Benton Harbor residents want to know what caused the death of Arthur Partee
The June riots in Benton Harbor erupted after a fatal high-speed chase with police. Rioters say Terrance Shurn's death was the final straw in their build-up of frustrations, but those frustrations also stemmed from another death that possibly involved police.
Twenty-eight year-old Arthur Partee worked and lived in Benton Harbor. NewsCenter 16 first learned of his name during the Benton Harbor riots when protestors held signs saying "What about Arthur Partee?"
The question came up after local residents learned he died shortly after police responded to a call at his home. According to sources, Partee's cause of death was unnatural.
Partee shared a Benton Township apartment with his mother. On April 12, Partee's mother called Benton Township police to her home. NewsCenter 16's Janelle Hall was unable to find out exactly why the police were called, but, following that instance, Partee somehow ended up dead.
An attorney representing the Partee family says there were four people inside the Benton Township apartment when the incident happened: Arthur Partee, his mother and two Benton Township police officers. At some point, emergency crews were called. Arthur Partee left in an ambulance. His family's attorney says he died later that night.
Exactly how Partee died remains a mystery. His mother's not saying, her attorney's not saying and despite repeated requests, Benton Township police also won't say how it happened.
The answers, which lie in the coroner's reports, remain sealed in the attorney general's office in Michigan.
The Partee's family attorney, George Lyons did say, "If your question is: did he die of natural causes? I would say that's not likely. It's not likely at all."
In May, Berrien County prosecutor James Cherry handed the case over to the attorney general's office in Michigan. Cherry says, "I turned it over because I knew it was a sensitive issue."
It is a sensitive issue in the Benton Township police department as well. Benton Township Police Chief James Coburn says they won't comment on the case until the investigation is complete. Cherry did confirm two officers are temporarily off the job.
NewsCenter 16 has also learned those township officers are Patrolmen William Bradshaw and Tim Sutherland.
Two Benton Township police officers are on paid suspension while officials investigate Partee's death
Cherry says the officers are still on paid suspension.
The suspension comes after Michigan State Police say Partee "went to the floor and stopped breathing after a fight with police."
Lyons says, "Each and every officer who has taken an oath to protect and serve must be ever so careful to do precisely that at all times."
When the Michigan Attorney General's office completes its investigation into Partee's death, there should be a few more answers and access to the coroner's reports, along with incident reports from the night he died.
The Partee family attorney hasn't officially filed any complaints against the Benton Township Police department or any of its officers but attorney George Lyons said a civil lawsuit could come as a result of Partee's death.
As of August 4, 2003 Benton Township Police Chief Coburn confirmed both officers are still off the job. He says it will stay that way until the investigation is complete.
Monday night a Benton Harbor neighborhood turned into a mob scene. Hundreds of angry people crowded the neighborhood near Pavone and Empire to protest the death of 28-year-old Terrance Shurn of Benton Harbor. He was killed after his motorcycle crashed following a high-speed police chase.
The riots lasted for close to six hours but the unrest began much earlier in the evening. It started at 7 PM Michigan time when more than 100 people turned out for Benton Harbor's city commission meeting because they were upset with the chase involving Benton Township police, which ended in Benton Harbor.
After the meeting, around 11 PM, the rioting began near Empire and Broadway
The death of Terrance Shurn sparked anger from the community Streets. Eventually the mob grew to 300 to 400 people. The mob threw bricks and bottles at police cars causing thousands of dollars in damages. Police decided to suit up in riot gear.
By about 1 AM a vacant house was set on fire by people in the crowd. By 5 AM police were able to disperse the crowds.
A neighbor shot video of the vacant home engulfed in flames. It's believed rioters torched the home, which was located across the street from the scene of Monday's fatal motorcycle accident.
Benton Harbor Police Chief Samuel Harris says fire crews were unable to immediately get to the scene because of the danger presented by the rioters. Because of that, several nearby homes were evacuated as a precaution. A second nearby home burned hours after the rioting ended, but authorities aren't sure if that fire was related.
Chief Harris says, "I wouldn't call it a riot. It was more of a disturbance." The disturbance caused Chief Harris and Benton Harbor Police crews to call in other area units for backup.
A NewsCenter 16 photographer tried to reach the scene. He says, "The objects hit my news vehicle. Both of them shattered. I believe they might have been bottles of some kind. One did make a dent. I saw all kinds of stuff going down last night. The police was up there they were scared to even get out there cars it was so many people up there they couldn't do nothing."
