They loved Jordan Edwards, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin better than anyone. Now they’re the “wrong” kind of murder victim
Before Carla Sheffield’s child was shot and killed by a police officer, the 51-year-old Boston resident had devoted her career to legal and political justice, working mainly in the courts. Then, in 2012, her son, Burrell Anthony Ramsey-White, was pulled over during a routine traffic stop, allegedly because he looked like a suspect in another crime. Though he provided identification indicating that he wasn’t who the officers were looking for, a car and foot chase ensued that ultimately resulted in his death. He was 26 at the time.
Burrell Anthony Ramsey-White. Image via Live4Bo.com.
Sheffield describes Ramsey-White as “a fun-loving, smart, intelligent, goofy kid” who loved to make people laugh. After he died, she says, “For three months straight, I laid and cried … It tore my world apart because I spent all my years going to school educating myself in the criminal justice field to make a difference and the same people who are supposed to help (took my) child's life.” Sheffield still works in the courthouse, as she has for 11 years. “The system’s not working for me. And yet I still need to go to in and work beside these folks every day.”
The officer responsible for Ramsey-White’s death was cleared of all charges in 2013 when a court found he’d acted in self-defense, despite details in the police report and a statement from the District Attorney that raised questions about what happened that day. The family is still in the midst of a civil suit against the city of Boston. Adding insult to injury for Sheffield was the fact that the officer responsible for fatally shooting her son was awarded the Medal of Valor for courage the year following Ramsey-White’s death. “Courage for what? Murdering my child?” she says.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]It tore my world apart. The same people who are supposed to help took my child's life.[/quote]
The first week of April is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, though in Massachusetts, it’s just the beginning of Crime Victim’s Rights Month, dedicated to advancing the rights of people like Sheffield. The cause grew out of the women’s movement in the 1970s, when domestic violence shelters and rape crisis assistance programs first began popping up, often at the behest of survivors of violence themselves. Once families of missing and murdered children joined the movement, violent crime victims started to advocate for protection from their perpetrators, restitution, inclusion in relevant court proceedings and investigations, and other issues.
There were 15,809 homicide victims in 2014 alone, according to the CDC’s latest numbers, and their loved ones faced a particular set of challenges. On top of their emotional, physical, and financial stress, families victimized by homicide often struggle to receive the support they need following their loved one’s death, whether it was the result of street or domestic violence, or police brutality. The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, a Dorchester, Massachusetts-based organization providing assistance and support to families and communities who have lost loved ones to violence, frames this as “secondary victimization,” which may extend to a lack of commitment from law enforcement when it comes to pursuing justice for the family. Last year, 1,092 people killed by police officers in the United States. Only 14 were from Massachusetts.
In all 50 states, survivors of homicide may apply for Victim Compensation, which offers financial assistance to victims of violent crime. According to the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards, about 10 percent of all the victim compensation benefits nationwide are paid to families of homicide victims. This money can be used to cover funeral expenses, medical care, crime scene cleanup, and mental health care.
Though it’s often a huge relief when the compensation comes in, the application takes up to six months to process and many families do not have the money up front to pay funeral and cemetery costs. Furthermore, in Massachusetts, a clause in the Victim Compensation legislation allows the state to deny families funds if their loved one was killed during the commission of a crime—or if the state deems that the victim’s “acts or conduct provoked or contributed to” their death.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]The state can deny families funds if their loved one was killed during the commission of a crime.[/quote]
It’s unknown how many families are affected by this clause every year—several inquiries to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office went unanswered as of publication—but it’s exactly what happened in Sheffield’s case. In the end, Sheffield resorted to crowdfunding to raise the money for Ramsey-White’s headstone and burial. “Every dime that I got was from donations, from plays, outreach, fundraising, the Peace Institute, the GoFundMe page,” she says.
