In 2013, Al Sasser re-entered society after 31 years in prison. In just three years on the outside, Sasser has touched countless lives. He has worked as a drug and alcohol counselor, case-managed formerly homeless people, volunteered to mentor youth in jail, and — receiving rarely granted permission to go back into the same facility he served time in — counseled people serving life sentences in prison.
But Sasser’s comeback story hit a wall on August 16, when Los Angeles police shot and killed his 18-year-old grandson, Kenney Ahmad Watkins.
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The police department’s account is all too familiar. Young Black male … traffic stop … officer saw the suspect holding a gun, and fired. Watkins died on the scene.
Watkins’ profile is, unfortunately, all too common as well — a kid with talent and great potential. He was a Junior Olympian track runner … about to graduate high school … part of Steve Harvey’s mentorship program at USC.
“He was a good kid … he didn’t know anything about the streets. I don’t think he could survive in the streets,” says Sasser, who was raised in South Central Los Angeles as well, about 15 blocks from where his grandson was killed.
“I grew up involved in gang activities … I had been running the streets since I was nine years old,” says Sasser. But unlike himself, he says, his grandson Kenney and his daughter Precious (Kenney’s mom) were “the type of people I wish I would have been.”
He says that in 50 years, the way society stigmatizes young Black males who grow up in South Central hasn’t changed.
“It’s like being born with most of the odds against you.”
Say His Name: Kenney Watkins!
A week after his death, Kenney Watkins’ name shut down the Los Angeles Police Commission meeting.
On August 23, Dozens of community members, including many representing Black Lives Matter, interrupted the meeting by chanting the name of Marcello Luna, who was killed by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) on August 19, three days after Watkins. After being asked to stop by Commission President Matthew Johnson, they began chanting, “Kenney Watkins! Say his name!” Unable to quiet the chants, Johnson called for a recess and barred the public from reentering the meeting when it was later continued.
Black Lives Matter organizer Dr. Melina Abdullah was among those protesting that day. She routinely attends police commission meetings, which she says have become a gathering place for the families of victims of police violence and a central rallying point for those calling for policy reform.
“One of the challenges with Los Angeles is, LAPD kills so many people that … it’s very difficult to galvanize people around a single incident,” explains Abdullah, currently the Chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. “Kenney Watkins was the third in three weeks.” The first of those three was Jesse Romero, who was only 14 years old.
Los Angeles police have killed 13 people in 2016 as of mid-September. Although Abdullah acknowledges it’s a “horrific strategy” to build a movement around death, it’s a reality facing organizers trying to bring on institutional change.
“We’ll build momentum around one killing and then the next week, as is the case with each of these teenagers, another person is killed,” Abdullah says. “As soon as traction begins to build around a single case … they’ve killed someone else; then energy shifts to the latest.”
Amid this ongoing string of killings, the local Black Lives Matter group has focused on getting rid of LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. Virtually every Police Commission meeting features numerous citizens railing against racial profiling and calling for Beck to be fired.
“In the past month, three teenagers were killed!” said Beth Kemp, speaking at the September 13 meeting. “We have not seen any improvement in how these officers act. We’re judged by what we do; they should be judged by what they do!”
Protesters also occupied the sidewalk in front of City Hall for 54 days this summer in reaction to the decision not to hold officers accountable for the 2015 shooting death of Redel Jones, a mother of two. Although led by Black Lives Matter, the encampment occurred under the banner of “Decolonize LA City Hall.”
A “Shameful” Solution
While Beck is still in his job, the pressure may be paying off in the form of new policies, including a program to reach out to families of those killed by the police, and a departmental analysis of discrimination by police officers.
Newly appointed commissioner, Cynthia McClain-Hill has called for the LAPD to produce a full report on biased policing, including the screening of recruits, trainings for officers and comparisons to other cities. Despite hundreds of annual complaints, no accusations of biased policing have been upheld against LAPD officers in the past five years. A special commission meeting has been scheduled for November 1 to discuss the issue and present the results to the public.
