Black, young and unarmed: The case of Cameron Tillman

Six weeks after Michael Brown's death, a police officer killed a black teen in Louisiana with no explanation

HOUMA, La. – Cameron Tillman, a high school freshman and talented athlete, with a 3.7 grade point average and no reputation for trouble, was shot dead on a Tuesday afternoon.

The house where Cameron died has been empty for about two years, and neighbors say local kids, with the knowledge of the owner, had been using it as an afterschool hangout.

The knock came a little before 5:30 p.m. The four other teens in the house say that when Cameron opened the door, police opened fire. A Terrebonne Parish deputy planted four bullets in Cameron’s 14-year-old body.

The police had received a 911 call about "armed men with guns" going into an abandoned home. The local sheriff said Cameron came to the door with a gun in his hand, but that was later changed to say a BB gun was found "in close proximity" to his body. The teens say the BB gun was on the table.

Cameron was alive for at least 45 minutes, according to the family's lawyer. But the police offered no medical assistance. The investigation is ongoing, but two months on, the four other boys in the house say they still haven't been interviewed.

Cameron's death happened on Sept. 23, six weeks after a police officer killed Michael Brown. Anger over that unarmed teen's death swept the country like a fever. His hometown of Ferguson, Missouri, became one of the most embattled in the country and his name was catapulted into an international symbol.

But you probably haven't heard of Cameron Tillman. Houma, Louisiana, isn't simmering with protests. There's just a modest memorial outside the house on Kirkglen Loop, where people come by with candles and balloons.

The announcement

A neighbor banged and yelled at Wyteika Tillman's door. The knock shook her to her knees.

"'Hurry,' she said, 'Cameron's been shot,'" Tillman remembered. "And I said, 'Girl, not my Cameron. That's not Cameron, girl.'"

Cameron's mother went outside, where she saw all the neighborhood kids gathered.

"I just fell to the ground in disbelief," she said. "I fell immediately."

Over the next few hours, the rumble in the crowd was that the officer who killed Cameron was white. Tensions rose.

"That's the first thing that came to our minds: We don't want this. We hope this is not a racial situation, because we don't want that. We don't need that," said John Navy, a parish councilman and guidance counselor at Cameron's high school, who was in the crowd that night. "People were getting upset. You had the police department, you had the state police, you had detectives out there, you had the sheriff's department, and you have hundreds of residents, so it could have turned into a bad situation."

Then, late that night, the Houma sheriff announced that the officer who shot Cameron – Preston Norman, a seven-year veteran – was black.

"It was a black cop. It was a black 911 caller," Tillman said. "And I said, 'Who cares what color he is or what color the caller was?'… He shot a 14-year-old kid. I didn't care what he was and I don't know why he emphasized that he was black. It didn't make a difference."

For the community, and the family, this wasn't about race of the cops involved in the incident; it was about the larger problem of bad policing in a place where they believe teens of color are singled out by police.

"Our black kids are targeted more than other kids. This side of town, which is more of the urban side, the police harass our kids," Tillman said. "And it's a problem."

The investigation

In the weeks after his kid brother's death, 18-year-old Andre Tillman has tried to lose himself on the basketball court. He was one of the teenagers in the house that day and he watched his brother die.

"It was crazy because we were clowning one second and I heard a knocking," he said.

The sheriff's department insists the officials identified themselves when they knocked, but Tillman and the other boys say that isn't true.

"And I seen when he opened the door, I just see him got hit, hit by about four shots, four times, four or five times. I just seen him stumble and everything," he said. "He shot through the door. One of my friends tried to close [the door while] that man was still shooting through the door."

Cameron Tillman.

Andre wouldn't lay bare all the details of what happened in those moments, but he told his mother everything that happened.

"My son tried to help him. My son tried to cover his brother," she said. "But my son was kicked in the back and a gun held to his head to move away from him."

On the night of Cameron's death, the officers took Andre and the three other kids into custody for about five hours, according to family attorney Carol Powell-Lexing, who specializes in police abuse cases. But she said her understanding from the teenagers is that they weren't actually questioned about what happened.

Jerry Larpenter, the parish sheriff, called what happened a "freak accident," but hasn't explained the behavior of his deputies. The night of the shooting, he handed the case over to the Louisiana State Police to investigate.

Since then, the family and neighbors say the only contact they've had with investigators are search warrants issued for the boys demanding fingerprints and DNA samples.

The FBI has said it's monitoring the state investigation. But Powell-Lexing says it's time for the U.S. Department of Justice to launch its own investigation into what happened.

"It could make a difference to making sure that the local people are doing what they say they're doing," she said, "that they're conducting a fair and ethical investigation as it relates to getting to the truth of why the deputy sheriff shot 14-year-old Cameron Tillman when he did not have a gun in his hand."

In the meantime, the neighborhood boys visit Cameron's memorial every day.

"Cameron can't be that athlete football player that he wanted, he can't be his undergrad nursing – he wanted to be an RN – he can't be that now, it was stolen from him," Cameron’s mother said. "This is torture. It's pure torture every day. It's constant stabbing every single day I have to think about it and relive that, and my son, who had to see it."

Cameron's death had made the community fearful. Tillman said some parents try to keep their children inside. One neighborhood kid came up to her, she said, and asked her what was going to happen, and if he was going to make it to 18.

"I was speechless," she said. "I didn't know what to tell him." 

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