Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

This coastal Mississippi city plagued by environmental hazards has a history of police violence

Toussaint Diamon Sims was killed by police in August 2019. Photo by Carly Berlin

In just two decades, Moss Point has seen three high-profile cases of police brutality against Black men. Families and advocates have long demanded answers.

Keena Sims lives a few blocks from the Pascagoula River in Moss Point, Mississippi, a small city sandwiched between Interstate 10 and the Gulf of Mexico. The front of her home is lined with rocking chairs and palm trees. Beneath the low-hanging fronds, a stone plaque is engraved with the words, “When someone you love becomes a memory, that memory becomes a treasure.” 

Her 27-year-old son, Toussaint Diamon Sims — called Diamon by his family — was her treasure. He liked to dance and take long drives. This time last year, he was teaching his two young daughters how to hit tee-balls in the driveway. He loved to make a big deal out of their birthdays. “His girls thought he was a superhero,” Keena said. “It was like he was 27, but he was still a kid in a sense.” 

On August 8, 2019, Sims was killed by Moss Point Police Officer Lancen Shipman, who fired multiple rounds into his back. Police were looking for Sims because he was wanted on two counts of felony fleeing in other police chases, one count of aggravated assault, two counts of domestic violence by simple assault, and one count of assault by threat. After a high-speed chase, Sims’ car fell into a ditch. He got out and ran. Shipman shot him in the back while he was running away, and Sims died at the scene. 

“None of them charges was worth taking that young man’s life,” Keena said. She said the police department did not contact her after the shooting, and nearly two weeks passed before she saw his body. “I only got to see my son a day before his funeral,” she said. 

Last fall, Shipman went before a grand jury. The police department’s attorney said that Shipman saw a gun in Sims’ hand, but the Jackson County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, interviewed at least 14 witnesses who said Sims was not armed. The grand jury cleared Shipman of any criminal wrongdoing. An internal investigation later found that he violated department policy by failing to turn on the audio on his body camera. He is still an officer in the Moss Point Police Department. The police department declined to comment on the case.

On a sweltering July weekend this year, Keena threw Sims’ youngest daughter a birthday party — her first without her father. The backyard was full of colorful balloons and pool floaties. In one photo that Keena keeps close, the girl holds a sign that reads, “My Dad Life Mattered Too.”

The Sims family filed a wrongful death lawsuit on July 30 in federal district court against the City of Moss Point, police chief Brandon Ashley, and Shipman on behalf of Sims’ daughters and Keena, seeking compensation for suffering and loss of Sims’ future income. The lawsuit claims Shipman implemented “deadly, excessive, unnecessary, and unlawful” force in shooting Sims and that the department is inadequately trained when it comes to on-foot pursuits of suspects. 

Brian Dunn, the family’s lawyer and an attorney for the Cochran Firm in California, told Southerly the primary goal of the lawsuit “is to set in motion a chain of events that will keep this from happening to another family.”

The first anniversary of Sims’ death came as protests against police brutality continue across the country. His case is far from the first in Moss Point, as the Biloxi Sun-Herald has reported. The city of about 13,000, which is 70% Black and has a history of environmental hazards and high rates of poverty and unemployment, has seen at least three high-profile cases of death or injury of Black men at the hands of police over the last 20 years, and two deaths of Black men in the local jail. Advocates and victims’ family members say there’s a pattern of excessive force and little accountability. 

“This type of police action that we saw against George Floyd has gone on for a long time in our communities,” said Vangela Wade, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice. “It goes back to criminalizing poverty,” she said. There are many barriers to holding law enforcement responsible, she added. “If you’re looking for any cause of action against police officers who are engaged in bad behavior or violence against citizens, those cases are difficult to bring.”

Communities with a pattern of police violence are often the same ones experiencing environmental racism. Lindsey Dillon, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has studied this connection. Her research finds that both issues lead to a broader experience of vulnerability for communities of color due to “the lack of state protection from the police, who are intentionally targeting them, or the state’s safe environmental protections.” 

Legacies of racism influence “what places are seen as deserving protection,” Dillon said, and “what places are more sacrificial — sacrifice in the name of progress.”

