OXFORD — A group of local civil rights activists stood outside the Oxford Police Department on Wednesday to clarify what they said was a misunderstanding within the black community about the death of a man in Oxford police custody in June.
Melvin Mathews, 32, of Talladega, died June 7 at the Oxford City Jail shortly after his arrest on a public intoxication charge. Calhoun County’s coroner has said Mathews died from drug-related causes. The officials gathered Wednesday said they wanted to quash rumors to the contrary.
“We don’t want to see what happened in Missouri happen in our area,” said David Baker, president of the Calhoun County chapter of the NAACP, speaking of the riots and looting in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death there of an unarmed black man by police.
Baker said he had recently received a call from the national NAACP organization that a black man may have been beaten to death in custody of Oxford police in June. Following up on that, Baker contacted Oxford police and reviewed video and audio of Oxford police arresting Mathews the morning of June 7.
Mathews died inside the jail just minutes after being brought inside, according to those recordings, also reviewed by The Star.
Calhoun County Coroner Pat Brown said that autopsy results showed Mathews died from combined drug intoxication. A toxicology report found traces of the drugs hydrocodone and bath salts, a synthetic drug known to cause hallucinations and aggression in users, were found in his blood. Mathews also had nearly twice the legal limit of alcohol in his blood, according to the report.
After reviewing the video and audio, which recorded Mathews from the time of his arrest until being carried out of the jail by paramedics, Baker said he found no evidence of any wrongdoing by police.
That fact hasn’t stopped many in the black community from spreading rumors of police abuse, Baker said.
“This man was treated with respect and dignity by the Oxford police. They were so professional. I did not hear one curse word,” Baker said. “We don’t want anyone to be looting, burning or killing.”
The Rev. Freddy Rimpsey, a local civil rights advocate, said the group gathered with him Wednesday might be criticized by some members in the community “who seem to want to divide us” but that they felt the need to speak out about what they know to be the truth about the incident to quell public unrest.
Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge, speaking at Wednesday’s press conference, said his door is always open to anyone who might have a problem with his department.
“We will review the evidence, and if we’re wrong I’ll be the first one to tell you we’re wrong,” Partridge said.
Partridge said he hopes that in all areas of public safety across the country, communities and law enforcement agencies will work together to keep lines of communication open “so we don’t have problems created by people who give false statements and allege things that didn’t occur. Step back, take a deep breath and look at the evidence at hand.”
Problems between police and the community will arise, Baker said, but both sides should work together when they do.
“We have seen things in our lives that have not been fair to us,” Baker said, speaking of the black community. “And so we want to be fair.”
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.