Smile Politely

What happened on New Year’s night?

On New Year’s night, a Black Lives Matter protest broke out in Savoy after two University of Illinois police officers fired bullets into a carload of African American youth, wounding two people, with one of them shot twice in the back. This was not long after demonstrations had erupted in Ferguson, New York, and across the country. A large crowd had spilled out into the parking lot of an apartment complex following a party. After witnessing police shoot at the car, they imitated those who saw Mike Brown killed, putting their hands up and yelling, “Don’t shoot.”

When black youth are shooting at one another, it grabs media headlines. But when black youth are shot by police there is not the same level of concern. In fact, the University of Illinois Police Chief Jeff Christensen never admitted that the two young men involved were struck by police bullets, nor has he stated how many shots were fired that night. No one in the media has cared to ask. Again, the message sent is that black lives don’t matter.

The police portrayed this is as a gunfight they had disrupted. Chief Christensen said in a press release that it was “fortunate” that police intervened “before anyone was killed.”

Yet one person was almost killed―by police bullets. “I almost died,” the young man told me in an interview. Fortunately, he lived to tell his story.*

Since Ferguson, there has been growing awareness about police militarization. The New Year’s incident is proof it’s not just an issue in big cities, but also in “liberal” college towns like Champaign-Urbana. Police today are well-trained and heavily-equipped. For one of the white officers, UIPD’s Douglas Beckman, this was not the first time he had pulled his gun on black youth. In 2009, Beckman was one of three officers who fired the fatal bullets killing Toto Kaiyewu. Despite his training―or perhaps because of it―Beckman appears to have an itchy trigger finger.  

How Many Bullets?

Police were responding to calls of what sounded like either fireworks or guns being shot off on New Year’s Eve, both of which are illegal, yet still occur. Savoy does not maintain its own police department and contracts with the Sheriff’s office for patrol. But it was New Year’s night and deputies were busy taking other calls. The Village at Colbert Park apartments are mostly rented out by University of Illinois students, which is why UIPD may have responded. A Tolono officer, Justin Levingston, was one of the first to arrive on the scene.

I have attempted to piece together the incident after filing public records requests, reading press releases, attending a court hearing, and speaking to the two young men involved.

A crowd of approximately 80 youth had assembled in the parking lot after 1 a.m.. A fight broke out between two black teens. One of them pleaded guilty to pulling out a 9mm pistol to fend off a beating by several individuals who had joined in. There was a loud shot, whether it was from the fight or elsewhere is not clear. Police claim to have seen the young man they call the “shooter” (although there is apparently no evidence that he fired a gun) run back to a white Suburban. Two U of I police officers, Douglas Beckman and Nathaniel Park, who were carrying AR-15 rifles, aimed at the truck and shot multiple times.

How many bullets police fired is still not known. According to Sheriff’s Deputy Rich Ferriman, there were “several bullet holes all down the passenger side of the white SUV.” Photos afterwards showed the rear and side windows completely shot out.

The young man who was hit twice claims he heard 16 shots fired.

To date, I have been denied police reports written by the two officers who fired shots, Beckman and Park, as well as the Tolono officer who witnessed the entire event. Gunshot residue (GSR) tests were conducted on the two individuals involved, but again I have been denied the results. I attempted to reach UIPD Chief Christensen after the investigation was completed, but my calls went unanswered.

I have investigated other officer-involved shootings―Kiwane Carrington, Toto Kaiyewu, Donnell Clemmons―and such refusal is, in my experience, very unusual.

A Chaotic Scene

As the crowd dispersed that night, others also rushed inside the Suburban―there were four young black women, one of whom was the driver, and another young man who had jumped into the back seat. The “shooter” was on the passenger side, outside of the car. The driver “panicked” and put the car in reverse. Without warning, the two police officers shot indiscriminately into the moving car with several bystanders in the way.

When police fired into the Suburban, the young man in the back seat laid over two of the girls “in order to protect them.” He remembered glass flying in the car. “They was trying to kill us,” he explained to me. He was struck in the back by two police bullets. When one of the bullets shattered his shoulder blade, his whole right side “went out.” Formerly a high school basketball player, he now doesn’t have full mobility in his right arm. 

He recalled lying wounded for several minutes while police retrieved a bulletproof shield to approach him. One of the young women was yelling, “Help, he is about to die!” He would spend the next four days at Carle hospital recovering from surgery to remove the two bullets. 

