Pubdate: Sat, 09 Apr 2016
Source: Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY)
Copyright: 2016 Daily Freeman
Author: Esther J. Cepeda, The Washington Post Writers Group


When it comes to the epidemic of African-Americans dying at the hands 
of police, people who are asked to consider the issue often get stuck 
on whether the person in question had it coming.

What was he or she doing at the time? Running away? Resisting arrest? 
And if so, doesn't that prove he or she was guilty of something?

And from there, it's a short hop to the conclusion that if only this 
person had been doing the right things - staying off the streets, 
keeping out of trouble, not hanging around with the wrong people or 
doing exactly as the police demanded at the moment of a heated 
encounter - tragedy could have been averted. Yeah, right. In a 
perfect world, mothers and fathers living in low-income communities 
with crumbling schools and few employment opportunities would 
heroically manage to raise children who were able to stay away from 
trouble with alcohol, drugs or gang-type behavior even though these 
things are all around them.

But because we live in a world where even white, well-to-do people 
get caught up in substance abuse, crime or mental illness, shouldn't 
we be able to get past the gut reaction about whether a person who is 
gunned down by a police officer may have "had it coming" and instead 
consider the human element of the matter?

In the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of her son's death 
at the hands of the Zion, Ill., police, I spoke to LaToya Howell, who 
is working with the Chicago chapter of the Stop Mass Incarceration 
Network to raise awareness about the epidemic of police shootings.

"The big thing I want everyone to know is that my son did not deserve 
to die," Howell told me. "He was not a threat - he was running in 
fear of his life."

I spoke with her not as a journalist looking for an "angle" on a 
story, but just as another mom - a mother of a 17-year-old whose best 
friend, coincidentally, looks like he could be Justus Howell's twin 
brother and lives only a few miles from the Chicago suburb where 
Justus was killed.

When you talk with a fellow mom, you commiserate because no matter 
how well you taught your kids right from wrong, how to stay away from 
trouble and how they should behave in a situation with police, a 
17-year-old is likely to not make the best possible choices when it counts.

And so you're left with the human element, and this is it: On April 
4, 2015, Justus was shot twice in the back by a policeman. The Lake 
County Coroner's Office ruled his death a homicide.

Yes, toxicology reports found that Justus had small amounts of 
marijuana and alcohol in his system. And yes, there was an 
acquaintance who had a loaded pistol on him, and yes, the gun went 
off, prompting police into pursuit. But these factors cannot bring us 
to say to ourselves, "Oh, then the police were right to kill this 
kid." The true circumstances moments before Justus' death are 
unknown. But as we hear about minority men and women dying at the 
hands of police officers across the country, surely we have to ask 
ourselves whether this was a situation that could have somehow ended 
without LaToya Howell's 17-year-old son dead at the hands of the very 
people tasked with keeping his community safe.

Even those of us who believe in the promise of law enforcement, who 
respect and revere their local police officers, should ask 
themselves, their elected officials and their local governments: What 
needs to change?

"We shouldn't have to live in fear of our authorities," said Howell. 
"We need people to stand up and ask our police to have compassion and 
proper training in dealing with our youth. We need the police to hear 
our stories and we need them not to act as if our children aren't human."
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