Additionally, a proposed “Family Liaison Program” was announced at the same meeting where protesters chanting Watkins’ name were ejected from the room; the liaison was described by Commissioner Johnson as a “central point of contact” for the family of anyone killed by LAPD. Complaints are frequent from family members who have trouble getting necessary legal documents and navigating the police bureaucracy. The liaison would reach out to the next of kin, answer questions and provide whatever information is legally available.
Chief Beck expressed support for the idea, telling the commission, “There isn’t a good avenue to address grieving family members,” and that “there’s certainly a value to helping families through this process.”
“Even though the acts of the individual involved directly with the police may have been criminal, that doesn’t mean the family isn’t grieving. That doesn’t mean that they don’t need information,” Beck added.
Where Was the Liaison for Kenney Ahmad Watkins?
Al Sasser knows firsthand the need for a “liaison” of some sort, but he’s skeptical about the idea of anyone employed by LAPD being the right person for the job.
“There’s a trust issue to begin with,” he says.
Sasser says the police were not forthcoming with his daughter Precious, even after she identified herself as Watkins’ mother to police at the scene. “They ignored her,” says Sasser.
That disregard and lack of communication has persisted since that day.
“Everything is still sketchy,” says Sasser. “And the police have so many different versions of what happened that we don’t know which one to believe.”
In the meantime, the family grieves and remembers.
Sasser first met his grandson Kenney while in prison, when Precious came to visit with her new baby.
“I just remember looking in this little boy’s eyes, and his bright smile, and he just seemed so smart and active,” Sasser remembers. “And it touched my heart to the point where it made me want to change my life … in the hopes that I would be able to get out of prison, and to be a mentor and a positive male role model for my grandson.”
Watkins was a teenager by the time his grandfather was released, but they built a relationship over the past three years and he came to visit his grandpa this summer.
“I brought him up to the Bay Area, took him to (the University of California at) Berkeley and sights just to allow him to be more aware of the fact that that little microcosm world that he lived in, in South Central is not the only world that exists, and there’s so many possibilities and choices, and he really enjoyed himself here,” says Sasser. “Had I known that something like that would happen, I probably would’ve kept him here.”
Given the circumstances, Abdullah says she supports the idea of the Family Liaison Program — but says it’s “shameful” that it’s needed.
“The real solution should be just not killing people, then you won’t need a family liaison,” she says. “The reason that they’re ushering it in is because there are so many families that are being mistreated and ignored and just really kind of re-traumatized by LAPD.”
Abdullah points out that similar resources exist for victims of crime, but because “the people who are killed by the police are not considered crime victims, almost universally the police cast them as suspects, which makes their families ineligible for those resources. So even things like counseling services — the families aren’t given access to those kinds of things.”
And the existence of a Family Liaison Program doesn’t guarantee that families will actually receive services.
“If the family liaison does nothing more than say ‘Sorry, you’re not eligible for what it is you need’, that also becomes a problem,” says Abdullah. “Are you going to actually resource families or are you going to just use it as a PR thing?”
Working to Prevent the Next Tragedy
“This has pushed me to the forefront of this particular struggle,” says Sasser, who says the key is for people to “accept the reality that this stuff is in epidemic proportion.”
“I’m more willing to contribute more of my efforts in whatever I can do to try to eradicate the thinking that a police officer could suffer none or little consequence as a result of taking somebody else’s life…. It’s just out-of-control behavior and there has to be some kind of solution towards screening out of people who have this quick reaction or trigger finger kind of mentality,” he says.
Though Sasser is actively working to shrink down the prison industrial complex, “on an emotional level” he wants the officer who killed his grandson to experience time in prison.
“The system is in place supposedly as a deterrent. I don’t necessarily agree that that’s the best deterrent,” explains Sasser. “However, I think for somebody who’s in law enforcement, it’s one of the only things that could probably shake or eradicate that mentality … if they see one of their people actually have to be put into that pool of people who are held accountable by being inside the prison.”
And he believes that the system can change, especially in light of the ongoing movement for Black lives.
“I don’t know necessarily whether I’ll be able to see it in my lifetime, but I am hopeful,” he says. “We need to do something and not just sit back and mope or complain about a system that’s not working for us or that’s excluding us, but to get involved in what we need to do to change things.”