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Very Real

Did The Cops Try To Kill James Brown? Unresolved Questions From The Godfather of Soul's Car Chase

“I never fired at them, or even pointed a gun in their direction, and they still shot at me over and over again.”

By Jennifer Boeder

“I never fired at them, or even pointed a gun in their direction, and they still shot at me over and over again,” said James Brown, about his 1988 run from the police, to Al Sharpton.

James Brown is lauded as “The Godfather Of Soul” and “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business.” He created funk and in many ways invented modern music. But by the late 1980s, the superstar had fallen on hard times, which included serious financial problems, drug dependency, and numerous arrests. In 1988, he led police on an infamous two-state car chase, for which he was sentenced to six years in prison for assault and failure to stop for police.  The incident was so defining for Brown that a 2014 biopic starring Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman opened with the ‘88 car chase.

But in 2007, the FBI released a file in which Brown and his then-wife Adrienne told their side of the story. The document contradicts the official police account, and describes chilling police violence, including officers throwing 60-year-old Brown against his truck and punching him in the face while he was handcuffed.

Here’s what the authorities told us:

On Sept. 24, 1988, Brown barged into an insurance seminar in an office complex in Savannah, GA wielding a shotgun. He accused the seminar participants of using the restroom in his nearby office. (In the previous year, Brown had been arrested by the local authorities on numerous different charges: assaulting his wife, speeding, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and possession of PCP.)

Brown left the complex and sped off in his pickup truck. Police pursued him down Highway 20 and across the South Carolina line; the chase involved numerous vehicles and reached speeds of 60 to 85 miles per hour.  The FBI report notes that Brown drove around a police blockade:

[Brown] observed that a road block had been set up by two police vehicles in a 'V' shape. Brown seeing this drove around the police road block to avoid hitting the police vehicles and continued on.

The officers at the scene reported that Brown tried to hit them:

When he pulled into a parking lot, two officers shot out his front tires. They later claimed he tried to mow them down as he sped out of the lot. Riding on his wheel rims, Brown headed back across the Savannah River into Georgia. Fourteen police cars followed.

But in the report Brown and his wife filed with the FBI, he said he fled the parking lot because police had attacked the car and he thought they were going to kill him:

A policeman began kicking the vehicle door and hitting the vehicle with the butt of his gun. This resulted in a window being broken. Because of this violence Brown decided to remain in his vehicle. He then locked the vehicle. Brown stated that he was in fear for his life.

A...policeman then shot and hit Brown's truck at least eight times and another....policeman shot approximately nine times at the tires and hood. Other shots were also fired. Brown later counted the bullet holes in his truck and these totalled twenty three. Two of these shots hit the gas tank and the tires were flat. Brown became very afraid.

Because of this fear Brown started up his vehicle and drove away on the flat tires.

Brown made it six miles driving on his rims before his truck landed in a ditch in Augusta. Brown described what happened next to the FBI:

At this time approximately twenty policemen arrived on the scene. Brown was pulled from his vehicle by the policeman an[d] slammed against the side of his truck causing injury to his face and body.

Brown and his wife also allege that while Brown was handcuffed at the station, a police officer walked up to him and punched him in the face so hard it knocked out his tooth implants and left him in excruciating pain.

PCP was found in Brown’s bloodstream after the arrest, and his history of  chronic domestic violence was well-documented. Writer Richard Krantz acknowledged that Brown’s behavior in the years leading up to the car chase undoubtedly endangered others and himself:

One of Brown’s favourite pastimes in his 50s was to get blasted on go-rilla [his nickname for angel dust] grab a gun, jump into a vehicle and drive at top speed on the Georgia backroads….

There was always something of the Georgia good old boy about him. He loved straw hats, cowboy boots, shotguns, Western movies and raising hell in a pick-up truck.

Brown served two years of his sentence, but in 1998 was arrested again on nearly identical charges: firing a rifle and leading police on another car chase.

Brown was first jailed at 15 for theft, and clearly had issues with drugs and violence. But it’s likely that had the chase and arrest occurred in the era of smartphones and social media, there might’ve been bigger outcry and a potential investigation into his allegations of police abuse. Al Sharpton describes visiting Brown in an Augusta jail after the chase:

I remember him repeatedly saying that the cops tried to kill him, that they shot his vehicle over 20 times. If they shot the gas tank, the car would have blown up he continued saying.

It was Brown’s word against the claims of numerous officers. Though the FBI did launch an inquiry into his allegations that the police had violated his civil rights, but after referring their report to an assistant U.S. attorney in Georgia, he concluded the allegations had "no apparent prosecutive merit" and the file remained secret for the next 18 years.

(Photo: South Carolina Department of Corrections)