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Confusion And Frustration Grow After Police Shooting At Alabama Mall

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to Alabama and the fatal police shooting of a black man at a shopping mall on Thanksgiving. At first, police said the young man was the gunman and that he had wounded two people. The next day, authorities said they were mistaken. The real gunman was still on the loose.

As Gigi Douban of member station WBHM reports, frustration is mounting across Birmingham.

GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: One thing is clear - 21-year-old EJ Bradford was at the crowded mall and had a handgun. The former Army veteran was seen fleeing, holding the gun after a fight broke out and the shooting began. Police shot and killed him. An investigation by state authorities is underway.

Today, in the Birmingham suburb of Hueytown, where Bradford grew up, there was a mixture of shock and anger. Tyler Simpson is a senior at Hueytown High School.

TYLER SIMPSON: That's stuff you see, like, on TV and in other states. I never thought, like, you would see that here in Birmingham. I feel like if he would've been white, things would've been different.

DOUBAN: The Bradford family is now represented by the high-profile civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump. Crump says the Hoover police officer who shot Bradford at the mall that night reacted because of just one thing - the color of his skin.

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BENJAMIN CRUMP: He saw a black man with a gun, and he made his determination that he must be a criminal.

DOUBAN: Crump says when police are looking to sort out good guys with guns versus bad guys, it's not a surprise people often see black men as bad guys. And for many here in Birmingham, this police killing brings back a painful part of Alabama history.

ERIC GUSTER: People are very upset here because this is the cradle of civil rights. This is where many of the civil rights protests began, and now we're back there.

DOUBAN: That's Eric Guster, a civil and criminal law attorney in Birmingham. As a black man, he gets clammy hands if he's dealing with police as a regular person, not a lawyer. He's also a gun owner. And he says in a situation like Bradford's, he'd be reluctant to pull out his gun to defend himself for fear he'd be perceived as a threat.

But according to several eyewitness accounts and reports on social media, several other people had their guns drawn that night and ran in fear.

GUSTER: This is Alabama, the land of the gun on the hip. So it's not far-fetched for dozens of people to have their guns drawn when there are shots being fired.

DOUBAN: But the ones who will be safest in those situations aren't black, he says.

Many African-Americans say they take extra precautions. Carmone Owens has spent time in prison and is now a counselor in Birmingham. Anytime he encounters the police, there's a protocol - watch how you speak, don't make sudden movements.

CARMONE OWENS: I clearly confirm two and three times before I reach for my wallet. I shouldn't have to do this, but this allows me to be home safe to my family.

DOUBAN: EJ Bradford's family says if police hadn't automatically assumed he was a threat, he might've come home to his family the night of Thanksgiving, too. For NPR News, I'm Gigi Douban in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.