Racism in our police ranks

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Brexton Isaacs, Columnist

 

In summer 2013, Bloomington police responded to a late night call from a local Denny’s Restaurant where a fight had broken out after a group of partygoers went for a meal. One officer, Stephen Statz, witnessed one of the partygoers leaving the scene with a stab wound.

After witnessing the man with the stab wound, a conversation between Statz and a superior, Sergeant Ed Shumaker, was picked up by an in-car police camera.

Shumaker asked Statz if the wounded man was black; Statz replied “Yes”. Shumaker then replied “Good, I hope he (expletive) bleeds to death in Normal.”

These overtly racist remarks just recently came to light to the public in the last few weeks, a year and half after they were made, during a trial related to the fight. Public inquiry into the event found that Sgt. Shumaker received a reprimand for the remark at the time of event, but only in the form of a written letter in his file that will go away after three years.

The Bloomington-Normal chapter of Not In Our Town, a national volunteer-based grassroots organization that aims to curb hate, bigotry and bullying and seeks to foster a more inclusive community, held an event to address these comments. On Thursday, Jan. 22, “Breaking Barriers: A Community Dialogue” was hosted with over 300 people in attendance and the Police Chiefs of Bloomington, Normal and ISU, the Sheriff, and the State’s Attorney were those who were on the panel to answer questions.

A lot of good things came from this event and I think both sides, community and law enforcement, came away with a better understanding of each other, but there are a few concerns I think that still need to be addressed.

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner, who was not the chief at the time of the event and gave the written reprimand, said that he knows Shumaker, had served with his father and knows that he is a good man. He said that Shumaker hadn’t had any history of racism in his record. Heffner added that he would have, however, gone farther in disciplining Sgt. Shumaker and would have given him a month off instead.

Even a month of having this officer sidelined isn’t enough, and the fact that Heffner knows Shumaker only furthers the ‘good-ol-boy’ image of the department. What Shumaker said wasn’t a mistake or a reaction, it was an attitude that I feel runs much deeper than Heffner was willing to admit.

At the Breaking Barriers event, I posed the question, “are we telling our officers that they can make overtly-racist death wishes at our citizens as long as they only do it once and don’t want a promotion in the next three years?”

To my question, Heffner reiterated that Shumaker didn’t have a history of racism and that he didn’t feel that “punitive measures” were effective; he wanted to correct behavior. I hope the irony of a police chief saying that ‘punitive measures’ are ineffective isn’t lost on anyone.

The other troubling piece of this response is that if this happens again in three years, Shumaker still won’t have a ‘history of racism’ because by then, even the letter in his file will be gone.

Heffner, Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner and Sheriff Jon Sandage all reported that almost every single one of their officers is a white male and added that it was hard to recruit and retain officers who brought diversity to their force. If this is the environment that is accepted within the force, no wonder they don’t retain non-white officers.

Shumaker hasn’t, to date, apologized publicly, something Heffner says he can’t force him to do. I personally want more than that – I want Shumaker off the police force. To me, these remarks are simply too egregious, especially coming from on-duty police leadership; Shumaker is, in fact, a Police Sergeant.

By removing Shumaker from ‘street duty’, Heffner would be sending the signal to the rest of the force and the community that racism like this isn’t acceptable and would do a great deal in restoring trust in our police.