13 Years

Jerrod Miller

Thirteen years ago today, Jerrod Miller, 16, was shot and killed outside of the Delray Full Service Center by a rookie Delray Beach police officer.

Jerrod was killed exactly 7 years to the day before Trayvon Martin, 17, was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida sparking a national conversation that still boils.

In the ensuing years, we’ve read about Freddie Gray, Ferguson, Missouri and a whole slew of incidents that have engulfed young men of color, police departments, communities, schools and our nation’s soul.

I’m not sure how many people are thinking of Jerrod Miller today in Delray Beach where we seem to be focused on gutter politics and whether this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a 50 year tradition will be the last because of a few myopic elected officials who don’t understand what it means to be a steward.

All of those things are important—who serves in office and whether community traditions continue or are shooed way.

But they also pale when viewed through the prism of a basic question; whether we are a good place for children and families to live.

Jerrod was my daughter’s age in 2005. I think of that often, every time I see my first born and marvel at the young woman she has become. She’s a teacher now, but back then she was a student at Atlantic High School and the kids were shaken about what happened the night Jerrod was shot. Samantha was given the opportunity to grow up, go to college and launch a career. Jerrod didn’t have that opportunity. And I think about him all the time.

For 13 years, I have had recurring dreams about a young man I never knew in life. I saw him only once—in a casket, at his funeral—at an 7th Day Adventist Church in our northwest neighborhood. I met and admired his pastor. I knew his father—not the biological opportunist who showed up after the shooting, but the man who Jerrod knew as his dad.  And I met his grandmother who sat quietly with us in a  room at Old School Square during our race relations workshops.

Ironically, I was at Mar-a-Lago, at a charity fundraiser the night of the shooting. I had no clue that life would change for so many with a middle of the night phone call that informed me of the news.

When police shootings occur, a dynamic occurs—a vortex of media, lawyers, union reps, police investigators, prosecutors, media, activists, hate mail, threats, anger, anxiety and crushing sadness.

Absolutely crushing sadness.

As a mayor, you become isolated—from your colleagues on the commission and from everyone really. It’s a lonely place and there is no playbook to reference.

I think of that lonely place when I see things happen—in places like Ferguson, Baltimore and yes Parkland because I know there’s hurting families, anxious policymakers and sad police officers.

In my case, I was walled off from the officer because of the investigation but I felt for him and his family. I tried not to pass judgment, I tried to think of him as a 23 year-old man. And when my son hit that age, I realized just how young that is. Jerrod was shot while allegedly driving erratically near a school dance. It all happened in a matter of seconds.

I’ve always been a fan of the Delray Beach Police Department and public safety professionals in general. I rode with them as a young reporter, got to know them as people and marveled at the complexity of their jobs and how well they performed. There is no Delray Beach as we know it, without their stellar work. They made it safe to live, work and play here but that challenge is ongoing and we must strive to be the kind of city that protects those who protect and serve us. So when the narrative emerged after the shooting of a rogue police department, I knew from personal experience that it wasn’t true. Of course, there was a fraught history–and that matters. Like America itself, Delray has struggled with race. But we were hard at work on the issue. We may have been imperfect, slow at times, blind to things but there were sincere efforts in our city to bridge the divide–to talk, engage and work together. Bridges had been built, relationships had formed and they were real and we would rely on them in the tough days ahead.

I also felt deeply for the family, friends and teachers who were shocked by the shooting.

We were isolated from the family as a result of the investigation, the inevitable litigation and other factors including an inquest, a rare event that was ordered in the case. I did spend time with several of Jerrod’s teachers who came to see me racked with emotion. We also spent a lot of time in the community answering questions, listening and praying.

But all during this time I was also thinking about another young man—Sherrod, Jerrod’s twin brother.

I asked  officers and community members for any information on him. I was told he was devastated and angry. Who could fault him. I’m sure there was confusion too.

I never did get to connect with Sherrod at the time. But I never stopped thinking about him.

I was saddened to read newspaper headlines a few years later detailing trouble that he had found.

He ended up doing time.

But a few years ago, he re-emerged. I got a call from an officer/friend who said Sherrod wanted to meet me and a few other  police officers including the chief. He wanted to see us. He had something to say.

And so we met, quietly in an office at City Hall. I was nervous about the meeting but anxious to see him too.

I’ve never written about this part of the story before but it’s important to share.

When Sherrod walked in the first thing you noticed was his size—6’5” and strong.

