The death of motorist Jonny Gammage during a traffic stop by white suburban police officers on Oct. 12, 1995, continues to reverberate for videomaker Billy Jackson, who is ready to finish his documentary on the case and its implications.
"When [Gammage] was killed, just everybody, both black and white, those who support the police department and those who have problems with it, knew that the traffic stop never should have ended in his death," says Jackson, 58, of Knoxville. "What we're really looking at was, why did it happen?"
Jackson, who has been making documentaries for decades, ticks off the most obvious factors he believes led to Gammage's death: "The plates, the car, the district, the driver." Gammage, a black man, was driving a borrowed Jaguar (with out-of-state plates) owned by Gammage's cousin Ray Seals, then a Steelers player. Brentwood is mostly middle-class and white. During Gammage's arrest he died of positional asphyxiation. Cases against two officers involved in the arrest, from Brentwood and Baldwin, ended in mistrials; another Brentwood officer was acquitted -- and later promoted.
But the issues run deeper than one man's killing, Jackson says. It reverberates through other cases, both local and national, of unnecessary deaths during encounters with police, including the positional asphyxiation death on Dec. 21, 2002, of Charles A. Dixon while being restrained by Mount Oliver police.
For his documentary, Jackson recently interviewed Seals as well as experts on race in America, including Harvard psychiatrist Albert Pouissant and Charles Ogletree, the Harvard law professor recently appointed head of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. Jackson's documentary also examines local police oversight moves that he believes were unsuccessful: the federal consent decree that monitored the operations of Pittsburgh police for half a decade until last year, and the Citizen Police Review Board. The former has left unchanged too many police management procedures, Jackson says; the latter is simply powerless, thanks to political machinations and police contracts.
He believes Gammage's death and similar cases in other cities will still be "beachheads for reform and collaboration between law enforcement and the community. It's one of the opportunities that both entities have" to change. The law enforcement side could use better training (including alternatives to deadly force) as well as better day-to-day oversight and tracking of disciplinary procedures, he says. The public could stand to become more informed and involved in justice issues -- particularly in this era of the USA PATRIOT Act.
Jackson is now editing a preview reel and looking for more funds to complete his video, which has already received help from local foundations and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. He hopes to show it on PBS and to members of social-justice groups nationwide.
"We're not going to bring Jonny back," Jackson says, "but the loss of his life should not be for naught. It should be a lightning rod."