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Two minutes that divided a community, part one

June 23, 2010

City of Rockford Legal Director Patrick Hayes, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) and Police Chief Chet Epperson held a press conference June 15 to announce the findings of Independent Assessment & Monitoring (IAM), based in Oakland, Calif., who conducted an assessment of the fatal shooting of Mark Anthony Barmore Aug. 24 by Rockford Police officers Stanton North and Oda Poole. Accusations by the community of improper actions by the officers prompted the independent review. Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin

By Stuart R. Wahlin
Staff Writer

When City of Rockford leaders first broke their silence last year during a press conference regarding the ill-fated events of Aug. 24—when two white police officers shot and killed an unarmed, 23-year-old African-American, Mark Anthony Barmore, in a church basement—one woman was heard to shout a demand for an “external investigation” during remarks by Police Chief Chet Epperson.

Although not exactly the Department of Justice investigation many in the African-American community were calling for, outsiders were brought in to review how the Police Department handled the tragedy. Less than a month after the shooting, the Rockford City Council voted 11-1 to retain Independent Assessment & Monitoring (IAM), based in Oakland, Calif., at a rate of $280 per hour, to conduct an assessment of the incident. Ald. Linda McNeely (D-13) voted “no.” The bill now exceeds $60,000, but city leaders might view that as a small price to pay when compared to the millions at stake in two civil lawsuits pending in federal court as a result of the officer-involved shooting that ignited a racial firestorm in Rockford.

IAM consultants Kelli Evans and Christy Lopez, civil rights attorneys with arguably adversarial histories with law enforcement, prepared a 48-page review of the shooting “to assist the Rockford Police Department (RPD) in conducting its own formal administrative investigation of this incident whether this police use of deadly force was consistent with agency policy and whether there are any policy, training, or tactical concerns related to the incident.”

Evans and Lopez also serve as federally-appointed monitors of the Oakland Police Department to oversee compliance with court-ordered reforms. The consent decree stemmed from a class-action lawsuit, settled in 2003, alleging abuses by four Oakland police officers.

Rockford leaders, however, are hoping to avoid outside monitors looking over their shoulders in the years to come by taking proactive steps before a similar order can be levied against RPD. According to Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I), the department would much rather police itself.

“From our view, when we’re dealing with both a wrongful death as well as civil rights allegations, the best thing we can do to insulate ourselves and our department and our organization…is to demonstrate that we have the ability to manage our own department,” Morrissey explained. “And we will be tough, we’ll be scrutinizing ourselves, and we’ll invite the community to be part of that process.

“That’s why we made the decision to publish the report, so that the community can know here’s where we’re at,” he added. “We’re going to be very open about areas where we need improvement, and we’re gonna need the help of the community as we move forward.”

June 15, the mayor’s office called a press conference to release the results of IAM’s assessment, although the report has been in the city’s hands since April. The delay in releasing the report was attributed to not wanting to jeopardize an ongoing, internal administrative review. Under an agreement with the police union, that investigation should wrap up the week of June 20. At that time, the chief of police will have three weeks to decide whether disciplinary action will be taken against the officers involved. The final outcome will then be made public, City of Rockford Legal Director Patrick Hayes indicated.

Should the city’s internal investigation concur with IAM’s findings, the report recommends “Remediation may include re-training and, if appropriate, disciplinary action, up to and including termination, even if the use of deadly force itself is found to be in-policy.”

Officers Stanton North and Oda Poole, who remain on administrative leave, had both been involved in use-of-deadly-force incidents prior to their involvement with the Barmore shooting. Hayes indicated those incidents are being taken into account during the internal review, but that he doesn’t foresee the cases being reopened.

Although it is clear North and Poole are under scrutiny, Epperson indicated three employees are being investigated as part of the department’s administrative review. Epperson did not name the third officer, but the IAM report suggests inadequate supervision during the incident.

Morrissey described the IAM report as an “independent, highly-qualified perspective on the conduct of our department related to Mr. Barmore’s death.”

Stressing that the city had voluntarily initiated the critique, the mayor reported the department also sought recommendations to improve professional standards and community relations—efforts he noted had begun prior to the Barmore shooting.

In short, the IAM report essentially questions the actions of officers North and Poole in the two minutes leading up to the fatal shooting, despite the fact the shooting itself was deemed justified under the circumstances of the culminating moment.

