Guest Column: The Barmore incident—Vanishing opportunities in Rockford race relations

By Edwin A. Hallsten, Ph.D.

Most of Rockford is aware that on Aug. 24 of last year, two officers from the Rockford Police Department shot a young man, Mark Anthony Barmore, fleeing from police apprehension related to an altercation with a girlfriend. Barmore fled into the daycare ministry, House of Grace Learning Center of the Kingdom Authority International Ministries Church. He tried to hide in a large storage room with no possible exit other than the door he entered, which was located in a reception/work area in the corner of the large room in which 12 children, 4 to 12 years of age, were being cared for by three adult staff. The officers, Oda Poole and Stan North, entered with drawn weapons, according to witnesses. The officers called for the fugitive to come out. It is unclear exactly what happened as he came out. What is clear is that one officer fired once and the other fired three times, leaving Barmore dead on the floor with three entry wounds in his back.

Two of the three staff people working in the room with the 12 children were members of the pastor’s family—his wife, Sheila, and his daughter, Marissa, were witnesses to the shooting. The daughter left the room during the shooting, running up the stairs to notify Apostle Melvin Brown, her father and the pastor, to inform him of what was happening. The officers called for supervision and support, both police and medical. Barmore was pronounced dead, and investigative procedures required in all cases of police use of deadly force began immediately, including statements taken from Sheila Brown, Marissa and each of the 12 children interrogated separately, allegedly without parents, lawyers or DCFS representatives allowed to be present, according to Apostle Brown.

In the reactive flurry that understandably followed, city and county officials, pastors and other community leaders and organizations were involved. The Rev. Jesse Jackson came to lead a protest march and speak at additional meetings as the investigation continued. Illinois State Police were called on to assist in the investigation.

One of the most potentially constructive steps was getting the U.S. Department of Justice to send a mediation team to meet with relevant community leaders and to work out, as well as possible, the issues, and look for acceptable, constructive ways to heal the racial wounds aggravating the already tense racial situation in Rockford. These mediation sessions continue, with all participants sworn to secrecy on any details of the process. Pastoral participants have reported that initial impatience and skepticism seems to be ebbing as what are considered more authentic exchanges are surfacing some of the genuine problems. There is an emerging hope that eventually this process can lead to important positive outcomes for many aspects of our community, but there is consensus that this will take months. Meanwhile, the FBI investigation that Jesse Jackson and many others in the black community are calling for appears on hold.

Throughout the fall, Illinois State Police and Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato continued investigation of the case. Initially, the State Police asked for two appointments with Sheila and Marissa Brown to interview them about the incident. Both appointments were allegedly canceled by the State Police. They have never interviewed them. In December, the decision was made to bring the shooting incident to the grand jury. The Browns never were personally served with a subpoena to appear, but learned through their attorneys that they were expected to testify to the grand jury. The hearing date was set for Dec. 23, and both the witnesses had already implemented plans, including tickets, for a much-needed brief getaway from the local stresses to find support and enjoy Christmas with a grandmother and mother and other family in Mississippi. They immediately requested a postponement of the grand jury date, and when it was refused, they filed an appeal, which was denied by Judge McGraw, reportedly on grounds that the trip lacked urgency. The needs for getting away and for family support were urgent, and the Browns went to Mississippi. The hearing was held without their testimony, and the verdict rendered was “justified homicide.” The state’s attorney has now charged the Browns with criminal contempt for their failure to appear before the grand jury Dec. 23, reportedly based on Judge McGraw’s ruling. This trial is scheduled for March 1.

Another factor of immediate and great significance to the Rockford community bears on the officers who did the shooting. This was not the first experience of this kind for either of them. Oda Poole has been involved in two prior “deadly force” incidents, one of them fatal, the other nonfatal. Stan North was previously involved in one other nonfatal incident. They are the only officers involved more than once in the use of deadly force appearing before the grand jury since 1992, according to a table that appeared on page 4D of the Jan. 9 issue of the Rockford Register Star. Their conduct in this situation has reportedly been described as exemplary, and the Police Protective Association is reportedly pressuring for them to be returned to armed duty ASAP. This judgment by the “Protective” Association constitutes a threat to the entire community, including especially the police, compromising significantly their effectiveness and demeaning the professionalism of the department. This is especially important west of the river, where the role of the police and confidence in their professionalism is most critical.

If there is any responsibility for the police for the safety of the public, then there is absolutely no excuse for the way in which deadly force came to be used in this situation. In any deadly force situation, concern for public safety would seem to mandate assessment of at least three possibilities: collateral injuries, hostage taking and “suicide by cop:”

1. The danger of collateral injury. Fifteen people, including 12 children 4 to 12 years old, were present in this situation and subjected minimally to significant trauma and also to the danger of collateral injury—a very real danger, as it turned out. Custody of the fugitive was assured. He had attempted to hide in a storage room with only the door guarded by the officers as an alternative for escape. There was no reason not to call for backup so that there could have been an orderly evacuation of the staff and children, which would have removed any threat of collateral injury. With the deadly force record of Poole  and North, it would have been an appropriate command decision to have other officers take over the apprehension at that point and put them in a supportive role.

