Letters to the Editor | April 2018

Editor’s Note: Following the shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., people across the country are staging protests about gun violence. By some estimates, hundreds of thousands of students walked out of school March 14 in a 17-minute rally honoring the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting. Following yet another police shooting of a Black man, and in Peoria a police officer wearing a t-shirt proclaiming he was a member of a “Baby Daddy Removal Team,” people continue to question the racial bias of police departments in America. A two-page ad in The New York Times sponsored by “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America” and “Everytown for Gun Safety” listed the financial gifts every member of Congress has accepted from the National Rifle Association to buy support for the gun industry. 

Here are two opinions about gun violence by two mothers in our community.

“Shoot to Kill”

The Struggle Continues

Reprinted with Permission from The Traveler Weekly

Last month I received a picture via text from my grandson in which a state police officer was searching his car. He was driving from Dallas to Peoria alone and was stopped around Lincoln, Ill. When I spoke to him later and asked what he was stopped for, he simply replied driving while being black. The officer claimed he stopped him because he observed him weaving. It was 10 a.m. in the morning, he wasn’t speeding and did not receive a ticket.

When does one have to submit to having your car searched because the officer says you were weaving? When you are a young black man in America, and your goal is to stay alive and get home safely. Like millions of African-American men, he chose to endure the humiliation of being stopped, questioned and searched simply because of the melanin in his skin.

My oldest brother and his wife have an affinity for luxury cars. They work hard and can afford them. However, after being stopped too many times while driving his Jaguar, they began driving SUV’s instead to draw less attention from the Chicago police.

Ryllie Danylko of Cleveland.com writes about the police policy “To Shoot to Kill.” It was the Cleveland police who shot and killed a 12-year-old child, Tamir Rice, playing with a toy gun. Their response to his death was they don’t shoot to maim. If there is a threat, apparently even a perceived one, that requires lethal force and they shoot to kill.

The Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder found systemic deficiencies and practices in the Cleveland Police Department including insufficient accountability and inadequate community engagement. The 58-page report documented rogue officers pulling their guns on suspects without justifiable cause, beating defenseless suspects already handcuffed and hiding their actions by writing inaccurate reports. The city of Cleveland failed to adequately investigate and discipline the officers involved in these excessive force cases.

It was not the murder of Tamir Rice in 2014 that launched the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation, but another police shooting, in which two unarmed black individuals were shot at 137 times, chased by 62 police cruisers and 100 police officers.

Timothy Russell and Melissa Williams, two homeless people from East Cleveland, were involved in a car chase with the police. Russell was pulled over for a turn signal violation but sped off when the officer got out of his car. The chase began because officers mistakenly thought the backfiring from Russell’s car were gunshots. When the police cars finally got the car stopped and had it surrounded, 13 officers fired 137 shots at the car. Both Russell and Williams were hit over 20 times. One officer climbed on top of the hood of Russell’s car and shot 15 rounds through the car windshield. He alone fired his gun 49 times. Both individuals had been diagnosed with mental illnesses and were involved with drugs.

According to the online site Vox, there is a huge racial disparity in the use of force by police officers. FBI data show Black people accounted for 31 percent of victims killed by police officers in 2012, even though African-Americans are only 13 percent of the population. These stats are incomplete because they are based on voluntary reporting from police departments around the country.

According to 2015 data analysis from the Guardian, minorities make up 46.6 percent of armed and unarmed victims, but 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by law enforcement.

These disparities in police use of force reflect racial inequities across the entire American criminal justice system. For every 100,000 Black residents, 879 are arrested for drugs vs. 322 for every 100,000 white residents, even though the drug use is virtually the same for Black and white residents.

Vox also reports that police officers in simulation training are quicker to shoot a Black suspect according to Professor Joshua Correll, of the University of Colorado Boulder psychology department. Correll believes it is possible that subconscious racial bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes. He said the very situations in which officers need their training, there is reason to believe that their training will fail them.

In response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, by George Zimmerman, Black Lives Matter was organized by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza. The BLM Mission is to affirm the humanity of black people, build local power and intervene in violence inflicted upon Black communities by the state and vigilantes. To work for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.

An August 2017 leaked report from the terrorist unit of the FBI incorrectly labeled BLM as an extremist group and a violent threat. This follows a long history of the U.S. government aggressively monitoring protest movements and working to disrupt civil rights groups.

BLM was founded on civil disobedience but aimed at changing policy through lobbying and political action. The reality is this country has a history of targeting Black leaders and killing them from Medgar to Martin, to Malcolm to Fred Hampton to Mark Clark. How long will we continue to allow the state to legally murder Black people at will? How is it okay for police officers to be the judge, jury and executioner of its Black citizens? The Struggle Continues….

Sherry Cannon,

Gun violence, mental health and facts

Following the shooting death of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., it’s important to separate fact from emotion. Mass shootings, though statistically rare, threaten our sense of security, and there is no doubt our nation experiences a higher rate of gun violence than all other major western industrialized nations combined. Active shooter drills are more common than tornado drills for our children.

Common sense gun safety measures are needed, and both Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell and Bartonville Police Chief Brian Fengel agreed at a recent forum that arming teachers with firearms is not the answer to protecting our youth.

Local law enforcement leaders are deliberately working to build trust in our community. Community policing efforts are working to increase protection, such as placing resident officers in key neighborhoods and implementing full-time school resource officers in Peoria Public Schools. Based on data published on the City of Peoria Crime Statistics website, the implementation of these programs is correlated with decreased arrests over the past several years for nearly all types of offenses. Police officers are, increasingly, being led to serve with respect rather than control with fear. Despite the recent tragic fatalities resulting from armed confrontations that occurred in Peoria in the fall of 2017 and in early 2018, these are isolated incidences. Though they strike fear in our hearts, they are statistically uncommon in our city.

The rate of homicide is steadily decreasing and the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes has decreased dramatically. The juvenile sexual assault arrest rate has decreased from a five-year average of 6.0 to a five-year average of 0.6 over the past 15 years. As a parent of four children, this statistic really grabbed my attention.

Suicide researchers document that firearms are used in over 50 percent of all U.S. suicides, and clearly, more should be done to restrict access to firearms among those who indicate they intend to harm self or others. By increasing community dialogue among city officials, law enforcement leaders, faith leaders, local school districts, the health department, the Peoria Healthcare Coalition, Peoria Community Against Violence, Moms Demand Action, Students Demand Action, the Illinois Suicide Prevention Alliance and elected officials, we can work to reduce the rate of suicide, homicide and violent crimes. We can work together to recognize trends, innovate together, evaluate the outcomes of interventions and demand accountability from our leaders to create a safer place to raise our families, across all faiths, zip codes and neighborhoods.

Katie Jones, LCSW, Co-organizer of the Peoria Healthcare Coalition

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