Alto officials investigating possible racial slur in fatal shooting

ALTO, TX (KTRE) - In the wake of an officer-involved shooting that left a man suspected of robbing a convenience store dead in January, the city of Alto has started an internal investigation to determine whether or not the officer said a racial slur before he shot and killed James Eric Griffin, an African American.

Jeremy Jackson, the chief of the Alto Police Department, and the city attorney will be investigating the allegations. Jackson said they hope to conclude their in-house investigation by the end of March.

"We're in the very preliminary stages of the investigation right now," Jackson said.

The officer, Brandon Michael Smith, has been placed on administrative leave until the end of March, and Jackson said once they finish their investigation, they will decide on an appropriate course of action in regard to any disciplinary action against Smith.

Jackson also said that Texas Ranger Sgt. W.R. "Rudy" Flores told him that his investigation into the fatal shooting is almost complete. Once the investigation is complete, Flores will turn his findings over to Cherokee County District Attorney Rachel Patton. Jackson said the findings could be submitted to a grand jury as early as March 25.

Citing Texas Department of Public Safety policy, Flores declined to comment on the pending investigation.

The fatal shooting incident occurred on Jan. 23. According to DPS spokeswoman Jean Dark, Griffin, 48, of Alto, attempted to rob the Pick N Go convenience store located at 100 S. Smith confronted Griffin on Highway 69, where an exchange took place.

Marcus Street. A clerk at the convenience store said Griffin started to leave the store with a pack of cigarettes that he hadn't purchased. When the clerk said, "Hey, man, what about the money," Griffin allegedly turned around, lifted up his shirt, and showed the clerk a long machete.

One witness at the scene, Emmanuel Milton, told the East Texas News he saw Smith shoot Griffin once and then several more times after he fell.

"I took off and ran up the street to let the police know that [Griffin] was off his meds, and that he was an access patient," Milton said.

Immediately after the shooting, it was a tense situation in Alto. In addition to the Alto Police Department, deputies from the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office, and DPS troopers were on the scene as well as hundreds of people gathered at the scene, some of them yelling angrily at authorities.

At an Alto City Council meeting in February, Flores told city officials that he collected background information, spoke to witnesses, and reviewed the scene of the fatal shooting incident. He said before he can conclude the investigation, he has to wait for the final autopsy and toxicology reports to be released.

During the meeting, Jackson responded to Alto residents' allegations that they had seen Smith in uniform and riding along with a sergeant with the police department by saying that the officer was brought back into the office to help with administrative duties.

Jackson said he didn't realize Smith coming back to work would cause such a disturbance.  "Since then, he has been placed back on administrative leave, and he will not be back even in the office, he said.

Griffith's niece, Angela Jefferson, was one of several people who spoke at the city council meeting. She told city officials that she thought the shooting was excessive.

"It's awful when you see your family member lying there on the ground," Jefferson said. "I was there before the first responders arrived."

"From the Texas Ranger's investigation, I hope they'll see it for what it was," Herman Martin said at the meeting. "It was a murder. That's what I hope they find in their investigation."

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