By Jesse Washington
ROCKFORD, Ill. — The NAACP is renewing a push for federal standards on police use of force after the shooting of an unarmed black man by two white police officers inside a church while day care children watched.
Witnesses say the man was surrendering, but officials in Rockford, Ill., near Chicago dispute that version of events, saying that Mark Anthony Barmore grabbed for an officer's gun after they cornered him in the church.
Both sides do agree, however, that Barmore fled when officers approached him in the church parking lot, which highlights the suspicion and fear that can poison relationships between police and minority communities across the country.
"There are no national standards for the use of force (or) training for use of force," Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Friday.
The issue "is not primarily about racism," Jealous said, citing the recent case of a 72-year-old white woman tasered by a white Texas officer during a traffic stop. "We want to make sure the standards are the most modern and appropriate ones possible."
The NAACP scheduled a rally Saturday in Rockford and a march Oct. 3. Jealous was planning to attend both; it would be his first march since taking the NAACP's helm a year ago.
The NAACP is seeking the reintroduction of the Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act, first offered by John Conyers, D-Mich., in 2000. It was co-sponsored by 34 legislators but was never voted on by the full House.
Conyers plans to reintroduce the bill during this session of Congress, according to a House Judiciary Committee staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity because the timetable had not been determined.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, disputed the notion that police are inadequately trained in the use of force, which he called "the most serious and awesome responsibility a police officer has." He said that the majority of the public has faith in police and that the proposed law would be "oppressive to police officers."
In the case in Rockford, a city of 155,000, police received a complaint that Barmore, 23, had been in a domestic disturbance with his live-in girlfriend. Barmore had recently been released from jail and had a series of arrests, including charges of assaulting a police officer with a firearm.
On the morning of Aug. 24, Barmore went to the Kingdom Authorities Ministries church, which he sometimes attended, to seek counseling about the problem, said the pastor, Rev. Melvin Brown.
According to Brown, Barmore spoke with the pastor's wife and 17-year-old daughter in the church driveway. Two officers drove by, spotted Barmore, and approached with their guns drawn. Barmore ran inside the church, which also operates a day care center for children ages 4 and up.
Barmore was cornered inside a boiler room, Brown said, as the pastor's wife, daughter and several of the young children watched.
Witnesses said Barmore emerged with his hands up but was shot several times in the chest and back; the officers said Barmore fought them and tried to grab one of their guns, according to Police Chief Chet Epperson.
"My daughter was about five-feet away. When he hit the ground, she sees the cops shooting him in the back. We saw slugs in his back when we went to see the body," said Brown, the pastor.
City officials would not comment Friday on the shooting, citing an ongoing investigation by state police and the Cook County state attorney's office - a rare case of outside agency intervention.
The NAACP was calling for a full Justice Department investigation instead of currently assigned mediators, who were sent to calm racial tensions.
One of the officers who shot Barmore, 37-year-old Oda Poole, had shot three previous suspects in Rockford, one fatally, in the past three years, according to the Rockford Register-Star newspaper.
The fatal shooting was of a 66-year-old man who Poole said pointed what appeared to be a weapon at him and refused to drop it. It was actually a hammer in a sock. Police said they found a suicide note on the man.
Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey said Friday that he welcomed a thorough investigation and hoped that Barmore's death would improve conditions in a city where black youths have a greater chance of getting arrested than graduating from high school.
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The mayor said it was impossible to know why Barmore ran from police, but "the broader and more relevant question is, do we have an approach between our officers and community members that's one of sufficient trust so that we can avoid unnecessary conflict and unnecessary use of force?"