Who is Officer George Sands? The Birmingham police officer had amassed more than a dozen complaints before fatally shooting Bonita Carter. Some city leaders saw him as a problem while others protected him – saying he was just a symptom of a poorly trained police department rather than a rogue bad apple. Before becoming mayor, Richard Arrington had been shocked to learn Sands was Bonita Carter’s killer because Sands had been in so much trouble before. But Sands was protected by the powerful police union and county rules that restricted the authority of the mayor.
Arrington set out to integrate and reshape the police department, to change the shooting policy that had left so many Black men dead. But would it be possible to remove Sands?
And, given all that’s happened since, how does Sands feel about that night in 1979?
Reckon Radio presents: “Unjustifiable,” an investigative series from Pulitzer-prize winning columnist John Archibald and Roy S. Johnson examining an overlooked moment of civil rights history in the heart of the South. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or your favorite podcasting app.
Below is a full transcript of Episode Five.
Sound: Phone ringing.
John Archibald: George Sands has not wanted to talk to us. We tried reaching out, calling several possible numbers, asking friends and his former lawyer to ask him to talk. He doesn’t want to talk. He doesn’t believe there’s any point in it, that we’ll tell it wrong anyway. Maybe there’s no way to tell it in a way he’ll think is fair.
Roy S. Johnson: It’s hard to know his story when he won’t speak it.
Archibald: Our producer, Alex Richey, finally made the right call. To the right number.
George Sands: Hello?
Alexander Richey: Is this Mr. George Sands?
Sands: Who’s calling?
Richey: “This is Alexander Richey. I’m. I’m a radio producer. And I’m working on a story about the Birmingham police department. And I was wondering if I could get a chance to talk to you.”
Sands: “No sir. I don’t give interviews. “
Richey: “You don’t give interviews? Would you be willing to just sit down and talk at some point?”
Richey: “You wouldn’t?”
Sands: “Every time I’ve done that I’ve been misquoted. I’m not going to get involved in it.”
Richey: “What have people gotten wrong about, I guess, you?
Sands: “Going around calling it a murder.”
Richey: “Well, how do you feel about it?”
Sands: “It wasn’t a murder. I was doing my job. I’m sorry but I just don’t give interviews.”
Johnson: He has said that consistently over the years.
Archibald: A friend of Sands, a former officer named Jim Griffin, who believes Sands acted appropriately, reached out to him for us and asked if Sands would talk. Sands apparently had some bad experiences with the Birmingham News, and the media in general. He wrote a response and Jim sent it to me. You want to read it?
Archibald: Here you go.
“Jim, thank you for reporting the facts. Problem is this is not what will come out of the news. It doesn’t sell papers. After everything was said and done, the attorney for the news headed up a delegation that talked to my then attorney offering me several different sums of money to resign, along with other jobs and education to resign. I felt deeply that I would be letting down my brothers in blue (all of them), so I declined. That’s when all the political BS started. There are many other actions they took. Like trying me on federal charges. Which the feds declined.
I have nothing to say to this guy, except, given the same situation and circumstances I would shoot her again.
Johnson: I’m Roy S. Johnson.
Archibald: And I’m John Archibald and this is “unJustifiable;” not just the story of one Black woman killed by police, but the story of how hundreds of so-called “justifiable” police shootings reached a breaking point when officer George Sands shot and killed 20-year-old Bonita Carter in Birmingham in 1979, and how protest over her killing changed that city.
Johnson: He would shoot her again. That’s quite a statement, John.
Archibald: It is. He said a lot of things in there that I don’t understand, but I’m sure that part is true. As we’ve seen from earlier episodes, shooting people – fleeing Black people, particularly – was common practice for most of – well for most of America’s existence. It wasn’t just legal for cops to shoot fleeing felons, in most police departments – certainly Birmingham’s – it was expected. By superiors and peers. By white citizens. By newspaper folks and politicians, who played to white fears then, as they do now.
Johnson: I guess what we know most about Sands’ position on the shooting comes from the statement he gave under questioning by internal affairs. You can barely call it questioning, though. It was not exactly the third degree.
