My heart broke on Monday for the family of Freddie Gray. Edward Nero, one of the six officers facing charges related to Gray’s death, was acquitted. For me, it was another example of law enforcement facing no consequences after taking someone’s life. It took me back to Sept. 14, 2013, when I lost my brother, Jonathan, after an encounter with police.
My mom came to my apartment at 6:30 a.m. the day it happened. I knew right away something was wrong. When she told me what happened, I was shocked. This can’t be true, I thought. Shot 10 times by a police officer? This can’t be right.
Coming from a family of sheriff’s deputies and police officers, we were taught from an early age that members of law enforcement are to be respected, not challenged. Jonathan would never threaten or attack a police officer. He wasn’t a criminal. He was a college student. He had no criminal record.
Over the next several months, we were told in excruciatingly vivid detail about the events that led up to his death. We learned that Jonathan was driving a friend home late one night in an unfamiliar neighborhood. After dropping off his friend, he lost control of his car and crashed into a ravine. He was injured. His car was totaled. He kicked out the back window of his car, crawled up the ravine and out of the ditch and went to look for help.
We were told that he knocked on the door of one of the first houses he approached, asking for assistance. The homeowner instead called 911, alleging that Jonathan was trying to break into her home. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers were dispatched to the scene.
We read in police reports that three officers arrived, and Jonathan approached them. One officer told him to stop. Injured and bewildered, Jonathan continued toward the officers. We were brought up to believe that law enforcement was there to help you, not hurt you. My brother desperately needed help. But instead of offering assistance, one officer pulled out his weapon and began firing, hitting Jonathan 10 times, killing him. Jonathan was unarmed.
While I wanted to know what happened to my brother, unearthing the specific details was like ripping open an old wound, every day, for months on end. It was as if I could feel each bullet that hit my brother pierce my own skin.
But rather than offering answers, the information we were provided simply led to more questions, questions that to this day remain unanswered for my family and me.
The officer who killed Jonathan was ultimately charged with voluntary manslaughter and faced a jury of his peers. That jury couldn’t come to a conclusion about whether he was guilty. The State’s Attorney decided not to try him again.
We were devastated. We couldn’t understand how someone who had taken an oath to protect and serve failed our family so badly that day. We didn’t feel Jonathan received justice.
Throughout this process, we were asked so many questions by family, friends and the media. One question always stuck out, because at the time it was the easiest to answer: “What will justice mean to you?”
I thought I knew the answer. It seemed so open-and-shut. I wanted to see the officer who killed my brother go to prison for his actions. I wanted those in authority to be held accountable for the apparent lack of training provided to that officer.
In the end, we didn’t get either of those. We didn’t even get an apology, not that it would have changed anything. We were able to reach a financial settlement with the city of Charlotte, but no amount of money could fill the crater left in our hearts by Jonathan’s death. Like the Gray family, which received a multimillion dollar settlement after Freddy’s death, we had money but not justice. So now we are forced to find justice in different ways.
Justice to us now becomes helping others avoid the tragedy that we’ve lived through. We are focused on bringing change to those who need it most. We are using some of the money from the settlement to fund the Jonathan A.P. Ferrell Foundation, which is designed to help the community and law enforcement break down barriers and better understand each another. We’re hopeful that the foundation will facilitate essential conversations between law enforcement and the citizenry they are charged to protect and serve. We look forward to partnering with law enforcement agencies around the country to start these conversations.
What do I miss most about my brother? Everything. He won’t be by my side as my best man when I watch my bride walk down the aisle. He’ll never meet the kids I hope to have one day. My mother won’t have the privilege of being a grandmother to his children.
But as much as we all miss him, Jonathan is our daily inspiration. Through his death, our family has become closer than ever. Growing up, Jonathan was my voice. I was very shy, so he spoke for me. Now I’ll proudly speak for him. Everything I do from this point forward will be done to honor my brother’s memory.
Jonathan always encouraged me to see things differently. I view “justice” differently, too. Although we don’t feel justice was served in my brother’s case, we won’t stop fighting for justice for others.
It’s what Jonathan would have wanted.
Willie Ferrell, 26, is a professional boxer from Tallahassee.