Moss Point is at the confluence of the Escatawpa and Pascagoula rivers.
Photo by Carly Berlin

Moss Point was home to an expanse of longleaf yellow pine forest before it became a timber industry hub in the 19th century, and lumber company executives forced enslaved people to log the virgin forest out of existence. When the timber market tanked, investors built paper mills. Shipbuilding, which is still a major industry in the area, dominated during the World Wars, and left graveyards of half-built tankers in times of peace. Later, chemical manufacturing and other industrial projects moved in. Moss Point became known as the “Industrial City.”

That brought a host of environmental and health concerns. In the 1980s, residents in neighboring Pascagoula — which is larger, wealthier, and whiter — started petitioning for such projects to be built in Moss Point instead. A controversial waste incinerator released fumes near homes, schools, and daycare centers. When Pascagoula wanted to start burning medical waste at the incinerator — releasing more toxins into the air — Moss Point residents organized against it. At a protest outside the Jackson County Courthouse in 1992, Deirdre S. Janney, then-executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, told the crowd: “It’s a classic case of environmental racism.”

Studies have shown that, nationwide, hazardous waste sites are more likely to be placed in low-income communities of color. In 2000, Morton International Inc., which produced synthetic rubber and chemical adhesives at its Moss Point plant — and was powered by steam from the waste incinerator — received a $20 million penalty in what at the time was the largest-ever civil fine for environmental violations at one factory for breaking clean air, clean water, and hazardous waste laws. People complained of foul odors and reported high rates of cancer and other illnesses, and soil and water testing found high levels of contaminants. 

By 2001, the last big paper mill and the Morton chemical plant closed. The city’s population dropped dramatically as jobs disappeared, going from about 18,000 in 1990 to around 13,700 in 2010. It was during this era, in 1999, that 32-year-old Marcus Malone died in police custody. Three white officers — Steve Strickler, Chris Weeks, and Derrick Welton — used chokeholds and pepper spray on Malone, who was Black, after stopping him for driving with a broken taillight. They arrested him and took him to the local jail, where he was found dead in a cell two hours later. 

The NAACP and the community demanded an investigation. Local media reported that an initial autopsy determined that Malone had died of natural causes, and a grand jury found no wrongdoing. Malone’s family pushed for a second autopsy, which found that his cause of death was strangulation. The county’s district attorney ordered a second grand jury to review the case, which indicted all three officers. But as soon as the case went to trial, a new jury found Strickler, who had initially pulled Malone over, not guilty of manslaughter. Shortly after, all the charges were dropped. The FBI also investigated the case, but concluded in 2003 that there was insufficient evidence for any prosecutable violations.

The case shook Moss Point enough that some changes occured. The chief of police stepped down in 2002 after facing sustained community pressure. Two weeks later, the state attorney general’s office issued a report calling the Moss Point police department “inappropriate and unprofessional” after investigating potential civil rights violations, and called on the department to focus on “training and accountability.” Curley Clark, president of the Jackson County NAACP, recalled that the city established a civilian review board around this time, as a police accountability mechanism. 

“The officers knew that there was going to be an outside body reviewing complaints,” he said. “So we felt like it made them be more mindful of their actions in carrying out their duties.” 

The Moss Point city clerk’s office denied Southerly’s request for public records about the review board, saying they “do not exist.” The police department declined to comment on the board or reforms. 

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina inundated Moss Point, causing extensive damage. Storm surge traveled up the Escatawpa and Pascagoula rivers, flooding downtown and many neighborhoods. City hall and the police department were nearly destroyed and took years to rebuild. The hurricane hurt the area’s economy even more: In Jackson County, 22% of businesses were in areas impacted by Katrina, and 10% of jobs were lost within the next month. Katrina devastated the Mississippi coast and disproportionately impacted Black communities in nearly every sense, from flooding risk to proximity to toxic spills to securing funding for recovery after the storm. In Moss Point, the storm’s effects complicated efforts to reform the police department. Clark said the civilian review board was never re-established, and the Malone family’s efforts to sue over his death were delayed. The filing record reveals the case was rescheduled because of backlogs and the difficulty of locating witnesses after the storm. 