He was heavily tattooed and clearly someone who had seen a lot in his short life.  And yet there was something about him too that I just can’t describe–maybe the word is vulnerable.

When he saw us, the emotions were raw. He shook hands with all of us but it quickly fell into an embrace and a few tears.

It was very powerful.

For all of us.

Seasoned police officers who have seen it all and then some. Officers who had been called to the scene 13 years ago and were  very moved by what they saw.

We talked and talked some more. A lot poured out. Prison. Anger. Anger at Delray police. The searing pain of losing a brother. A twin; someone who feels a part of you. And a realization that the cycle has to stop. If at all possible, the anger had to be let go. Sherrod wanted to apologize to us, for things he had said and done. We told him it was OK and not necessary. We just wanted him to live a decent life. We were sorry that we didn’t help him and he needed a lot of help.

We vowed to help Sherrod get started again.  And we did. A job. Support. Advice.

I’d like to say that we all grew close. For awhile we texted, his preferred method of communication– with me anyway. Then the texts bounced back. His number must have changed.

And we lost touch.

He got arrested again. You can look up the details.

I keep tabs via the Internet.

On this, a sad anniversary, I pray he finds peace. I pray we all do.

I share these stories on the anniversary because I believe that it’s important that others know what happened on Feb. 26, 2005 in the village by the sea.

At the time, many felt Delray would never be the same. That’s how big this was. But I find we move on, maybe not the families, maybe not the direct participants, but society moves on.

There have been other violent deaths in Delray since. There have been young people gunned down by other young people right here in our community. And life goes on, as I suppose it should and must.

But my hope is that with every loss we would learn something that makes us better people and a better, closer community.

Until that happens, we will continue to fray–inch by inch– until  eventually we break.

 

 

Comments

  1. Saralyn L. Buzen says:

    Jeff, thank you for taking time to honor this day of remembrance of a life needlessly taken and the chaos that followed. True, but unfortunately there’s no growth without leaving our comfort zone. Although painful awareness does foster our Delrays future, why is this course necessary?

  2. Ralph Phillips Jr says:

    Jeff, You are a compassionate person, a great humanitarian and an amazing writer, but it’s important the uninformed reader know more about your story. Only then can they form an intelligent opinion. You wrote “Jerrod was shot while ALLEGEDLY driving erratically NEAR a school dance.” This case was investigated by the DBPD, FDLE, State Attorney’s Office, a magistrate and a Grand Jury. At what point in time can we dropped the word “allegedly”? Jerrod took his uncle’s car without his permission and without having a driver’s license. He was stopped by the police because he had the car in the courtyard of a former Middle School where a teen dance was taking place. Instead of complying, like law abiding people do, he accelerated the 5000 lb car, driving onto the exterior HALLWAY of the school. There were 15 to 20 students in the hallway. The rookie officer made an instantaneous decision to stop the motor vehicle threat to those children. He could have chose to do nothing, like another police officer currently in the news, but we’ll never know how that story would have ended. After ALL the various overlapping professional investigations the shooting was deemed JUSTIFIABLE by a Grand Jury. You failed to mention “Justifiable.” The rookie officer was dismissed from the police department for failing to successfully complete his probationary period. A convenient way to get rid of a racial political issue whose narrative you knew wasn’t true.
    Jeff, You ask whether DB is a good place for children and families to live? I say yes. You say the PD made it safe to live, work and play here. I agree. And a small part of that security we enjoy can be attributed to Jerrod’s twin brother Sherrod being locked up. You tried to do almost everything you could for this young man but not everyone can be saved. His felony criminal history is extensive and violent; from domestic battery by strangulation to carrying a concealed firearm. Until he can prove long term that he’s not a bad man, he should be jailed for our citizen’s safety. The GOOD people of Delray should be who we care for first.
    I wish you well and would vote for you in a minute if you ever chose to get back into politics. I just felt perspective was necessary for this story.

    • Jeff Perlman says:

      Ralph thanks for your comments.
      I wrestled with that word. He was driving erratically. Period. I appreciate you calling me out nicely on it. And I also appreciate your long and distinguished service to our community. I hope all is well, Jeff.

  3. Jerrod continues to be loved and remembered by his friends and family, as well as teachers. he was one of the most gentle and loving Souls to ever walk this earth. He was a great pleasure to have as a student in an after school program.the Facebook community with his friends and family are in morning today. His murder was a travesty and continues to impact those who loved him.

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