In 2016, The Peace Institute gave $50,466 to 15 families who could not otherwise afford to bury their loved one through their Rest In Peace Fund, and this past January, the Peace Institute filed legislation, sponsored by Rep. Evandro Carvalho, to amend the state’s Victim Compensation legislation, asserting that it is a human right to lay ones’s loved one to rest with respect and dignity, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the death. “When families are denied Victim Compensation, they are being punished because of their loved one’s actions in their final moments or their criminal history,” they argued in a letter to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh asking for his support of the amendment.
After it was determined that she was ineligible for services, Sheffield says the stigma only intensified. “Even the church pulled away from me,” she says, revoking their offer for her to have Ramsey-White’s funeral services there, despite the fact that the family were members. “On the phone they gave me permission to have my services …(but when) I went down to sign the paperwork … they told me no, I could not have the church,” she says. Sheffield’s niece “went knocking on doors” across the city before a church would allow Ramsey-White’s services to be hosted there. His death “was all on the news—I don’t know who heard what, I don’t know if pastors weren’t available, I don’t know if it was short notice, but the way I felt was that people didn’t want to be involved because of the way he died,” she says.
Sheffield adds that the only place offering support in the months following Ramsey-White’s death was the Peace Institute, and she’s now a member of their new statewide network of survivors. “The vision of the network is that survivors who are doing work all over the state will come together and be stronger because of it,” said Chaplain Clementina Chéry at the inaugural convening of the network. “We can’t do it alone.”
In addition to this crucial victims’ rights work, the network is also pushing unique methods for helping survivors like Sheffield move forward, despite past injustices. The Peace Institute estimates that beyond a homicide victim’s friends, coworkers, classmates, and neighbors, there are 8-10 relatives profoundly affected by their murder. City officials are beginning to listen to them. At the State of the City address this January, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced that the city would be opening a series of neighborhood-based trauma response centers called Neighborhood Trauma Teams, to serve communities affected by violence. The centers will be managed by the Boston Public Health Commission and co-led by a community health center and a community partner in each neighborhood to provide individual and family-based support, conduct community outreach, and host community-led meetings for information sharing and healing space.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I get snappy, angry; if police drive by me I jump out of my skin.[/quote]
These centers will help survivors deal with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder like nightmares, flashbacks, depression, and anxiety. Since Ramsey-White’s death, Sheffield says she has anxiety for the first time in her life. She knew she’d be stricken by grief, but the unusual circumstances of his death have left her reeling in unexpected ways. “If I don’t have a purpose for leaving my house, I'm not going. And if I'm out past two hours, I'm jittery, I’m nervous,” she says. “I get snappy, angry; if police drive by me I jump out of my skin.”
Sheffield stresses the importance of sharing space with others whose loved ones were murdered. She says the first time she walked into a room full of people whose loved ones had been murdered by police officers, she felt at home. It was at a conference in Chicago specifically for people like her; she says her way was paid by a local organization. “I had never met anyone else whose child had been killed by the police before,” she says. “The room was packed wall-to-wall, people standing up all about police brutality. I couldn’t believe it, they [had come] from different states all over. So it’s not just a Massachusetts thing, a Chicago thing—it’s national.”
Carla Sheffield with her son Burrell Anthony Ramsey-White, on the way to church. Image via Live4Bo.com.
Sheffield says that yoga, mindfulness, meditation, journaling, and fighting for her son keep her going, though now and again, she has a difficult time. “I still find those days where I’m driving down the street and I hear my son’s song and the tears come. But every day I have a conversation with God and I’m asking him to give me a sign, and when I get that sign I know I’m doing the right thing.”
In her spare time, Sheffield also advocates for the implementation of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) in Massachusetts, one of only six states without the program. Essentially, POST is a “police academy” granting officers who complete it a license which can be revoked for misconduct. Over 50 other types of professionals, from hairdressers to taxi drivers, require similar licenses in Massachusetts. Sheffield hopes that one day, law enforcement officers will be added to the list.