiyana Stanley Jones Committee memorialized the little girl by chartering a plane to fly from Aiyana’s old family home to downtown Detroit. The plane carried a banner that read "Justice for Aiyana Jones." The group, a loose coalition of community-based activists, had raised about $500 in donations that came in from as far away as London, Florida, and Ohio.
But Lawrence says he was disappointed with the local community’s response. "Detroit’s overwhelmed with so many things," Lawrence said by phone. "A lot of people are worn out, they’ve become numb."
Lawrence says he started the committee about three months ago. On the anniversary, he noted to local reporters that two people had been investigated, tried and convicted for killing police officers since Aiyana’s death, suggesting that efforts to investigate the child’s death are only hindered because it’s not a priority for the department.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has dismissed criticism that the investigation is taking too long. "When [Michigan State Police] turned the matter over to us, we candidly indicated that our investigation would be a lengthy investigation, and that continues to be the case today," she told the Detroit Free Press this week. "We are more concerned with being thorough than being rushed in this important case."
It’s perhaps become too easy to talk badly about Detroit, to paint its residents as weary and unemployed, to discuss the myriad of possible reasons why people live, love and die in the city. Charlie LeDuff wrote over at Mother Jones late last year about how hard it is to ascribe blame in the case, given all that surrounds it.
But the more practical unanswered questions mostly have to do with the city’s police department and what, if any, justice can or will be given to Aiyana’s surviving family. Two lawsuits filed by the family against the police department and A&E are still in litigation. Fox News Detroit recently reported that the family and the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality are demanding an investigation into the department’s protocols.
"I’m gonna fight for my baby, I’m gonna fight to get justice for Aiyana," Mertilla Jones, Aiyana’s grandmother, told reporters.
Official investigations into the shooting are similarly slow-moving. According to the Detroit Free Press, Worthy says that her staff is reviewing evidence from a ten-month Michigan State Police investigation. In March, detectives requested a single unspecified charge against an unidentified man. Worthy won’t discuss whether the charge is against Officer Joseph Weekley, the man who pulled the triggered. It’s unclear whether Weekley is still with the department.
The Justice Department also started an investigation of its own. U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said that her agency is deferring to the Michigan State Police, but "monitoring the situation." "The Michigan State Police is investigating and so we are sort of standing by and keeping track of what’s going and to see if that’s resolved satisfactorily. We’ll wait for that process to conclude."
Diane Bukowski, a local investigative journalist who’s covered the story since the morning after Aiyana’s death, says that Weekley has reportedly gotten a disability retirement and settled in his home in suburban Detroit. Fox News Detroit reports that Weekley remains on paid leave.
"Why (does) he deserve to have dinner with his kids? My niece is not here. She can’t have dinner with us. My brother will never see his daughter again," Lakrystal Sanders, Aiyana’s aunt, told reporters in Detroit.
What will it take to get more accountability in the city? "I really think it’s gonna take people rising up in the city," said Bukowski.