Woman says disabled brother was profiled at cancer fundraiser - WKRN News 2

Woman says disabled brother was profiled at cancer fundraiser

Posted: Updated: Aug 7, 2013 05:46 PM
Melody Cooke says her brother Mark was targeted by event goers who said he was "creepy." Melody Cooke says her brother Mark was targeted by event goers who said he was "creepy."

A Sumner County woman says her mentally disabled brother was the victim of discrimination at a Relay for Life event at Ricky Woodard Community Park in Westmoreland Friday.

Melody Cooke said her brother Mark Ferguson, 51, was targeted by event goers who said he was "creepy."

"He was down there making an attempt to walk," Cooke said. "A complaint was received that he was down there looking at children and he was told to leave the park."

Ferguson has Down syndrome.

Organizers called police.

Kathy Farley with Relay for Life of Westmoreland released this statement to Nashville's News 2:

Relay For Life is a community, fundraising event.  Friday night, one of our participants came to us concerned about a gentleman, stating he asked their child to go with him for a ride on his Gator.  Because our event participant expressed concern for the safety of their child, we placed a call to the Westmoreland Police Department.  This was done purely out of concern for the safety and protection of our event participants.  Relay For Life is a community event, open to the public, however, as organizers of the event, we have a responsibility to protect participants, especially children, from any potential risk. 

Cooke, who was not at the park during the initial police contact, said officers threatened to arrest her brother if he did not leave the park.

She also said a number of people in attendance mocked Ferguson as she tried to explain to officers that her brother was not a threat.

"It is a sobering experience," she said. "It leaves you powerless, frustrated and heartbroken," she said. "I am discussing with Mark now coming to live with us. I don't trust the Westmoreland police department."

Nashville's News 2 talked to Westmoreland's police chief K.D. Smith, who has since reviewed the incident.

His officers have audio recordings of their interactions with Ferguson and his sister.

Chief Smith also reviewed phone calls to dispatch.

"The people just were not familiar with him," Chief Smith said. "He is well known around town, but we have new people in town and some people from out of town."

Chief Smith said his officers talked to Ferguson and realized he had a mental handicap. He said the officers advised him that they could not make him leave the park, but it would be a good idea.

"They said it would be in everybody's best interest," he said.

Chief Smith said his officers followed policy and procedures of the department.
In all police were called to the park on four occasions.

Two times parents called concerned about Ferguson's presence and then a third call came in after Cooke arrived at the park.

She confronted event organizers and can be heard on the call to police in the background.

Officers said when they arrived back at the park Cooke was irate.

"She just deliberately refused to listen," Chief Smith said. "The officer told her she needed to leave then she started making comments that she was going to call the ACLU and she was going to file lawsuits."

Police left after they thought they resolved the issue, but they were called back to the park by Cooke.

"With all this I commend the officers," he said. "They could have arrested her the previous times because of her demeanor."

Chief Smith met with Cooke and Ferguson on Monday at his office. He said he explained all the information he reviewed and told Cooke if she wanted to make a formal written complaint she could.

Cooke said she has not made a written complaint to the police chief, but she planned to file complaints with the federal government.

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