2. The possibility of hostage taking. The fugitive probably could have snatched one of the children when he came in, but he did not. However, if things had gone awry, as is common in these situations, the rather remote, but still present, possibility still merits consideration and could have been removed completely by collateral removal, as in 1. above.

3. The possibility of “suicide by cop” may have been a real possibility. There is evidence that Barmore foolishly lunged to grab the gun of one of the officers (his fingerprints on the gun). Without much greater knowledge than the reports available at this writing, it is impossible to say if it was a suicide attempt. If so, he was assisted by these officers. How might such an attempt have been prevented? There was certainly the possibility, given the availability of time resulting from his secure confinement in the store room, to determine if he was known to the church and may have come there seeking help. In fact, Barmore was known to the Kingdom Authority congregation and to its pastor. Ministry to people with problems, even with the law, is what the church is about. The pastor was readily available and could very probably have been effective in talking with Barmore and persuading him to cease fleeing and support him in coming out of the room and surrendering peaceably.

Any fugitive is also part of the public that is to be protected as far as possible—even in the apprehension process. Successful apprehension requires attaining safe control and delivery of the fugitive to safe custody and trial, as appropriate. This incident could have been just such a successful apprehension. Far from being exemplary, it was tragically, fatally botched. Unfortunately, no consideration was apparently given to any of the important public safety factors. We have a death that could have almost certainly been avoided, and we have the significant traumatic experiences for the staff and 12 children. There are also unfortunate significant negative consequences for the church and its ministry to children.

Such defects in judgment and professionalism reflect on the officers and the city and its Police Department in hiring, training and retaining, or some mix of those factors. These issues will, it is hoped, be taken up in the mediation discussions so that some corrective measures will result. Meantime, minimally, the urgent present concern and strong recommendation is that neither Poole nor North, the two officers involved, should ever again be placed in a situation that may involve the use of deadly force. Twice is more than enough! Three times is certainly one too many! Simple risk management on the part of city government and police professionalism demand no less.

The state’s attorney’s actions are also problematic for the Rockford community—especially to those concerned about our human relations record and realities. No one with any knowledge of the situation could believe this incident would have any chance of occurring similarly in a predominantly white congregation on the other side of the river, and if it did, that the outcome would be anything like it is for Apostle Brown, his congregation, and his family. The closer you look, the worse it appears. Mr. Bruscato’s current project to speed up the process so that deadly force will be investigated within 30 days is certainly worthy of consideration, if not support. That this went from Aug. 14 to Dec. 23 without him or his office ever interviewing witnesses essential to a credible grand jury presentation generates a new kind of awe. Then, there is the amazing hutzpah to contend that without those witnesses, the grand jury process could possibly have credibility outside of the law enforcement community, and hardly even there. He succeeded in exonerating “a ham sandwich.” He has certainly damaged his credibility, along with that of his office and the system he represents in large areas of the community, especially those areas where trust in the courts and their officers is probably most critical and already riddled with cynicism.

More immediately, instead of seeking to repair this wound to court integrity, Mr. Bruscato adds the insult of charging the Browns with contempt. Without any personal contact and no cited consultation, he apparently assumed with Judge McGraw that there was no urgency about their visit to family in Mississippi. In fact, the Browns had witnessed a man being shot to death in their presence under conditions where there were obvious real collateral threats to them and the 12 children in their charge. That easily meets Criterion A for post-traumatic stress disorder. Add, then, the stress they have reported experiencing throughout the fall with comments made on radio talk shows and on Internet blogs, people stopping by the church, people confronting them while out shopping or in restaurants, and people calling them on the telephone, and it seems quite obvious that getting away to maternal and family support, especially at Christmas, could certainly be considered a matter of psychiatric urgency sufficient to support postponement. With Jan. 6 available as an alternative date for the impaneled grand jury, the urgency for the Browns to find support for meeting the needs created by the incident trumps that of the State’s Attorney’s office. The Browns will be tried on those contempt charges March 1, long before the DOJ mediation meetings will have borne fruit. If the opportunity for this investment in Rockford race relations still exists—that it is not yet too late for Mr. Bruscato to make some amends by withdrawing the contempt charges—it is certainly recommended that he do so. We all make mistakes. Many even admit them and then do their best to correct them. Most of us respond with respect when it happens.

Dr. Edwin A. Hallsten, of Rockford, has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is ordained pastor in Evangelical Covenant Church and was assistant professor in pastoral care at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. He retired as staff psychologist after 11 years at Janet Wattles Center, Rockford; served as infantry officer in the Korean War; is retired as LTC USAR Chaplain; served as State Chaplain several years for ILARNG; served two years as president of the Greater Rockford Clergy Association; and specialized since 1992 in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions. He is serving as EMDRIA Approved Consultant in EMDR, a primary treatment modality for treatment of psychological trauma and related conditions.

From the Feb. 17-23, 2010 issue

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