Mayor welcomes outside investigation, PR help in Barmore shooting
By Stuart R. Wahlin
Although not unheard of for Rockford’s police officers to resort to using deadly force in the line of duty, it immediately became evident the Aug. 24 shooting death of African-American Mark Anthony Barmore in a west-side church and daycare facility would need to be handled with kid gloves.
A simmering racial tension in Rockford has been on the rise in recent weeks as a variety of circumstances, combined with the Barmore shooting, have ushered in a fever pitch of anxiety.
Leading up to the shooting, the city has been advancing with foreclosure proceedings on the former Church School, which African-American neighborhood leaders had hoped to turn into a community center.
Additionally, charges of falsifying time sheets were recently levied against a black Rockford firefighter, Lt. Brian Watkins.
The proposed closure of the Rockford Public Library’s Lewis Lemon Branch also seems to have struck a chord among the African-American community.
Coupled with the city’s ongoing friction with African-American restaurateur Anthony Foreman, a frequent speaker during city council meetings, many feel an ugly pattern is emerging in the city’s relations with the black community, and the Barmore shooting appears to have been the breaking point.
During the Aug. 31 Rockford City Council meeting, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) offered condolences to Barmore’s family, and to the families of officers involved in the incident, Oda Poole and Stan North.
The officers, both white, have used deadly force before, and were found by grand juries to have been justified in their actions.
“We, as a community, are struggling right now with a number of challenges, a number of tensions,” Morrissey acknowledged. “I want to just tell everyone that I appreciate the patience and the support that this community has offered. Both internally and externally, we’ve had a lot of individuals offer their support.”
Morrissey and Police Chief Chet Epperson met Aug. 31 with officials from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which will facilitate dialogue between a community at odds with its police force.
In a press release, Epperson explained: “The community relation service is separate and apart from any investigative arm of the Department of Justice. They focus in areas like mediation, technical assistance, training and conciliation.”
Morrissey said, “This will be a dialogue that will be forthcoming with both short- and long-term issues that face our police and our community.”
Ald. Ann Thompson-Kelly (D-7) said the conversation is long overdue.
“We have some very serious problems where dialogue is definitely going to be needed, and we need to start,” she asserted. “It doesn’t just affect the black community. It affects all the communities, and it is time that we all get to the same table and discuss it openly.”
With demand in the air for an outside investigation into Barmore’s shooting, Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato (D) announced Aug. 30 the Illinois State Police have agreed to take the lead in the investigation.
“I think the most we can try to do right now as a city, as an organization, is to have the most credible investigation,” the mayor said.
Findings of the investigation will be turned over to the state’s attorney, at which time Bruscato will decide whether criminal charges should be considered.
Morrissey pledged, “Every time we have a use of force, the likes of which we experienced last Monday, there will be a use-of-force analysis that will occur, and those decisions and practices of the folks involved in this incident, as well as our practices in general, will be evaluated.”
Morrissey urged the public to withhold judgment until the findings are known.
The same day a state police investigation was promised, during a visit to Rockford resulting from the incident of deadly force, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called on the DOJ not to facilitate dialogue, but to investigate.
Ald. Linda McNeely (D-13) agreed.
“I think that we would have a better effect for the whole community if we had a federal investigation of this incident,” said McNeely, whose ward is home to the 518 N. Court St. shooting site.
“We have to be concerned about the grieving of the family of Mr. Barmore, and some people have gotten into the discussion about his character, his criminal history, but that’s not the issue,” McNeely argued, offering a strategy for diffusing the tension. “The issue is…going into probably the most sacred facility within the African-American community—a church—and then going in there, into a daycare.
“It goes back to respect, and trying to understand and sympathize,” she added. “That makes a big difference in calming people down.”
Morrissey met with Jackson on the eighth floor of City Hall Aug. 30 to discuss the matter. Morrissey reported that both men concurred, “We hope for a fair and just system of investigation in this case.”
From the September 2-8, 2009 issue
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