Even with the destruction last night, there were no arrests.
Chief Harris says, "There were some very untruthful statements made at our commissioners meeting such as the vehicle was struck by a police car, they saw blood on the police car and all that and my information is that the police car never got within 2 to 3 blocks of the motorcycle that caused the incident."
Police believe the mob set fire to an abandoned house close to where Terrance Shurn died.
Chief Harris says one of the biggest misconceptions about this investigation is that Benton Harbor Police don't care about what's going on. He says they do and they've been affected to just take a look at what happened to one of their vehicles during last night's incident.
The atmosphere is still volatile in Benton Harbor. Police and residents fear the chaos has only begun. Police are taking step to safeguard against another riot tonight. Police patrols have been stepped up in the area near Empire and Pavone Streets.
Seven police agencies will patrol the streets Tuesday night including the FBI with riot gear on hand if necessary. Patrol cars will be doubled up with personnel and command centers are set throughout the town. If there is an incident, police say they will take action.
Chief Samuel Harris of the Benton Harbor Police Department says, "Tonight we will make arrests because this sort of conduct can no longer be allowed to continue. Last night our citizens vented. Tonight venting will cost you time in the Berrien County Jail."
A high-speed police pursuit turned deadly early Monday morning in Benton Harbor. Around 2 AM, 28-year-old Terrance Devon Shurn was killed when he crashed his motorcycle into an abandoned house.
The crash has police investigating and neighbors questioning the chase. All police pursuits raise questions, especially when they end in a fatality.
Lt. Joseph Zangaro, Michigan State Police Bridgman post commander, says, "Our jobs are to protect lives and when something like this happens, you still second guess yourself sometimes."
The police pursuit started with two motorcycles on U.S. 31 near Scottdale. "He initially observed it at a high rate of speed, 100 mph, knew he couldn't catch him and terminated the pursuit," says Lt. Zangaro.
But police spotted Shurn again, blowing thru stop signs and driving thru people's lawns. A chase again ensued and ended when police say Shurn lost control.
Neighbors say police were in the wrong. Beth Hollins, an area resident, said, "You could tell how he jumped the curb that the police had hit the back of his motorcycle."
Lt. Zangaro says, "That police officer has a split second to make that decision and sometimes, like I said, he's doing the best he can with the decision they do make."
It's still not clear why Shurn was speeding and eluding police. An autopsy is being performed today and toxicology results are expected in about 10 days.
The Michigan State Police Accident Reconstruction Team is investigating the crash to sort out exactly how it happened.
DETROIT - Authorities have clamped a state of emergency on a small city in southwest Michigan where riots, sparked by the death of a motorcyclist during a high-speed police chase, have left about 15 people injured.
The riots, in which local officials said more than six buildings and an undetermined number of cars were set ablaze, began on Monday after the death of the biker in economically depressed Benton Harbor.
The violence erupted again Tuesday night, and about 120 state troopers were dispatched to the city after emergency rule was declared by local authorities, who acted with the backing of Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Granholm said she hoped to avoid using National Guard troops to enforce law and order in the city, something that has not been done in Michigan since race riots in the mid-1960s.
The predominantly black town is the home base of Whirlpool Corp. It and nearby St. Joseph have a long history of racial and class tensions, some of them chronicled in the book "The Other Side of the River," by Alex Kotlowitz. Reuters
A riot is seldom as spontaneous as it seems. While one incident provides a trigger, underlying conditions have generally been festering. The climate is ripe. Troublemakers just need an excuse to take it to the streets, and the mob mentality takes it from there.
Such was the case in Detroit in 1967, where a fairly routine police raid on a blind pig sparked a week of death and devastation, and in Los Angeles in 1992, after a jury acquitted four white police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. Frustrated, angry people seized a moment, with little regard for the consequences. There's no sense to it. Nothing gets better and much gets immediately worse. Rioters may have a long list of grievances but they don't take the long view on resolving them.
This is what appears to have happened in Benton Harbor, a pocket of deep poverty in the shadow of prosperous St. Joseph in southwest Michigan. The city of 12,000 people was under a state of emergency Wednesday after two nights of rioting left up to 15 people hurt, including one who was shot. The trouble erupted after a police chase that ended in the death of a motorcyclist. There was a vigil at the crash site, a meeting, angry words and then fire and violence -- enough to put Benton Harbor on the national news.