The report notes: “This determination that the officers’ actions were not criminal is significant, but it should be the beginning rather than the end of the inquiry of whether the officers’ actions were justified or appropriate. Where an officer’s use of deadly force is not criminal, it may nonetheless be unjustified under a non-criminal standard, pursuant to Supreme Court precedent requiring that any police use of force be objectively reasonable.”

The report notes that even if deadly force was justified, it may defy a department’s policies, or could have been “avoidable or tactically unsound.”

IAM’s criticisms will be outlined in detail in part two of this series.

Delivering the report with kid gloves

Morrissey began by stressing a grand jury, following an investigation by the Illinois State Police (ISP), had ruled the use of deadly force to be justified, and that the IAM report concurred.

He then acknowledged the report indicated, “However, as detailed below, the actions of Officers North and Poole leading up to the shooting violated RPD policy and were not consistent with RPD training or sound tactics.”

Morrissey responded: “We can take a couple of things away from it. No. 1 is that it affirms the decision of the state’s attorney and the grand jury, that the shooting of Mr. Barmore was justified, and that Rockford Police Department policies were followed related to the actual shooting. But the report also tells us that the policies were not followed regarding actions taken prior to the shooting, and that we have more work to do to improve our department.”

He added: “I talk about this vision of ‘excellence everywhere.’ It’s not the same as perfection. Nobody’s perfect. No organization’s perfect, but I give a heck of a lot of credit to our officers and our leadership at the department for committing to improve, for opening up our processes as much as just about any department I can imagine in the country, and saying: ‘We’re gonna become the very best. We’re not gonna settle for being the best in the area, or the most sophisticated in Winnebago County,’ which I think we are. We deal with a lot of tough issues that other smaller departments just don’t deal with.”

Referring to several “breakdowns” detailed in the report, the mayor suggested, “If one of which doesn’t occur, perhaps the whole thing doesn’t happen.”

He added, however, “We have to deal with this reality, what actually happened, and how we can move forward and improve our department, and improve our community.”

Once the podium was turned over to Epperson, the chief relied primarily on notes in making his comments and answering questions from the media.

“The Rockford Police Department has been committed, is still committed, and will remain committed to ongoing improvement,” he asserted, reiterating that improvement efforts were under way well before the Barmore shooting death.

In 2008, he indicated, the entire department underwent training “to institutionalize supervisory oversight of force incidents.” He said the supervisory training resulted in a 74 percent decrease in excessive force complaints during the last four years.

In the past four months alone, however, the Rockford City Council has voted to settle three alleged excessive-force cases totaling $188,000.

Fortifying the city’s stance of stressing steps toward improvements prior to the incident, Epperson added, “At the same time, we were developing a robust administrative review process.”

After the Barmore shooting, however, those efforts were handed off to IAM to make recommendations and “provide a comprehensive assessment, to look at our policies, procedures and practices on the date of the shooting,” Epperson said.

Hayes added of the IAM report, “This is a roadmap and a template for how you conduct a full, thorough and complete internal review of an officer-involved shooting, and we’ve followed those elements of the report in the execution of our internal investigation.”

Epperson described the events of Aug. 24 as tragic.

“The events of Aug. 24 put the officers of this department and the community at grave danger,” he indicated. “This is a very good police department. Our uses of force are minimal that we do on a daily basis.”

He noted RPD is an accredited police agency, and that an early-warning system had been implemented to identify performance and stress problems among the department’s rank-and-file. The IAM found deficiencies within that system, however, which will be outlined in part two of this series.

About one week prior to the release of the IAM assessment, the department also touted the creation of its Office of Professional Standards, which will, among other things, oversee implementation of the 27 recommendations contained in the report.

Morrissey explained: “What we want to make sure is that ‘good’ is not good enough. We want to make sure we’re doing the absolute best we can, and that we’re applying the best practices.”

Although city leaders have had months to craft a strategic response to the IAM report, Hayes said the assessment, for the most part, was not edited prior to release.

“There is no second draft,” he asserted. “There are no secrets that have been redacted. There are some personnel issues that were removed, because we simply don’t talk about some personnel matters in public. But the substance of the criticisms of the department…still remain in the report.”

Referring to the report’s statement that “Officers North and Poole violated RPD policy and training and used poor tactics,” The Rock River Times asked Epperson, “Would you concur with that finding, and if so, what should have been done differently that day?”