Archibald: He was asked about working the plain clothes robbery and burglary detail he’d been on that week — and about crime in the neighborhood where he shot and killed Bonita Carter. Sgt. G.T. Grubbs asked the questions. He wanted to know about the ammunition Sands used to shoot her -– standard issue Remington 125 grain semi-jacket hollow point – and how he and officer R.W. Hollingsworth pulled into the parking lot at Jerry’s Convenience Store and watched a lady backing out of a parking space before he could go inside. Then the call went out – a 16-A, robbery in progress – and they started to leave, to back out of the parking lot. Then the address of the alarm came over the radio and Sands realized he was already on the scene. It was right there. At Jerry’s. They bailed out of the car just as the store manager ran out to warn them that a dangerous man was getting away in the green Buick Electra 225, and he had a shotgun. This is what he said in that interview….
Sound effect: Crackle of tape recorder
Sgt. G.T. Grubbs: OK. Now who pointed out the car to you as being the car?
Sands: Ray Jenkins.
Grubbs: Ray Jenkins. And do you know Ray Jenkins personally?
Sands: Yes sir.
Grubbs: When you first pulled up there and saw the car that he indicated was involved in the shooting, how far was that car from you?
Sands: Probably 40 feet, 30 or 40 feet. We were on the inside of the lot in between the sidewalk and the gas pumps. It was just enough room for one car to get in there.
Grubbs: And I believe you said that car had stopped at the time?
Sands: When I saw it, it was stopped, completely stopped.
Grubbs: OK. And I believe you said you approached the passenger side of the car?
Sands: Yes sir.
Grubbs: What did that car look like?
Sands: It was a green Buick, deuce and a quarter.
Grubbs: OK was it a light green or dark green?
Sands: It was about a medium green.
Grubbs: Exactly at the best you can remember what was the statement made to you by Jenkins in reference to that car?
Sands: OK. He told me, he said he is in the car, said be careful he’s hiding. He’s got a shotgun. It may not of been in that order but that’s what he told me in essence.
Grubbs: Why did you fire your weapon?
Sands: Because I was under the impression — I was told there was a man in the car with a shotgun. When he jumped up I figured he was coming out with a shotgun.
Grubbs: And what went through your mind the second before you shot?
Sands: That he was coming up with a shotgun.
Grubbs: So you are saying you were in fear for your life.
Sands: That’s right.
Grubbs: Do you have anything else that you would like to add to this statement?
Sands: Only that you couldn’t tell it was a woman or not. She had her hat pulled down way over her head.
Grubbs: At what point in time did you learn that it was a woman in the car?
Sands: After it was all over with.
Archibald: Sands had seen a lot by then. He was 32 years old, a former firefighter who joined the force eight years earlier. He would have been… 24. He already had a reputation in Bonita Carter’s neighborhood, but he was not alone in that.. Nathaniel Bagley was her friend.
Nathanial Bagley: “You know, there other incidents of police brutality, where Blacks didn’t trust police, you know, and instances where police would, you know, often come through neighborhoods and, and can kinda do those things, police brutality in terms of stopping Blacks for no reasons, or giving them a hard time. And that happened quite often…This particular officer, you know, Officer Sands, you know, he had some situations with Blacks in the community — in our community and in this particular area. So there was a history, you know.”
Johnson: Sands was certainly no angel. And not just in Bonita Carter’s neighborhood. His personnel file tells all. Let’s just take a look real quick.
Johnson: There are 14 complaints in the file from incidents that happened between 1973 and 1977, Seven involve use of force and three involve missing money.
Archibald: Let’s see, in 1973 a black man complained his pistol was taken from his car. The Department ruled it unfounded.
Johnson: In ’74 another black man, Louis Dunning, was arrested for public drunk and disorderly and said he was missing $100 when he got to jail. His allegation was not sustained by the department – sustained, that’s an official term.
