The story of the events that unfolded this past Sunday (June 11th) on the north side of Champaign mimic an all-too-familiar theme in modern America: a police officer shooting an unarmed black suspect. Luckily, in Champaign's case, the shot was non-fatal, and as such, the outrage has been tempered in comparison to other, similar confrontations which have left a plethora of unarmed black American citizens dead.
Like any rational person, I am aware that there are two sides to every story, which is why I waited to hear the Champaign Police Department's account of events before I wrote this.
Here's a spoiler: they leave much to be desired.
Let us make no mistake: the actions of Champaign Police Officer James Hobson certainly provide some fuzzy details about what happened this past Sunday, and leave more questions unanswered than answered.
As of right now, here's what we know, via the CPD's press release yesterday:
On Sunday, June 11, 2017, at approximately 10:37 PM, Champaign Police Officer James Hobson initiated a traffic stop in the 400 Block of E. Washington St. The involved driver of the vehicle fled from the officer
for several blocks before pulling into a driveway in the 400 Block of E. Church St., striking a residential garage.
The driver, 22-year-old Dehari Banks, exited the car and fled on foot. Officer Hobson pursued Banks on foot, running between houses and continuing through several backyards and alleyways while identifying himself and giving verbal commands for Banks to stop. The foot chase ended when Banks reached a fenced-in area in the 300 Block of N. Fourth St.; at which time Banks turned towards Officer Hobson, who drew his duty weapon as he was coming to a running stop. Officer Hobson reports that as he stopped, his
foot slipped on the ground, causing an accidental discharge of his weapon. Preliminary information reflects that Banks was not in possession of a weapon at the time of the incident.
Alright, here's where things start to get a little fishy.
You can tell that the Champaign Police Department, themselves, are treading lightly: how they worded it, saying "Officer Hobson reports..." and appear to be trying to separate the department's account from the account of the officer.
The giant red flag here, of course, comes during that split-second moment when Officer Hobson's gun fired. In the press release, the firing of the officer's gun is viewed as "accidental" by Hobson's own report. His foot slipped, which, by some physical coincidence, caused his finger to click and discharge his weapon, firing a bullet into the shoulder of Mr. Banks. The slip, which apparently was enough to affect his trigger finger, was not enough to affect his aim, at least, not completely.
Banks, who was struck in the shoulder by the single gunshot, was provided medical care by officers who arrived on the scene within seconds of the shooting. He was then transported by ambulance to an area hospital for a non-life threatening injury.
Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb states, “As a Department, we fully recognize the number of questions and concerns that our community will have from any officer-involved shooting. We will continue to cooperate with the Multi-Jurisdictional Investigative Team and provide updates as information becomes available. We ask for our community’s continued patience as the investigators work to complete the investigation.”
The next rational question, I suppose, would lead one to ask if Officer Hobson was wearing a body camera. Without that bit of empirical evidence, we may never get a truly objective telling of what happened on the night of June 11th. For example, how can we be sure that the suspect turned towards the officer? Perhaps we can wait for an investigation which looks at entry/exit wounds, but as of right now, we have no concrete evidence of Officer Hobson's claims. What we do have is common logic:
Why would an unarmed, fleeing suspect turn towards an officer, risking almost certain death? Did Officer Hobson have his gun drawn prior to Banks turning towards him? If so, why? Was Banks shot in the chest or in the back? Something here doesn't quite add up.
Just two short months ago, we reported that Champaign Police officers would start wearing body cameras, and that they were already being rolled out among the force. Great, so we should have some footage soon, and be able to evaluate what Officer Hobson did, right?
Officer Hobson was not wearing a body camera.
Even though CPD got to reap all of the positive PR rewards from announcing the equipping of some officers with body cams, the cameras have yet to be rolled out to all 125 officers in the Champaign Police Department. I called the CPD to further learn more about its intentions to distribute and utilize the body cams, and they mentioned that they intend to equip all officers with body cameras by July 1st.
As per Department policy regarding officer-involved shootings, Officer Hobson is currently on paid investigative leave, and he has been fully cooperative with the investigation. The Champaign County Multi-Jurisdictional Investigative Team, led by Illinois State Police, continues to process evidence from the scene, review video/audio footage, conduct interviews, and review all other relevant details. Those investigative findings will then be submitted to the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s Office for further review.
Now the question that needs examination is forensic in nature. What we need to learn about is the location of the entrance wound, and the exit wound. That, in and of itself, will tell us more about the nature of the shooting, and whether or not it was intentional, or accidental, as the CPD press release has submitted.
If you've followed the national news for literally any amount of time in recent memory, this narrative plays out much in the same way that we've been hearing about for some time: Officer Hobson's bullet was mere inches from making Champaign-Urbana the next in a long line of examples of police aggression in modern America. If Officer Hobson's foot had "slipped" even more, Banks could be dead, and his name would be added to the list of young, unarmed black men whose lives have been taken by the police.
Make no mistake; I know that being a police officer is a hard job. They have my respect. Split second, life-or-death decisions are something that officers are expected to make regularly, and there is very little room for error.
The thing is, however, that there rightly should be very little room for error. When you're talking about human lives, there never is a gray area. There is life and there is death, and if an officer has control over whether someone lives or dies, they better be damn well held to a sterling standard. When you control someone else's life and death, you don't get to make mistakes. You don't get to accidentally shoot someone by slipping. And if you do, you need to be held accountable, and the details of the case need to be shown with pristine transparency.
I applaud the Champaign Police Department for placing Officer Hobson on administrative leave, and I implore them to do the best they can in seeing both sides of what transpired on June 11th, not just the officer's, as has become commonplace when body cam footage is not available.
In the end, however, an officer that slips and shoots an unarmed person is not an officer I want working on the police force in my city. In my estimation, they most certainly do not deserve the legal privilege and power that comes with the badge. Simple as that. Regardless of whether or not it was an accident. At best, Officer Hobson has showcased that he is simply not equipped to handle the important position that the job demands. At worst, he was an aggressor against an unarmed, suspected criminal.