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 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, imitating those who saw Mike Brown killed, they put their hands up and yelled, “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 bullets police were fired that night. No one in the media has cared to ask. Again, the message sent is that black lives don’t matter.
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.*
How Many Bullets?
Police were responding to calls of what sounded like either fireworks or guns being shot off on New Year’s Eve. 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. A Tolono officer, Justin Levingston, from just south of town, was one of the first to arrive on the scene at the Village at Colbert Park apartments.
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 9 mm pistol to fend off a beating by several individuals who had now 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 this 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 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, now he 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.
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. After a gun was found in the car, he was charged with aggravated discharge of a weapon, and illegal possession of a firearm without a FOID card. On May 11, he accepted a plea bargain and was given 30 months of probation for simple possession of a gun.
Who Is Officer Beckman?
Two other incidents suggest Officer Beckman has a deep fear of black youth. In 2009, Beckman was one of three officers who shot and killed 23 year-old Toto Kaiyewu, a 23 year-old African American young man who had a history of mental illness.
In 2014, Beckman was outside of my house in Urbana holding a carload of black youth at gunpoint. Beckman claimed the driver led him on a car chase after a traffic stop, although according to his own report the car was “never exceeding 27 mph.” The driver finally stopped at the home of his aunt, who had lent him the car, and lives across the street from me. When I looked out my front door to see what was going on, Beckman was aiming his gun in my direction. Had he fired, I could have been hit by a stray bullet.
There are still many unanswered questions about what happened New Year’s night. 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.
This article was originally published at SmilePolitely.com and is reprinted with permission.
*We have intentionally withheld the names of victims of police violence.