Archibald: Two weeks later Keith Reid – a white man this time – was arrested for public drunk. He also claimed he was missing money when he got to jail. The department ruled that unfounded. I’m not sure the difference between unfounded and not sustained. So let’s just say both mean the police found no merit in the complaints.
Johnson: That’s three in a row. In a short time. But no punishment.
Archibald: That’s all the complaints on missing property. Let’s look at the use of force involving Officer Sands.
Johnson: In December of 1974, James Robinette, a white guy, was arrested for DUI, and said he was beaten by officers.
Archibald: A week later Ray Brown, a Black man, was arrested for disorderly conduct, said he was beaten, too.
Johnson: The next year a black man named Leroy Rumph, arrested for burglary, said he was beaten by officers at City Hall. None of those cases were – you guessed it – sustained.
Archibald: Seems like a pattern.
Johnson: Here’s one where Sands was punished. Sort of. Jack Webster McDaniel Jr, a Black man, was chased by police after a minor traffic violation and said he was hit over the head with a pistol. He was arrested for failure to obey and reckless driving and not having a driver’s license. The department gave Sands a written reprimand – for failure to have a nightstick on duty.
Archibald: So they didn’t mind him hitting the guy in the head. Just wanted him to do it with a stick and not his side arm.
Johnson: In ’75 Willie Evans, a Black man, said he was beaten by police at the scene. Not sustained. Early the next year Ricky Wayne Maxwell said he was beaten too. Declared unfounded. In 1979, Bonita Carter was shot.
Archibald: That’s a lot. But Sands wasn’t alone, either. 347 complaints were filed across the whole department in the year before, 54 of them for excessive force. Most resulted in little or no punishment.
Johnson: But it’s why people wanted him fired. Or more. Bagley certainly thought that.
Bagley: “He had several complaints and you know, you know, he should have been reprimanded and possibly removed from the force.
Archibald: The question is why was he even there…
Bagley: “Why was he there in the first place then? Why was he still allowed to be there? Or why, you know, he, he, he was not removed. I mean, he probably, you know, got paid, he stayed on the job with pay, and I think later he took sick leave or leave of absence for whatever, you know, but the fact still remains, you know I mean? I just, I just think due diligence just wasn’t done.
“If you keep screwing up on your job so many times they’re going to reprimand you or they’re going to fire you, right. That’s the reality, that’s real, that’s the real world today. Now back then, because of forces or who they’re related to, or who they knew or because you’re in a good old boy club or whatever it was, that was a way at that particular time. And sometimes that didn’t always favor African Americans.”
Archibald: “It never did.”
Bagley: “Never did.”
Archibald: Mark Winne, was a fairly legendary reporter in these parts before heading off to Atlanta in the ‘80s, where he’s had a long career with the TV station WSB. He covered the Bonita Carter case for the Birmingham News as a young man. He got a rare interview with Sands in 1980, eight months after the shooting.
Johnson: In that interview Sands told Winne he didn’t understand why the shooting had become a racial issue because he had no time to notice Bonita Carter’s race: “It never was a racial issue. Never was and never will be. I didn’t think what race that person was. Race didn’t cross my mind.”
Archibald: This is how that story began. Why don’t you read it, Alexander:
Richey: “George Sands has an ordinary face, with two small eyes nearly lost in lots of cheek and chin, of which there is even more since he put on 20 pounds in the eight months he has been off the police force.
The friend’s Huffman office where Sands sat Monday night was ordinary, too, just a few chairs and a desk.
Sands dressed simply: jeans and golf shirt.
Sands seems to wish his life was simpler, that it seems to get more complicated day by day.
Earlier Monday Sands had thought for a while the complications might end. A court had just told Mayor Richard Arrington he could no longer keep Sands off the police force.
This city filed for a stay of that court order, which draws the process out even longer.”
Archibald: No wonder he hates the press. Sands was thrilled to hear he was going back to work, even as an administrative assistant to the Deputy Chief over the uniformed division. He didn’t know if he would ever get off desk duty, but was, at least, on the brink of returning to work.