U of I police officer Ryan Lepp heard over the radio that a person had been wounded and “may not be breathing.” He was one of the first to approach the young man. As he wrote in his report, he saw a gunshot wound “in his upper back” and a “pool of blood” next to the car. When he reached the young man, he noticed he had “trouble breathing.” Inside the car, he discovered a small handgun with no bullets.

Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!

After the crowd witnessed police unload their rifles into the Suburban, they held an impromptu protest. An unnamed witness saw one of the young women “standing over” her friend “screaming.” It was her screams that had “attracted a large crowd to gather near the area.”

According to U of I police Sgt. Joseph McCullough, “several members of the crowd walked in front of me and other officers while putting their hands in the air and saying, ‘Don’t shoot!’” Others had their phones out “video recording officers’ reactions.”

As UIPD officer Jason Bradley recounted, “The scene was very chaotic.” Another UIPD officer, Anthony Carpenter, gives his account, “There was also a large group of individuals interfering with officers by yelling, video taping, and holding their hands up in the air taunting officers.”

The second young man, the so-called “shooter,” was grazed by bullets in his right arm. He was charged with aggravated discharge of a weapon, and illegal possession of a firearm without a FOID card. Held on $750,000 bond, he could not afford the $75,000 to get out, and so he spent 97 days at the county jail. He hired a private attorney, who negotiated a plea bargain, and he bailed out. On May 11, he was given 30 months of probation for simple possession of a gun.

Who Is Officer Beckman?

Officer Beckman was also one of the officers that shot and killed 23 year-old Toto Kaiyewu who some might remember was wielding a machete against police on Interstate 74.

On April 6, 2009, Beckman left his campus patrol to join a car chase that ensued after a Villa Grove cop racially profiled Kaiyewu. Beckman had with him the police drug dog which he thought could be of help if Kaiyewu tried to run on foot. He ended up being one of those who fired the bullets killing Kaiyewu.

While this may sound like a justifiable police homicide, it was later found out that Kaiyewu had been suffering from mental illness. Certainly, to Kaiyewu’s mother who travelled with her family from Texas to speak out at a press conference, her son’s death was not an inevitable outcome.

I witnessed first-hand Beckman’s reckless behavior in my own neighborhood. One night on February, 4, 2014, there were red-and-blue lights outside my house in Urbana. I looked out my front door to see what was going on. I saw officer Beckman pointing his gun at a small red compact car with several black passengers inside. I recognized them from the apartments across the street. Beckman was yelling at me “Get back into your house.” It took me a moment to realize he was pointing in my direction. If he would have fired, my porch could have been riddled with bullets. I could have been hit by a stray bullet.

According to reports I later obtained, Beckman had observed the red car at the intersection of Lincoln and University. Recently rear-ended, the car’s tail lights were broken and the trunk lid was bouncing up and down. Beckman pulled behind the car and turned on his lights. The car turned east at Main Street and continued, with Beckman now turning on his siren.

As Beckman wrote in his own report, the vehicle proceeded through the residential neighborhood, “never exceeding 27 mph.” The driver turned off Main Street and stopped in front of his aunt’s apartment, just across from my house. His aunt had let him borrow the car.  

I watched out my front window as Beckman and other officers conducted what police call a “felony stop.” They ordered the passengers at gunpoint to exit the car, get face down on the pavement, and put their arms behind their backs to be handcuffed. Inside the car were two black men, ages 27 and 25, in the front seat. Alarmingly, in the back seat there were also three small children obviously in the sights of police guns. All this was over a traffic stop.

After the incident, I went outside to ask for the officer’s name and found out it was Beckman. When I read that the same officer Beckman was involved in the New Year’s incident, I immediately recognized the name.

While our State’s Attorney cleared both Beckman and Park of excessive force in the New Year’s incident, we can recognize a pattern of police violence. This is, in part, due to the growing militarization of police, even on the campuses of state universities. Here, U of I police participate in SWAT raids that will soon utilize an MRAP recently acquired by the Sheriff. It is also due to the police fear of black youth, who are heavily surveilled if they dare to enter campus grounds. As activists Terry Townsend and Martel Miller exposed, local black youth are chased off the property when they attempt to use the spaces of higher learning.

There are still many unanswered questions about what happened New Year’s night. How many shots did police fire? Was the gun found in the Suburban connected to the young man charged? Was the gun fired? At the end of the day, we must ask, did police overreact? Did their involvement help to deescalate or escalate the situation? This is not just a theoretical question, but one of life and death.

*We have intentionally withheld the names of victims of police violence.

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