Rockford killing highlights national dilemma with police conduct

OPINION - The United States remains the only country in the Western world without national standards for the use of police force, or with ongoing federal training for officers...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

In the five weeks since Mark Anthony Barmore was gunned down by police officers in an Illinois daycare center, answers remain elusive.

By all accounts, the 23-year-old African American man was unarmed when police officers Oda Poole and Stan North approached him in a church parking lot. Although Barmore was only wanted for questioning in a domestic dispute, officers pursued him with guns drawn, even after he ran into the church’s daycare facility. Minutes later Barmore was dead. The police shot him three times in the back as the center’s terrified children looked on.

The brutal, public nature of this killing has thrust the city of Rockford into the spotlight, and posed disturbing questions about accountability and the use of excessive force. While the official police report claims Barmore was shot after he reached for an officer’s gun, witnesses tell a different story. They say Barmore had already surrendered; that he was shot after emerging from a storage closet with his hands up. One witness, a teenage girl, says she was threatened by police if she did not change her story to conform to the official report.

It may be tempting to view this story exclusively through the prism of race, and, truth be told, many elements of the story indicate that race probably played a role in the decisions that were made that day. But the fact remains that police violence can happen to anyone, regardless of color or ethnicity.

According to Department of Justice figures, national incidents of police use of violence and deadly force has increased since the late 1990s nationally. While police misconduct has long been an unfortunate hallmark of some police departments in black and Hispanic communities, that reality is also found in some poor white communities. When malfeasance is not brought under control and good law enforcement rewarded the problem can grow.

Cheye Calvo, the white mayor of an affluent, predominantly white suburb of Berwyn heights, Maryland, learned that lesson last year when his house was stormed by police and his dogs shot in what law enforcement later admitted was a mistake. Berwyn Heights is part of Prince Georges County where complaints of police abuse against minorities were longstanding and rarely resolved. Several weeks ago, an unarmed double-leg amputee was tasered and jailed for nearly a week in Merced, California. This past summer, a white great-grandmother in Texas was tasered after failing to sign a ticket. After his ordeal, Calvo wrote, “a pattern and practice of police abuse treated with utter indifference rips at the fabric of our social compact and virtually guarantees more of the same.”

In Rockford, this was not the first shooting incident for either of the officers involved. In fact, one officer, 37-year-old Oda Poole, had already, shot three other people – one fatally – in his five short years with the Rockford police force. Mark Barmore’s tragic story has as much to do with negligence in oversight as it does with racial discrimination.

For this reason, the NAACP has formed a partnership with the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Amnesty International to bring attention to this tragedy. This weekend, we will gather in Rockford to march in the name of justice for Mark Barmore’s family. We are demanding that there be counseling provided for the young children who are showing symptoms of post traumatic stress after being forced to witness the horror of his death. Importantly, we will also be marching for systemic changes as well.

It is hard to believe, but the United States remains the only country in the Western world without national standards for the use of police force, or with ongoing federal training for officers. This lack of uniformity is one of the core factors behind the Rockford tragedy and far too many other police shootings across the nation. There are as many use-of-force policies as there are law enforcement agencies, and as many interpretations of those policies as there are law enforcement officers.

Later this year, Congressman John Conyers will reintroduce the Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act, which would mandate official standards for the use of force for every law enforcement agency from federal marshals to rank and file cops on the beat. We believe that the bill will help reduce the number of police tragedies like the death of Mark Barmore.