Johnson: City councilman Richard Arrington had wanted Sands off the force — certainly out of largely Black parts of the city. Mayor Richard Arrington, elected, as we know, in 1979, amid the swift outrage over the killing of Bonita Carter, really wanted him gone, citing those complaints, the shooting, and a disturbing psychiatric evaluation that described Sands as overly sensitive when challenged with issues of inadequacy. That evaluation said Sands was often moody and easily agitated. None of that is good, especially for a cop.
Archibald: But the police – the Fraternal Order of Police, a powerful political force in Birmingham at the time – were very supportive of Sands. And as we heard in earlier episodes, Mayor David Vann was very much caught between a rock and hard place. He thought Sands was trouble. He also believed the cop was poorly trained and the product of his environment, that Birmingham – since the tenure of Bull Connor himself, and probably before – had taught its officers to be “bold and aggressive, and to protect themselves with rapid fire.” Other officers told him, and he knew it to be true, that they would have done the exact same thing.
Johnson: So they’d have shot her too. Just so we’re clear.
Archibald: From what we have seen about how easily police shootings were ruled justifiable over the generations, many most certainly would.
Johnson: Unjustifiable will return right after this.
Johnson: Getting rid of Sands wasn’t all that easy for Arrington. The cop’s fate was embroiled in the courts, and with the powerful county personnel board. Sands ultimately went back to work, but was fired in 1984 for striking a superior who tried to break up a dispute between Sands and his ex-wife.
John: He reportedly punched his wife too, and appealed the ruling on the grounds that it was alcoholism, and not him, that caused it. But here is Arrington:
Richard Arrington: “We never really got rid of Sands until it finally caught up with him with the domestic situation and with his wife in public. And that where I finally fired Sands, because of that. But with all his other problems we had and negative publicity, we didn’t, we didn’t fire Sands. He was protected by the system. He had a bad record as a police officer. He had a bad psychological evaluation, all of that. So it was tough.”
Archibald: The legal battles in this case dragged on into Arrington’s second term, and so did the controversy. Alger “Buster” Pickett, the guy who fired into Jerry’s Convenience Store in the first place and asked Bonita Carter to move his car, had been charged with assault. But when the case was brought before a grand jury, the body chose not to indict him. The District Attorney, Earl Morgan, refused to bring him back before the grand jury, despite pressure to do it. He told reporters — Winne, specifically — that he had no new evidence, and it was his personal policy not to bring a man back before the grand jury unless new evidence is found.
Johnson: Bonita Carter’s father, John Carter Sr., sued Sands and the city for $2 million, but in 1985, as the elder Carter neared death, the city settled the case for $75,000. That’s right: $75,000. In a prepared statement then, Arrington said the shooting was difficult to justify, but acknowledged — in a way that sounded a lot like Vann had in ‘79, that “there is evidence from which reasonable persons could conclude that Officer Sands acted under circumstances as then presented to him in a logical and legally justifiable manner.” That’s the end of the quote.
Archibald: It was a messed up world in many ways. But I still can’t help think Sands was less the problem than a symptom of a much bigger one. One that infected the entire police force. Or I should say, I still don’t see that removing Sands was the solution.
Johnson: This wasn’t just a bad apple; it was a rotten orchard. Like the city’s shooting policy, which — and Birmingham was not alone — not only allowed cops to shoot fleeing suspects but expected them to. Though that made plenty of cops uneasy.
Archibald: You remember T.K. Thorne, the former cop who was a rookie during the Bonita Carter shooting? She recalls the uneasiness. This is a story from that rookie year, when she found herself with a veteran officer, answering a burglary alarm at a home in Birmingham. He went around to the front of the house, and she took the rear.
T.K. Thorne: “One day I was with an officer who I have a lot of respect for but we had a burglary alarm call and we pulled up in front of the house and he got out of the passenger side. And my job was to make sure somebody didn’t run out the back and get away. So I went out back and I had a very big gun. I had a .357, although it only carried .38 shots in it. But actually the bigger the gun, the easier it is to shoot because of the weight. But I, I looked for cover and the only thing I could find was this little bitty tree that was much skinnier than I was. And I was fairly skinny at the time.