In a succinct response, Epperson answered: “I concur with the finding. There’s a pending internal investigation, so I’ll be limited in any sort of follow-up comment on that.”

Asked whether the shooting of Barmore could have been avoided, Epperson conceded: “Yes, definitely. That’s why I signed a complaint against the officers, and we’re vetting out that process. I have grave concerns about what occurred that afternoon. It’s out of alignment with policies and procedures.”

Terrence Peterson, president of the local police union, responded: “I believe that when Chief Epperson stood in front of the media at the press conference and, in response to a question regarding whether the officers violate policy, states definitively, ‘Yes,’ then adds that’s why he signed a complaint against them to initiate the internal investigation, he opened a floodgate of liability on the City of Rockford. The potential financial burden now on the taxpayers of Rockford is yet to be realized.”

Despite the criticisms contained in the report, which the mayor said will lead to “substantive changes,” Morrissey remained optimistic for the future.

“This has been, obviously, hard on our officers, obviously very hard on the family members of Mr. Barmore, and this has been an extremely challenging time for our community,” he said. “On top of the fact that we’ve got the state’s highest unemployment rate, we’ve got a number of challenges in our schools. We’ve got a lot of problems, and then you have an event like this occur. It makes it extremely challenging.

“Given all of that, the extremely positive movement that is happening right now within our department, where the union members, the administration and the community are coming together, is something that will shape us in a positive way permanently,” he added. “It’s gonna be something that, out of a very tough, very negative, very tragic situation, will be the positive outcome that we will take and move forward.”

The chronology

The IAM report’s chain of events relies heavily on witness statements, as well as recorded radio exchanges between officers and dispatch.

Aug. 24, 2009, RPD received a report from a woman alleging Barmore had threatened to cut her throat with a knife. When police responded, Barmore fled the scene on foot. Several minutes later, according to the report, a dispatcher notified patrol units a man matching his description was seen on the Jefferson Street bridge.

Officers North and Poole were then dispatched to the bridge and informed that Barmore was wanted on a warrant and may be armed with a knife. Minutes later, the officers reported having identified Barmore as being outside the House of Grace Church on Court Street, where daycare was in session. When Barmore spotted the officers, the report states, he slipped inside the building behind a church official who was entering the otherwise locked door. Poole pursued Barmore, while North covered another exit on a different side of the building. Once inside, North was advised Barmore had fled to the basement.

“According to Officer North’s statement to RPD, he drew his service weapon just before entering the daycare room at the bottom of the basement stairs,” the report notes. “Officer Poole, according to his statement, had drawn his weapon while in the hallway of the church upstairs. When Officers North and Poole entered the daycare room in the basement, they immediately saw somewhere between 8 and 15 ‘about pre-school age’ children, in their estimation, as well as ‘about two adults.’”

Marissa Brown, daughter of Pastors Melvin and Sheila Brown, reportedly told police, “As he (Barmore) was running down the hallway, he was saying he was not going to go back,” presumably to jail.

The report concludes that such comments by Barmore “indicate a mindset more likely to engage in struggle rather than surrender.”

North was told Barmore was hiding in a basement closet, which has also been referred to as a boiler room. North and Poole reportedly tried to open the door, but Barmore allegedly struggled from inside to keep the door closed. When Barmore allegedly refused to vacate the closet, the officers forced the door open and entered.

North’s statement indicated, “Knowing we could not back off due to the potential danger to the children, we both pushed harder on the door.”

Poole added, “I did not want to give Barmore an opportunity to get away from us and create a hostage situation or harm one of the children.”

Upon entering the boiler room, the report suggests, the incident escalated.

“Both officers report that very quickly both Officer Poole and Barmore had both hands on Officer Poole’s gun: Barmore with both hands on the barrel of the gun and Officer Poole with one hand on the gun grip and one hand over Barmore’s hands,” the review noted. “Officer Poole and Barmore struggled over the gun while ‘within inches’ of each other and with the gun at chest level.”

The report indicates that Poole’s firearm discharged during the struggle. Although the bullet grazed Barmore’s neck, the two allegedly continued to wrestle for control of the weapon. The struggle ended with Barmore being mortally wounded by shots from both officers, at which time medical service was requested, and daycare staff members were told to evacuate the basement.

