By: Tess Raser
This profile is part of an ongoing series of narratives focused on men and women who have been killed by the police. It is an attempt to counteract media bias, which often vilifies these men, women, boys and girls. These stories have been captured through the voices of the victims’ family members. I have been fortunate to meet the families through my activism in the Black Lives Matter movement and through work in various organizations.
The Boston Police Department has had a reputation for years for racist practices and acting nefariously toward Bean Town’s Black communities.
On Aug. 21, 2012, the department was responsible for the death of 26-year-old Burrell Ramsey.
On the day Burrell died, he had called his mother to let her know that he was coming to see her. Carla Sheffield, Burrell’s mother, then went shopping and prepared for his visit, which would never happen. Burrell was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop near the Tent City housing on Boston’s South End.
Carla was sent to Boston Medical upon hearing of the incident. “They should have pronounced him at Tent City,” Carla says. “The doctor comes in and says I’m sorry. I did everything I could. I took over chest compressions, and there was a homicide detective there,” Carla explains.
Carla went home in shock. She then headed to the police department the following day to try and obtain a police report. Oddly, it took them 45 minutes to print it. The officers were “suspiciously,” as Carla describes it, just sitting there.
“[The police] then came on TV and said my son shot at the police officer, and my son took off [driving]. The witnesses contradict the police story,” Carla says. The officer, who was allegedly shot at, had no gunshot wounds. “An 89-year-old woman was looking at the officer and my son, who was looking at the police, saying ‘don’t shoot,’” Carla explains. Another witness saw the police drag her son. There were no chest compressions given, despite what the ER doctor told Carla.
The witnesses were coerced into changing their stories by the Boston Police Department. One witness recognized Burrell at the time of murder as being an “intelligent young man that carried her groceries.”
Carla is a strong and inspiring woman, who works hard on the behalf of her family but also on behalf of her community. She is an integral part of her community — an activist, a youth advocate and, most significantly, an incredible mother, yet she has understandably struggled in the aftermath of her son’s death. Burrell was killed 10 days before his 26th birthday, and he shares a birthday with Carla’s youngest son, making it hard for the family to celebrate his birthday now. It took time for Carla to recover after the killing.
“I was locked in the room with depression, counseling over the phone because you can’t face anybody. There is no place for women and parents whose children have been taken by the police. I know mothers who don’t come out their house. Where do these mothers go?” Carla asks. Carla’s entire family has suffered.
Carla’s daughter was incredibly close to Burrell, and one can see in her face that a part of her is missing. Carla says she is unfocused, missing the big brother she had.
“[Burrell] was always a witty, loving kid, intelligent. Very mischievous. He just loved everyone,” describes Carla. Burrell was one of four siblings, and he didn’t like to deal with problems and was more of a peace keeper. “He didn’t sweat the small stuff. He didn’t want to make a small thing into a bigger thing whether it was family, friends or what have you,” Carla says. “He’d give you the shirt off of his back for someone else,” Carla says.
“[Burrell] played guitar, he rapped, played basketball. He had his funny laugh, I can hear right now. He always livened up the room when he walked in. I miss him,” Carla cries.
Burrell’s biological father was not around, but Burrell was raised with Carla’s husband in a two-parent household. He didn’t like school, but he didn’t get into trouble as a little boy. He did, however, come across some bad luck. He was once robbed at his summer job, and then he was present during a scuffle between his brother and some other kids. Burrell was hurt in the brawl, and he ended up taking the blame for his brother’s involvement and serving some prison time.
“So much happened before my son’s death, before he was killed. My son had been beat up by police even before he was killed,” Carla says. Formerly incarcerated men, especially of color, are often the targets of police harassment and abuse. “Burrell [had] done some things he shouldn’t have done, but he had done his time. He wanted better. He wanted his own,” Carla shares of her son.
Despite his misfortunes, Burrell dreamed of becoming a chef. At the time of his untimely death, Burrell had just applied for financial aid at Bunker Hill Community College with his grandmother.
Carla waited 18 months for the police department to give her the name of the officer who shot and killed her son. “It takes 18 months, crying my heart out, going to all these different departments,” Carla cries.
There were also political reasons to protect Burrell’s killer. Officer Matthew Pieroway killed Burrell on that summer day. His father was a good friend of former Mayor (Thomas) Menino. “This is not his first incident on his jacket. Police are not angels,” Carla explains.
She is no stranger to the court system. She works for trial courts of Massachusetts. She recently accepted a job working in restorative justice for youth.
Carla believes that Burrell’s investigation was shelved for a couple of reasons, one being the timing of another killing. “While they were looking at my son’s case, a white woman was killed. They left my son’s investigation and solved [the white woman’s] murder in a week’s time. My question becomes who you pick and choose to help,” Carla says.
When Carla finally got to court, to try and seek justice for her son, she arrived at what seemed like a cruel joke. “There is a PowerPoint that shows guns, no fingerprints, they don’t show an autopsy, … all of a sudden the camera that showed my son’s killing doesn’t work. Don’t play games with me,” Carla says with the air of frustration she must have experienced in the courtroom.
They even showed the court a picture of an empty dumpster with a gun in it, with no connections to Burrell. “I don’t get how smart-minded, educated authorities look at this and say this is what happened,” Carla says.
Carla wants to see Officer Pieroway held accountable. She believes he should go to jail. Carla fights for this justice but finds challenges.
“It’s hard for me to go out. I have to go to work and pay the bills. I have a 10-year old daughter I need to raise. A police car goes by, I have anxiety,” Carla sighs. The police, who receive their salaries partly paid by her tax dollars, took her son away from her.
Financially, Carla has been burdened by paying for funeral expenses for Burrell. “I didn’t account for grave sites in my budget. What parent should?” Carla sadly says. Carla has also sought other career opportunities but not just for financial reasons.
The racism experienced at the hands of the Boston Police Department was the reason Carla sought more education.
“I see it firsthand. I see it on a daily basis. I saw my older brother getting harassed, the harassment he endured. The police [once] asked for my brother’s name, and he wouldn’t tell so they beat him,” Carla says. Carla’s firsthand experiences have inspired her important work in restorative justice. She wants to help and protect all children who came up in similar circumstances as her children.
“I tell my two sons, and my two new grandsons, I’m going to make sure I teach them that not all police are your friends. You have to be careful of how you talk to them, don’t wear your hood up, you have to respect your elders and authority, they might not reciprocate. … Compassion is missing from the police department,” Carla elucidates.
Approximately 400 to 1,000 (if not more) Americans are killed a year by the police and have grieving mothers like Carla who have nowhere to go. Unfortunately, it is not legally mandated for police departments to report these statistics.
Tess Raser, originally from Chicago, is a teacher in Brooklyn and an active member of the growing Black Lives Matter movement. She works with various groups, including We the People and the Stop Mass Incarceration Network.