“I set up behind that tree with my gun pointed at the back door. I didn’t know what was going to happen. A burglar — an armed burglar — could have come out in the back. He could have seen me and shot at me. Um, but another scenario was running through my mind. What if an unarmed person comes out of the back and runs? It’s my job to stop them. … Back then, in the late seventies, shooting a fleeing felon was completely legal and expected. And I remember asking, am I gonna be able to shoot somebody that’s just running unarmed? And I don’t know what I would’ve done at the time. I hope, I hope I would have done plan B, which was to jam my gun back in my holster and run and try to catch him, but that would have made me vulnerable.”
Johnson: Arrington made it a point of his first term to change the BPD’s shooting policy. The U.S. Supreme Court would later do the same, in a case out of Tennessee that said police could not shoot suspects unless there was a serious threat of harm to the officer or others. Birmingham under Arrington did it first, in the wake of the Bonita Carter shooting. Here is Arrington again.
Arrington: “In face of some opposition … we changed the fleeing felon shooting policy. And before the Supreme court overruled, we did that here. But some, the Chamber came out against it, the Post and the News editorialized in favor of it, once we changed the shooting policy. The state attorney general said it was wrong and ruled against us, but we stuck with it.”
Archibald: Arrington, as mayor, had to fight the personnel board in a lot of ways. Not just to get rid of problem officers, but to build a more diverse and representative force, and to hire a police chief that would help institute his policies. But under the rules he had to select from the board’s three top choices.
Johnson: In which he had no say, right?
Archibald: That’s right. Ultimately, Arrington ended up selecting the board’s third choice, Artie Deutcsh, a tough-looking, tough-talking New York City police captain, an occasional writer of pulp fiction with a personality the size of the Big Apple.
Arrington: “He’d written a, some story and had an attractive wife and some good looking kids and all this, you know, a handsome guy, but he got into things. It was always some controversy. But Artie came in and he’d say, ‘boss, what do you want boss? Tell me what it is, boss.’ And I said, ‘well, I, you know the FOP, this and that,’ ‘don’t worry about it, boss.’ I’ll take care of it for you boss.’ That was always his line.’ Don’t worry about it boss, I’ll take care of it.’ And most times he did.’ I mean, sometimes he messed it up.
Archibald: Yeah, what is the story of him pulling the paraplegic out of the car?
Arrington: “You can’t remember all the stories, but you know, we got some snow here in Birmingham and apparently some guy’s in the car driving on a golf course. And supposedly as a story goes Artie, he sees it and he’s driving over there and he snatched the guy out of the car, and the guy’s a paraplegic.”
Archibald: Yeah, Deutcsh was a story all his own. He was accused of beating up a suspect, and of pulling that man through his own front window by the lapels. He became the sworn enemy of the Fraternal Order of Police, though, and worked to push through Arrington’s reforms, though he was ultimately charged with others, — this would have been in ‘91 — with tampering with jail documents detailing the arrest of the mayor’s daughter Erica.
Johnson: He was sentenced to a year in jail, but the case was appealed and overturned. Before he could be tried on the misdemeanor charges again, he fell down the steps of City Hall and hit his head. He was declared incompetent by a judge, and never had to stand trial again. I covered a lot of that story. I will never forget it.
Arrington: “You know, um, he would, the FOP considered him to be such an enemy and they were fighting him every way they could and trying to get rid of him. And when they finally got him in, in a case, uh, over there in the Jefferson County courthouse, uh, yeah, yeah. They really stuck it to him and then got the, Judge who was favorable to FOP. Um, well that story Artie, it finally got back in, but then he ends up injured, falling down the stairs.”
Archibald: “Was that legitimate? It’s one of the biggest questions in Birmingham.”
Arrington: “I don’t know. The FOP swears it was.”
Archibald: “I guess my ultimate question is this, in spite of all the antics and the personality and Artie Deutcsh being Artie Deutcsh., Did he do what you wanted him to do with the police department?”
