I was puzzled when I got the call at 9:30 a.m. on the day after Christmas 2015. I had read an online news report about a police-involved shooting at around 4:00 a.m. It read as an uncomplicated police response to a domestic conflict.
A young, combative, bat-wielding male caused the arriving officer to discharge a weapon, resulting in two fatalities. What a tough and tragic call for this family and the cops, I thought. A colleague called and insisted that I go by the site on West Erie Street. He was hearing alarming things from folks in the neighborhood.
I walked into the small, bloody hallway of a two-flat building. There was blood on the walls. Blood was on the tiled hallway floor and there was moist blood at the apartment doorway on the inner carpet. A bullet appeared to have gone through the outside door and through three rooms in the first floor apartment.
I tried to respectfully step over blood as I entered. I was shocked to hear my name called by a wailing teenage girl: “Pastor Hatch, they killed my momma!” The story of two fatalities and unrelated families began to unfold.
Bettie Jones, a mother of five and grandmother of nine, had been accidentally killed answering the door for her landlord and second-floor neighbor in domestic distress. Bettie’s family attended my church. I entered the building as an activist. I left as a pastor.
Quintonio LeGrier, a 19-year-old college student, had obviously been targeted for deadly force after his father had called police about an angry son. He had six bullet holes in his body.
By the end of the day, the city was gripped by many unanswered questions about another case of a Chicago police officer’s use of lethal force. U.S. Justice Department officials had just arrived in town days ago to begin a long, comprehensive investigation of policing in communities of color. I’m sure they had not yet fully unpacked their bags.
Little did I know on that morning that in less than two weeks I would be called upon to preside over both funerals, deliver both eulogies, and try to help these families and our community make sense of the holiday horror on Erie Street. Eulogies teach that all lives matter. Two parables from the Gospel of Luke were my eulogy helpers.
Of course, Bettie Jones’s life mattered much. She is the good neighbor in the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Her compassion, her courage, and the cost of her life demonstrated the power of innocent blood to arrest our attention.
The innocence of her story was testimony that her community was not a ‘hood,’ but a neighborhood of people who worked in places like bakeries, raised families and responded to neighbors in a neighborly way. There was nothing that she did that night that she should have done differently. She answered the call to help her neighbor. Her life was an example of human goodness and her spirit is evidence that God still lived among us.
And surely Quintiono LeGrier’s life mattered too. He reflects our son ‘prodigal’ of Luke chapter 15. Unlike a lost sheep or lost coin, Quintonio is our young son, full of the human complexities that require measures of grace. He had great challenges and great promise, too. He was the bookish Gwendolyn Brooks High School math and science whiz, and yet also funny and outgoing.
He was the 150 pound foster kid who ran marathons to raise money for poor African kids. He was a special kid fought over for custody by his birth father and foster mom. He was a ward of the state at five years old, like Laquan McDonald, who lived in a college residence hall.
He was a bright inner city kid with swag who could be socially awkward. He was shy and sometimes angry. He was a smart kid growing more confused in our strange world. Kids born into the most privilege get much grace, while the most underprivileged kids have almost no margin for error. He wanted to make his mark in life, but we only know his name because he is dead.
And so it was, the day after Christmas. In Chicago we had another police shooting. In a bullet-ridden building on Erie Street and a bloody hallway, we lost two lives that mattered in life and in death.
Three weeks later, the funerals are over, the flowers have wilted, grief continues and all the important questions have gone unanswered. We still have not heard any details of the call and shooting. Is this another case of one officer deciding to fire, while others don’t feel as threatened?
Where are the reports from other officers on the scene? Is there video and audio? Why was the medical examiner’s office informed four hours after the incident that this was a police involved shooting? Were investigators initially misled that it was not? The families’ grief and the community’s chaos are compounded by the lack of information, mistrust and entirely dysfunctional processes of investigation.
Police are the front-line of public safety. Police accountability is most important for promoting law and order and for communicating, as a society, that all lives matter. Transformational policing in our community begins with full, transparent, and independent investigation of police shootings and allegations of misconduct.
That really is not too much for grieving families to ask for. Before our attention is taken by another news story, let’s make sure we find out what really happened to Bettie Jones and Quintonio LeGrier on Erie street.