“The events described above, from the moment Officers North and Poole saw Barmore in front of the church to the time they discharged their weapons, shooting and killing him, occurred in just more than two minutes,” the report noted, “and less than one minute after they followed him down the stairs of the church into the basement.”

When police backup arrived, Barmore, reported to still be breathing, was handcuffed. Medical personnel soon declared Barmore dead on the scene, however, and the community has been divided ever since by those who stand by the officers and those who allege police misconduct.

Police union, officer’s wife respond to report

In a statement released the same day as the IAM report, the Police Benevolent & Protective Association (PBPA) Unit 6 indicated its membership was “pleased” the report concurred the shooting was justified.

“We take issue with the apparent tenor used regarding officer training relative to such circumstances. The City of Rockford Police Department has substantially cut its training due to budget constraints,” the statement argued. “[North and Poole’s] actions were in keeping with policies, procedures and provided training.”

The mayor conceded that the city is under budget constraints, which means that trips outside of the area for training may have been cut, he said. He and Epperson asserted full faith in internal training, however.

Epperson noted recently provided training regarding cultural competency and racial profiling, as well as crisis management for de-escalation of dangerous situations.

“There are challenges with the budget,” he acknowledged. “Certainly, the training has to be looked at. We have to decide what’s best for the department, and how can we maximize our in-house trainers, and if we can use any sort of leverage with technology. But I’m comfortable where we’re at. Could we be doing more? Absolutely.”

Epperson declined to comment when asked whether North and Poole had been provided de-escalation training.

The PBPA response, which asserted full support of North and Poole, added: “It is the position of the Association that Officer Stan North and Oda Poole were themselves confronted with a deadly force situation. Contrary to any suggestions made otherwise, there have been several layers of review which contrast with language in the document being released today.”

Peterson told The Rock River Times the IAM report is flawed from top to bottom. A document being prepared by the union to analyze the report states bluntly: “The liberal lawyers hired by the City of Rockford have a political and financial bias against police officers.”

The document adds that IAM “has a financial incentive to accuse police officers of misconduct to generate fees for conducting ‘independent reviews’ and monitoring police departments,” and that “They’ve created an industry so that cities will hire them.”

The document also questions the expertise of the consultants.

“Neither of these lawyers have law enforcement tactical training; yet, they repeatedly and loosely gave opinions on what constituted ‘sound tactics,’” it states. “The attorneys and their consultants do not have the expertise to determine what is or is not ‘tactically sound.’”

Peterson also indicated Evans and Lopez are associates of a former police chief named Charles Gruber, who has been contracted by the city in the past to provide use-of-force training.

“Chuck Gruber’s methods are controversial and not officer-friendly,” Peterson argued. “He has made several thousands of dollars doing consultant work at the Rockford Police Department, and his work has been very controversial with our members as well.”

Peterson noted the participation of Michael Graham, a retired member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, as a consultant to Evans and Lopez in completing the IAM report. Peterson also described Graham as “controversial,” noting he is being considered by Epperson to mediate the report’s suggested remedies.

“The recommendation to use the firm Independent Assessment & Monitoring…was made without a bidding process, or known consideration of any other qualified firm,” Peterson argued. “Chuck Gruber factored into the use of this firm, and in recent meetings I’ve attended, Chief Epperson has already suggested Chuck Gruber as the ideal person to mediate the implementation of remedies suggested in the report.”

The union’s document concludes: “After several months and $60,000 the City bought the opinions it wanted to justify actions against Officer Oda Poole, Officer Stan North, and possibly others.  However, these attorneys failed to cite one General Order that the officers supposedly violated or, cite one professional standard or tactic that the officers violated. If the officers had not acted quickly and aggressively, and god forbid those kids had been hurt, the administration would have fired them for malfeasance in office.”

Peterson told The Rock River Times the union believes North and Poole are being used as scapegoats by the administration.

In another statement issued the following day, Poole’s wife, Robin, took aim at the report, as well as at the mayor and chief.

“I question the credibility of the report. Miss Lopez and Miss Evans spent six months working on this report and never spoke with, or requested to speak with, Oda or Stan,” she asserted. “In my opinion, it is inappropriate to present speculation as fact. I am deeply, profoundly and permanently ashamed of Mayor Morrissey, Chief Epperson and the current condition of my hometown.”

From the June 23-29, 2010 issue

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