Although the police have already exonerated the rookie officer from any criminal liability, punishing him with a six-month suspension, clearly the community has not found resolution in regards to James' death. Nearly five months after she was shot, a vigil with fresh flowers still stands at the overpass along N. Skidmore, where the incident occurred. Community leaders have called for sterner punishment, and a lawsuit is currently pending against the city. But the community's appetite for justice has not been quelled by these gestures.
"It is too easy for a citizen to be taken out--and you can't replace them with a lawsuit," Wells lamented to the crowd. Over the course of three hours, an eight-person panel laid out its findings and conclusions surrounding the May 5 shooting. In dispute is the exact sequence of events that led up to James' death and, more precisely, McCollister's version of events--not to mention how the community believes police investigations should be handled.
Over the summer, the panel combed over evidence, police reports and witness statements. Not satisfied with the findings, the panel reported they found glaring inconsistencies and troubling procedural shortcomings in the follow-up investigation.
One sticking point is that officers were allowed to confer after the shooting. Before providing statements to Internal Affairs, the officers on the scene were allowed to go to a nearby Applebee's. An elderly woman who attended Saturday's meeting was the one who spotted the officers that morning and reported it. Like many in attendance, she believes the officers used this opportunity to straighten out their story, placing McCollister in the best possible light. Wells pointed out that the testimony they gave immediately following the shooting changed after the officers met at Applebee's.
Wells also implied that the investigating officers started with a fictionalized conclusion and simply filled in the blanks with whatever corroborating facts they could find. When convenient, Wells said, the police did not press officers for more information and did not cross-examine McCollister with follow-up questions during their investigation.
"We're trying to be diplomatic here," explained Wells. "But, simply put, McCollister lied."
Beyond the rhetoric and condemnations, the panel called for firm changes to investigations of police shootings. Every police shooting should automatically have a coroner's report, said the panel. That recommendation brought the crowd to its feet, cheering and clapping. "Looks like we have some agreement on that," quipped Wells.
The panel also pressed for better police training. "They don't understand they can be polite, and we will respond," Wells said. "We know they have a gun," he added, which brought more applause.
Although the forum came on the heels of a press conference announcing a new police chief, that change was barely mentioned on Saturday. On October 17, widely unpopular police chief Mark Kroeker will resign, and Derrick Foxworth will step into his place. A former Northeast precinct commander, Foxworth is well known in the community. When asked, most said they were optimistic about his appointment, but also pointed out it did little to remedy the bureau's institutional flaws. Members of the panel indicated that the need for change must come from city council, who can implement new rules and regulations for police investigations.
Wells said they had passed along their recommendations and a request for a coroner's report to Mayor Katz. "The mayor said she would get back to us," said Wells. "She did not."
Three of the four council members were in attendance, with Randy Leonard and Erik Sten staying for the duration of the panel's presentation. Arriving late was council member and mayoral candidate Jim Francesconi who, dressed in white pressed pants and a bright blue polo, strode into the forum looking like he'd just stepped off a yacht. Neither Dan Saltzman or Katz were in attendance.
Headed by former state representative JoAnn Bowman, the Alliance for Police and Community Accountability has been formed to push forward recommendations from the panel. For info, contact 286-9624.