Late on the night of July 25, 13-year-old Jimmell Cannon was out playing in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, celebrating a cousin’s birthday with other family members. Cannon’s family said that the boy and a few other kids had wandered a bit away from the park area near Piccolo Specialty School where they were gathered. Around 11 p.m., he was shot multiple times by a police officer.
According to a Chicago Police Department statement, officers were responding to a call of shots fired in the area, and Cannon matched the description of the gunman. When officers tried to stop him, he fled. Police say that Cannon was shot after producing a weapon and pointing it at them, ignoring orders to drop it. The weapon turned out to be a BB gun, cops say.
Cannon’s family members and a witness say there was no BB gun, that Cannon had run away because he got scared, and that his hands were in the air when he was struck in the shoulders, hand and leg.
The incident is one of 43 police-involved shootings in Chicago so far this year, according to the Independent Police Review Authority. That’s nearly as many as in all of 2010. At least 16 people have been killed in police shootings already this year, more than the 13 total fatal shootings all last year.
Explanations vary among law enforcement officials and community advocates on what may be behind the uptick in police violence.
“It’s pretty hard to explain or put your finger on, other than the fact that there’s a total lack of respect and fear by a number of offenders towards the police,” Fraternal Order of the Police spokesman Pat Camden argued. “Give multiple opportunities to drop the BB gun and he doesn’t—who becomes the offender and who is the victim here? The 13-year-old is an offender, pure and simple. We didn’t know it was a BB gun until well after the fact.”
Police News Affairs Sgt. Antoinette Ursitti expressed similar sentiments in an email in to Colorlines, saying that officers are trained on the appropriate use of force in life threatening circumstances. She pointed to a more than two-fold increase in aggravated assaults and batteries committed against Chicago police officers in the last decade to demonstrate the dangers officers face.
Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, an organization that analyzes data from criminal justice agencies, disagrees with these police explanations, calling them biased and hyperbolic.
“It’s certainly strange that there’s this spur in police shootings considering the police department’s been so good at advertising how violent crime is going down,” Siska said. “We don’t know what’s causing them, and there’s this rush to blame the community members and I’m not sure that that’s really where the blame lies.”
Eighty-six percent of those shot by police this year (as of June 30) were black, according to statistical reports by IPRA. Black residents also constituted the majority of those injured or killed in police shootings in previous years.
“A lot of the officers in the community that are working in the 11th District don’t look like the residents of West Humboldt Park. They don’t understand the culture, the history,” said Marilyn Titchford, a program manager with Ceasefire Illinois, a violence prevention program. Titchford lives and works in the area where Cannon was shot. “There’s a lot of ills in our community, but there’s a lot of great things going on … everybody’s not gang banging or drug selling.”
Cannon’s grandmother, Collier Baggett, a Chicago minister who works with shooting victims, said she felt that the police in Humboldt Park have an order to shoot to kill.
“I actually feel sorry for [the officer who shot Cannon] because I know somewhere he may have thought that he was threatened, he may have thought that he needed to get home tonight and that kid didn’t need to get there. So his mind needs to be conditioned not to hurt our children,” she said. “This is what we believe as a whole as black people, that police officers here in Chicago are targeting our black children.”
Community advocates also expressed skepticism of the recently appointed police superintendent Gary McCarthy, who previously led the Newark, N.J., police department. Others wondered if the increase in police shootings is a result of officers seeking retribution from police murders that occurred earlier in the year.
Whatever the cause, activists are planning outreach efforts to help young people in districts experiencing such violence be better educated on how to handle encounters with the police and learn what behaviors may help prevent officers from misunderstanding them as threats. They also stress that police need to be more engaged in the communities they serve, and that districts where there is better communication between residents and officers see less violence overall.
“The Chicago Police Department needs to be directly engaged,” said Rev. Robin Hood, a pastor that does anti-violence work in Chicago. “They have definitely got to focus resources on engaging in these kinds of forums and conversations.” Hood said he has seen positive results from such efforts in the 10th district.
Other advocates point to more systemic solutions. In neighborhoods like the 11th district where Cannon was shot, unemployment rates are high, and there are many ex-offenders who have re-entry issues.
“The communities and police officials keep calling for somebody to do something about violence, and we know that the police department isn’t the answer,” Siska said. “One of the alternatives would be finding ways to fund real livable wage jobs in communities where this type of violence is prevalent.”
Ceasefire director Tio Hardiman agreed.
“The police need to stop killing people and the brothers on the streets need to stop killing one another as well,” Hardiman said. “If you have a lot of people that have been taught violence throughout their life, and then they don’t have anything to do, they’re just out in the community hanging out everyday, you’re going to have some issues with violence, but that doesn’t mean that the system should have a green light to kill these kids.”