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Shooting by Police Ignites Racial Tensions in Illinois Town

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

ROCKFORD, Ill., Oct. 3 -- National civil rights leaders and local parishioners packed a church here Saturday, praying for peace and demanding justice in the Aug. 24 fatal shooting of an unarmed African American man by two white officers in the church's basement, in front of a dozen children.

The shooting has ignited long-simmering racial tensions in this struggling northern Illinois town, 80 miles from Chicago.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has made multiple visits to Rockford since the incident, and hundreds of black and white residents have marched for racial unity and reforms in the police department.

On Saturday, Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP president and chief executive, demanded greater accountability for police, saying, "We are all human, and police officers need to treat us as human."

On the morning of Aug. 24, children in a summer camp program were playing in the basement of Kingdom Authorities International Ministries church on Rockford's poor, mostly African American west side when a young man who occasionally attended the church ran through and hid in a boiler room.

Mark Anthony Barmore, who had been arrested multiple times on battery and weapons charges and spent time in prison for residential burglary, was being pursued by two officers who wanted to question him about an alleged domestic disturbance involving his girlfriend. They had seen him talking to Sheila Brown, the pastor's wife, in the parking lot. Brown followed Barmore into the church, with officers Oda Poole and Stan North, close behind. Poole had returned to the Rockford area in 2004 after working four years for the D.C. police department.

What happened next is under investigation. Barmore, 23, was shot multiple times, including in the back. Police officials previously told reporters that Barmore grabbed for an officer's gun. Rockford spokesman Julia Scott-Valdez said the department could not comment on a pending investigation. Brown and her teenage daughter told detectives that Barmore had his hands up when police approached him.

Incident Under Review

Pastor Melvin Brown was among those who immediately viewed the incident in racial terms. "There's no way these officers would have gone into a white church, a white day care, with their guns drawn," he said. "They thought they were going to get away with it, and they still do think they're going to get away with it."

Rockford has commissioned a review by the same monitoring firm appointed by a U.S. District Court to monitor the Oakland, Calif., police department as part of a 2003 settlement of a federal lawsuit involving rogue officers. A task force including the state police and the Cook County State's Attorney's Office is doing its own investigation. The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is monitoring the situation.

The case has garnered attention in part because Poole and North have been involved in cases in which black men were shot. In 2003, North injured an African American man. In 2007, Poole fatally shot an African American man brandishing a hammer and carrying a suicide note. The department and grand juries found no wrongdoing in either case.

Poole has received various accolades. In the District, he was named officer of the month six times. He was awarded an Illinois medal of honor for rescuing two black children from a fire in a Rockford housing project in 2006. He passed them through a window to safety before collapsing from smoke inhalation and was rescued by a firefighter.

In a letter to the local paper, Robin Babcox-Poole, Poole's wife, wrote: "The suggestion that Oda acted based on Mr. Barmore's race is out of line, inflammatory and offensively presumptuous. Oda no more took race into account with his actions on August 24, 2009, than he did when he ran into two separate fires in which the adults present had left without rescuing the children trapped inside. . . . Those of us not in law enforcement cannot comprehend the fear my husband and Officer North had when Mr. Barmore either gained entry into or was let into a day care filled with children."

Many residents have expressed support for North and Poole, joining marches or becoming members of a Facebook group. Ken DeCoster, news director and talk radio host on local station WNTA, said calls have been split between critics and supporters of the officers.

Mayor Points to Inequities

Racial strife is nothing new in this industrial town of 157,000, where African Americans make up 17 percent of the population.

Some black residents say they regularly face ill treatment by city officials as well as employment discrimination in a town that posted the state's highest jobless rate -- 15.1 percent -- in August. In 1994, a U.S. district judge found that the Rockford Board of Education had intentionally engaged in racial discrimination against minority students, leading to a consent decree that was in effect until 2002. Many also see discrimination in the recent prosecution of the city's highest-ranking black firefighter on charges he falsified time sheets.

Giles Jefferson, 44, was among 23 plaintiffs awarded $630,000 this year in a class-action discrimination lawsuit against a Rockford construction company that allegedly laid off black workers while retaining similarly qualified and tenured white workers. Jefferson alleged he was a target because he had another discrimination case pending.

"It's quite apparent there's a big problem in terms of race relations in this community," he said. "There's a sense of fear in the community."

Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) acknowledged that inequities exist, whatever the cause. "If you're an African American male, you're more likely to be arrested in Rockford than graduate from one of our high schools," he said. "So we have real challenges."

Jealous said Barmore's death underscores the NAACP's demand for federal standards on police use of deadly force. "This isn't just a black problem," he said, "this is a law enforcement problem."

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