Nobody has paid much attention to the city's high unemployment, failing schools or endless financial troubles. But all of that figures into the rioting -- which only brings the wrong kind of attention.
Benton Harbor's pressing needs are for a tight curfew and the police resources to restore order. Anyone identified as an instigator of the riots must be prosecuted. Then local and state officials need to consider what was happening in the city before this happened, and what can be done to keep it from happening again.
Two years ago, I spent a weekend in the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph area reporting on Whirlpool Corp.'s ambitious effort to bridge the racial and economic gap between the two communities.
Although sections of Benton Harbor gave me the chills, there was something beautiful about the town.
I could sense its potential.
I was struck by how Benton Harbor could be any poor black neighborhood. I saw the same kinds of conditions--vacant lots, dilapidated buildings, rundown housing, idled workers and frustrated teens--that I've seen in every other poor urban community.
That is probably what frightens me the most about the town's two nights of rioting.
Although the local police chief and some Benton Harbor residents downplayed the violence, pointing out that Terrance Shurn--the Benton Harbor resident who died when his motorcycle crashed into a house during a police chase--was the only fatality in the chaos, the frustrations that led to the violence are percolating.
Since racial frustration appears to have ignited the riot, it is ironic that Shurn was not chased by police from the predominantly white St. Joseph area. Shurn, a black man, was chased by white police officers from Benton Township, who patrol the unincorporated area next to Benton Harbor. That unincorporated area is 51.9 percent black and is the site of the Whirlpool headquarters.
The Benton Harbor police chief, Samuel Harris, who has had to quell the riots, is black.
And the five buildings that were burned, the vehicles that were vandalized, and the victims that were shot and stabbed, were all in Benton Harbor, a town that is 92.4 percent black.
It's as if the rioters learned nothing from the turbulent riots of the '60s that leveled whole blocks in black neighborhoods in L.A., Detroit and Chicago. Some of the neighborhoods have never been redeveloped.
"We're tired of it now. We're tired of it," 21-year-old Antonio Cornelius told an Associated Press reporter. According to Cornelius, his 11-year-old cousin, Trenton Patterson, was struck on a sidewalk and killed two years ago in a police chase that also involved Benton Township police officers.
That these built-up resentments led nearly 300 people to riot after Shurn's motorcycle crashed signals a deeper racial problem. We will ignore it until the pot boils over. Similar resentments can be blamed for the skirmishes between police officers and citizens in Chicago when police officers have attempted to arrest suspects in low-income neighborhoods.
We can't afford to ignore the signs. The violence that imploded in Benton Harbor could easily erupt elsewhere.
"The way things transpired, it is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed," acknowledged Mark Mitchell, president of the Council for World Class Communities, an organization founded by Whirlpool Corp. to help facilitate dialogue between stakeholders in the Benton Harbor/St. Joe area.
"But I think it is a community issue and not just an issue for the police department. It is a community issue."
On Wednesday, Mitchell said the streets were quiet, but a ministerial alliance planned to patrol the troubled neighborhoods after dark and help keep things calm.
"Many people have come forward to show that this violence is not representative of this community," Mitchell said. "We have to figure out a way to bring people together to talk and avoid further violence. We've had two years of dialogue and have been able to do some positive things."
In fact, internationally renowned sculptor Richard Hunt opened an arts studio in Benton Harbor several years ago, and other entrepreneurs have followed, opening upscale restaurants downtown.
Mary Connors and Paul Camp, who live full time in Lincoln Park, bought a second home in Benton Harbor nearly 20 years ago.
"We go over there all the time," Connors said. "As it turned out, we bought a house right across from public housing. We have met nothing but nice people over there and have made very good friends. There are worse parts of town and better parts of town. But mostly, there are good people who are just trying to make it work."
Connors said there are little pockets of redevelopment in Benton Harbor even though there are deeply ingrained problems, including a poor school system.
Her husband, Paul, hopes the negative publicity the city has gotten will focus the efforts of the people who are trying to change the community.
"But it is not going to happen until the people who live in the communities surrounding Benton Harbor become active in working to help Benton Harbor. If we could pull together--the people who live in the surrounding communities, whose futures are very much tied to what happens to Benton Harbor--to do something constructive, it could be a positive."
To get there, their neighbors would have to cross a racial divide.
Benton Harbor is like every other struggling, poor, black community.
That's the frightening thing.