Arrington: “Yeah. He helped reform the police department. He really did.”
Johnson: Birmingham’s first Black police chief, Johnnie Johnson, once said Birmingham under Deutcsh “led the nation” in implementing a strict shooting policy, and that he developed “community policing” programs that made violence less likely.
Archibald: Change, though, involved more than changing a policy. T.K. Thorne remembers the changes, which came in degrees, and the uncertainty some of her colleagues felt, both before and after.
Thorne: “My memory is after the Bonita Carter shooting, that policy started to change. And then the first round of change that I recall, involved, we still could shoot at a fleeing felon, but we had to know that they had committed a felony and we had to know that they were the person that we had. Excuse me. We had to know that a felony had been committed and we had to know that this person was the person who committed the felony? And I remember questioning my sergeant at roll call. What does ‘to know’ mean? Because it seemed to me that that was a pretty high standard and I wanted to know if it meant you had to see it happen and see that person do it or did it mean someone reliable said that’s what happened. It just seemed very iffy to me. And his response was ‘to know means to know, now shut up and go to work.’ I don’t know if you would be disciplined for not shooting at a fleeing felon during that time period. But it was certainly an expectation and it was certainly lawful.”
Johnson: When the policy in Birmingham started changing, the state law was still in effect. Birmingham issued a second policy that was more specific. It said, like the Supreme Court ruling, a police officer may only shoot a fleeing suspect if they believe their life or someone else’s is in imminent danger.
Thorne: “Oh yes. I definitely remember that. The police officers in Birmingham felt that they were going to be, um, they felt that administration was not going to back them up if they made a decision and they were fearful that they would hesitate in a situation where they should not hesitate. And they believe that that happened about a year later with the death of E.K. Alley.
Um, there was a robbery that had occurred… Alley in my memory was working alone. He saw a car that fit the description and he did what he was supposed to do, which was to stop the car. He got out of the car because you can’t sit in the car cause you don’t know if they get out of the car they have an advantage on you. So he got out of the car and the driver of the suspect vehicle got out of the car and had his hands up and Alley had him and was waiting for backup. But the passenger in the suspect car disappeared from sight. And unfortunately, what the passenger did was he laid down. He lay down across the seat so that his head and arms were in the, in the driver’s seat side and he stuck his gun out the door on the driver’s side and shot Alley. Um, a lot of police officers felt that he hesitated because of all the uproar that had come down in the Bonita Carter shooting. I don’t know if that was true or not. He had on his vest but it clipped an artery on his neck and he died on the scene.”
Johnson: It was tragic. It is always tragic when an officer dies, when a person dies. That is what all this is about. Sort of.
Archibald: Uche Bean, who runs the Office of Social Justice and Racial Equity for the City of Birmingham now, wants to make it very clear that good police officers – Thorne was one of the good ones, by the way – deserve all the credit they can get. But that doesn’t mean every person shot by a cop should be written off as a criminal, and every officer held up as a hero. It should not take tragic death for us to value life.
Uche bean “Yet again, we have the story of a young Black woman being killed to wake people up. I think that a lot of times, especially when we’re looking historically, when it comes to Black people, we’ll have a triumph, and then feel that things will normalize or things will get better and be ok, but even to this day we are still seeing the murdering of Black people at the hands, unfortunately of police officers and even in some cases vigilantes. I think what it meant to Birmingham at that time, again, a precursor to Black Lives Matter, is like ‘So, what is the quality of Black life?’ And at that point there is either some people that decide to riot? And there’s some people – and there’s nothing wrong with either version – or there’s some people that decide that ‘Ok, we have to take a stand and in this country it’s a democracy, right? So, how do we use these tools that have been given to us which initially, historically, were not given to us. How do we use these tools to make a change? And I think that’s what Birminghamians actually did as opposed to saying ‘Ok, we’re just gonna keep dealing with it.’ So there was a change that happened.”
Johnson: What does Bonita Carter’s death mean today, more than four decades later? What should it mean? What does it teach us amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the national awakening regarding police reform? For those answers and more, join us in our final episode.