Police Stage Attacks on Garden Hills

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Police have long been regarded by many in the
African American community
as an occupying army.
The recent use of overwhelming
force by police
in Garden Hills, a predominantly
working class African A m e r i c a n
neighborhood in Champaign, only feeds into
this perception. After a four-hour standoff,
Carl “Dennis” Stewart, 46, was forced into a
corner by police and he killed himself.
The death of this husband and family man
cornered by police should be regarded by all
members of the Champaign-Urbana community
as a sign of continued social ills.
On the afternoon of May 11, 2006, Champaign
police responded to a domestic violence
call in the Garden Hills neighborhood,
just north of Bradley Avenue and west of
Prospect. Upon arriving at the scene, they
found Stewart, a well-liked head custodian at
Booker T. Washington elementary school,
sitting alone in his parked car in the driveway
of a neighborhood house with a gun. It
was learned that Stewart had been separated
from his wife, was going through marital
problems, and was suicidal.
Champaign police quickly leaped into
action by calling in the S.W.A.T. (Special
Weapons and Tactics) team and rolling out
the force’s prized A.P.C. (Armored Personel
Carrier), an expensive high-tech tank
designed to suppress mobs and riots. Intead
of handling this as a potential suicide, the
police reacted as if this were a terrorist
Police brought in a hostage negotiator,
but after several hours they had gained no
ground. Pinned into a corner by the police
tank, Stewart attempted to flee in his car, and
was trapped by police. The situation ended
with the worst outcome when Stewart turned
the gun on himself.
A new watchdog organization called
Community Court Watch grew out of Cop
Watch efforts that began over two years ago.
Court Watch members Aaron Ammons of CU
Citizens for Peace and Justice, Tanya
Parker of Habari Connection, and myself
went out into the Garden Hills community to
interview people about their perception of
the police reaction.
One woman who lives on Joanne Lane,
where the standoff occurred, told us she has
not received a full explanation from the
police. The first thing she saw was police
with drawn pistols and rifles in her front
yard. When she went outside, she was sternly
directed by police to go back into the
house. Her greatest concern was for her child
who was returning home from school.
She went on to explain that she saw the
armored tank chase Stewart’s vehicle up the
block. She described the site where the suicide
occurred and told us it looked like the
armored tank had rammed Stewart’s car,
pushed him off the road and into a post.
Other neighbors we interviewed told us
they heard six shots, not the alleged single
Many we talked to expressed their concern
that police did not allow family members
to talk with Stewart. Aphoto in the May
12, 2006 issue of the News-Gazette showed
Stewart’s brother restrained by police, quoted
as crying repeatedly, “You’re just going to
shoot him anyway.”
One interviewee who knows Stewart’s
mother said that even she was not given a
chance to talk to her own son. Police brought
Stewart’s mother to the scene, but would not
allow her to talk to him. “If anyone could,”
the interviewee explained, “certainly a mother
could talk to her son.”
Someone else we talked to said she also
knows the family. She claimed that it was
after police cut off a phone conversation
between Stewart and his wife that he took off
in his car.
A witness told us that the white hostage
negotiator was not very helpful. Watching
the incident from the front window of his
house, he stated bluntly that after listening to
the negoiator, he was ready to kill himself.
One question raised is: why a hostage
negotiator and not a suicide counselor?
Pointing to Arrowhead Lanes bowling
alley at the end of the street, a neighbor
described the army of police officers lined up
in the parking lot, allwearing black uniforms.
While we interviewed her, a UPS truck drove
b y. Gesturing at it, she said the police truck
was even bigger – a “big blue tank.” I asked
if the police seemed as if they were carrying
out a military exercise. She said, “Shoot, they
was worse than the military. ”
I asked one woman if it could have ended
another way. She told me, “It went down
exactly how they wanted it to go down. He
was Black. They didn’t care.” Do you think
this would have happened in a white neighborhood?
She said, “Hell no!”
Those we interviewed felt that only half
the story has been told by the local media.
The News-Gazette did little more than dictate
what the police told them to say. In the
newspaper, Champaign Police Chief R.T.
Finney congratulated his force and said,
“There was a considerable amount of
restraint shown” (5/13/2006).
Two years ago, when the African American
community opposed the purchase of
Tasers in Champaign, Chief Finney was just
beginning his tenure with the force. After the
City Council failed to endorse the purchase
of Tasers, Finney agreed it was best and said
it should be his priority to improve his relationship
with the community (News-Gazette
After this latest police stunt in Garden
Hills, it does not look like Chief Finney has
made much progress in this relationship.
In Urbana, new Police Chief Mike Billy
is talking about reinstituting the Street Crime
Unit to fight drugs, yet another heavy-handed
police response to what is at its root a
problem that should be treated through
social services, not more police raids.
Of course, an investigation will most
likely absolve the Champaign police department
of all blame. Unfortunately, community
relations between African American residents
and the police will continue to worsen.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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