August 26, 1991-August 12, 2006
Greta Carter- Willis and her husband Mark live on the edge of Mount Olivet Cemetery in southwest Baltimore. When you walk into their pretty row home you are greeted by family portraits, a collection of books on African American History, a painting of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Junior, and a reproduction of the “Last Supper” mounted about their dining room wall. The table is carefully set with lovely placemats and napkin rings and looks like it belongs in a home decorating magazine. You wouldn’t believe that this beautiful place was the scene of grisly violence. Beyond the dining room table just before you reach the kitchen that Mark lovingly renovated exposing the beautiful old brick is the place that Greta’s youngest child Kevin L Cooper was shot and killed.
Greta looks at Jen and me with a kind and knowing smile when we ask her how it happened, “How could a police officer that she invited into her home kill her 14-year-old son?” She knows that our naivety is a function of our privilege. “They,” and she gestures to the Police Precinct located half a block from her home, “they think we are all the same. They don’t take the time to know us. They think that all of us in the ghetto are on drugs or uneducated.”
Greta grew up in a close-knit Baltimore community where people and the police knew and trusted one another. “When we needed help, we called the police.” That is what Greta did the morning of August 12, 2006. Kevin was in crisis. Eight years earlier Kevin’s older brother whom he idolized died in a car crash at the age of sixteen. Kevin’s sister left the house just a few months before the incident to join the US Navy. Greta agreed to care for her infant granddaughter while her daughter was deployed. Kevin, Greta and her granddaughter were alone in the home and he was distraught. Greta called the police for assistance.
Two officers arrived on the scene and according to Greta, Kevin quickly calmed down. The officer who substantiated Greta’s account left the scene because the call was abated. The other officer remained. Greta said that Kevin muttered something under his breath, probably something obnoxious, something a teenager would say. She didn’t hear exactly what he mumbled. The police officer couldn’t hear it either and confronted Kevin, demanding that he “speak up.” The situation escalated. Greta called her pastor to ask for help and advice. Kevin stormed out of the room and the officer pursued him upstairs. Greta said the officer taunted Kevin, teasing her child about trying to “be a man.” Kevin walked back downstairs and picked up a plastic dustpan. The officer sprayed Kevin with mace and shot him. The entire time, Greta had her infant granddaughter in her arms. The house was surrounded by police within minutes.
The police ushered Greta out of her home. She recalls yelling for an ambulance and being confused when one arrived and the police officer was put in it. An officer informed her that she had to go to the police station before she could go to the hospital to see her son. She listened to the officer, went to the precinct and doesn’t recall much. She felt as though she was there for hours and she kept asking her about her son. The one piece of information that she held onto was that they told her that he was going to be arrested for assaulting a police officer. She was confused because she was there and Kevin never touched the officer when she was in the house but she was relieved that at least he was alive. “They told me he was up and talking and that he would be sent to jail once he got out of the hospital.” Finally, she got a ride to the hospital.
“I knew when I saw their faces.” Greta’s family and pastor were waiting for her. “I could see them all thinking it: ‘She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know he’s dead.” Kevin was shot in the shoulder and the bullet pierced his heart. He died hours before his mother made it to the hospital. Greta believes that he died on the floor of their home.
Greta called the police around 9:30 AM that morning. She returned to her home, the scene of the crime, shortly before 4pm. Still in shock she turned on the television to witness a press conference regarding Kevin’s death. Greta describes the confusion and disbelief as she watched the Baltimore Police Department and the States Attorney’s Office declare the shooting justifiable.
“What if I decided not to call the police that day?” Greta says and the pain from that day is still in her eyes. “I know other people think that. Some even say it.” Greta is the first to say that she will never know exactly what happened that day. The one truth we all know is that she called the police asking for help and the day ended with her youngest child dead. She asks us, “I bet you wonder why I stay here? Why I stay in this house.” She walks us to a small park that has been named in honor of Kevin, where she holds her annual fundraiser for The Kevin Cooper Foundation and where she wants Jen to photograph her. “I stay here because I believe that someone will come to ask my forgiveness. I doubt it will be the Baltimore City Police Department. But maybe the man who killed him will. He’s been promoted. He’s a detective now. But yes, I stay here because I am waiting for that.”