Throughout the court record, the defense characterized Malone as “self-destructive,” a “crack-cocaine” addict, “a ninth grade drop-out with anger-management problems,” and suggested that Malone’s death was caused in part by his drug addiction. Evelyn Stephens, his sister, contextualized his anger in a deposition, saying he needed counseling after the death of his father, and he had trouble finding consistent work after his release from Parchman, a prison that is notorious for its lack of oversight and medical neglect. For a time, he worked for Mississippi Power, then for Ingalls Shipbuilding, and then as a sanitation worker. He was living, unemployed, with his mother at the time of his death. After two-and-a-half years, the city and the police officers settled, and all three officers involved in Malone’s death still serve in law enforcement. The police department declined to comment on the case.

More incidents with the police department followed. In 2006, two Black men were found dead at the Moss Point jail. The coroner proclaimed both deaths suicides, but families expressed skepticism about that ruling. Two years later, Otis Ashford, a 48-year old Black man, was visiting his sister, Dell Jones, in Moss Point, when he reportedly saw a police officer fighting with another man outside. According to the lawsuit filed on Ashford’s behalf, the officer, Johnny Vaughn, stormed into Jones’ house and threw Ashford onto the ground. Another officer, Michael Upchurch, entered the house and pepper-sprayed Ashford and Jones. A third officer, Brandon Ashley, arrived and tased Ashford four times; the officers dragged Ashford into the road and laid him face down. Ashford spent a night in the hospital. He was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, though the charges were later dropped.

Kristy Bennett, the legal director for the ACLU of Mississippi when the organization represented the siblings in a lawsuit, said people in Moss Point “were getting really fed up” with the pattern of police misconduct by then. Her team found that numerous citizen complaint reports had been issued against Vaughn, but the department had done little to hold him accountable. She said the interim police chief at the time, Frederick Gaston, attempted to fire Vaughn, but received pushback from the department and city administration. The ACLU of Mississippi settled the lawsuit, with the stipulation that the Moss Point police department “implement reforms including updating officer training to include conflict resolution, appropriate use of tasers, and the right of individuals to observe police officers while the officers are performing their duties.” 

Ashley, the officer who tased Ashford, is the current chief of police in Moss Point. Upchurch, another officer at the scene, was fired several years after the case for disregarding departmental policy and creating a hostile work environment; he sued the Black woman police chief at the time, alleging reverse racism

The police department declined to comment on this case, or whether reforms were enacted. Moss Point aldermen Sherwood Bradford and Ennit Morris declined to comment and the five other members of the board of aldermen did not respond to requests.

State Rep. Jeramey Anderson, a native of Moss Point, was a classmate of Diamon Sims and knows his family well. The 28-year-old, who was first elected in 2013, represents the district that encompasses the city, and has proposed two bills that would streamline the investigative and judicial processes used in officer-involved deaths and establish a state-level review board for these deaths. 

“We’ll be able to see in different counties and different municipalities if there is a pattern over the course of 20, 30 years where the police department has disproportionately been involved in officer-involved deaths for specific demographics of people,” he said. 

Anderson said he is too young to recall the other officer-involved deaths in Moss Point, but said Sims’ death “really pushed me to introduce those bills again” this year after they stalled in committees several sessions in a row. To him, an individual’s previous run-ins with law enforcement are “not a justification for the police department to take someone’s life without just cause.” He is now working to create a broader coalition of support for the proposals, arguing that the legislation would “protect the law-abiding officers as well as the citizens who encounter them.”

Sims’ youngest daughter. Photo courtesy Keena Sims

After George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May, Clark, the local NAACP leader, renewed calls for the FBI to investigate Sims’ death. Moss Point’s mayor painted a large Black Lives Matter mural on the street in front of City Hall in June. One night, someone painted over the word “Black,” and replaced it with the word “blue.” The mayor, who was recently indicted on federal fraud charges, did not respond to a request for comment.

“The Black Lives Matter thing is just saying that, if you take my life, you gotta count for taking my life,” Keena said. “Accountability. That’s it.” Keena said she doesn’t want any other mother to experience the pain she has gone through over the last year. 

On August 8, a Saturday, Sims’ family led a memorial procession that followed the route he took the day he was killed. A long line of cars, decked out with banners and white balloons, drove past strip malls and through wooded neighborhoods. At the intersection where Sims was shot, friends and family members got out of their cars to pay their respects. Down the road, the rivers teemed with recreational boaters, their banks lined with pine trees; since Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago, Moss Point has emphasized its relationship to the water instead of its industry, rebranding itself as the “River City.” Sims might have enjoyed one of his long drives along the water. 

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.