Shooting of 2 Ill. police officers highlights battle against gun crime
Decatur Police Chief Shane Brandel said the department's street crimes unit had seized more than 60 illegally owned firearms since May
By Tony Reid
Herald & Review
DECATUR, Ill. — As the investigation gets underway into the shoot-out with police that left Decatur man Jamontey O. Neal dead early Wednesday and sent two wounded cops to the hospital, the city's police chief spoke of the dangers officers faced in trying to combat gun violence.
Shane Brandel said the police department's Community Action Team, along with the department's Street Crimes unit, had seized more than 60 illegally owned firearms since May.
"So without a doubt, we have been concerned this whole time that there would be a violent incident involving the officers," Brandel said, speaking at a news conference Wednesday morning.
"We hoped that wouldn't happen but we also understand that, when you are targeting violent offenders, at times we may be faced with a serious situation... I am just fortunate enough to have police officers that are dedicated to this community and who are willing to go out and do this work day in and day out."
The two wounded officers have not been identified but Brandel said they were part of the Community Action Team. One officer was shot multiple times and the other hit once in what was described as two exchanges of gunfire with Neal, 32. Brandel said Neal reached for a gun and fired first after a traffic stop at 12:25 a.m. in the 1300 block of East Walnut Street.
Brandel said one officer has since come through surgery at Decatur Memorial Hospital. He was described as in serious but stable condition and the other officer was described as being in stable condition.
Four police officers were described as firing their weapons and Neal was hit multiple times. One of the officers firing was a deputy with the Macon County Sheriff's Office. Macon County Sheriff Jim Root said his officers regularly help Decatur police in targeting gun crime.
Brandel would not comment on why Neal was selected for the traffic stop, saying only it was "based on information known to the officers prior to the stop." But the Community Action Team is known to target gun offenders and a check of Macon County Circuit Court records shows Neal is a felon convicted of gun crime.
He had been charged with murder in connection with the 2010 shooting death of Christopher T. Beasley, who was killed with a shot to the head in April of that year in the 700 block of East Orchard Street. Neal took a plea deal in 2011 that saw the murder charge dismissed while he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a weapon and obstructing justice; he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The gun violence Wednesday marks the third city cop to be injured in the line of duty this year following the wounding of patrol officer Stephanie Vail. She was hit and cut by bullet fragments January 8 after prosecutors say the suspect she was chasing, Joseph Luckee Williams, opened fire at her with a machine gun that jammed. Williams denies charges of attempted murder.
Neal is Black and his death triggered a pre-arranged response system where police brief key members of the city's minority community about the circumstances of any officer-involved shooting. The idea is to counteract gossip and rumors and the spread of false information that may inflame community feeling and distort the facts.
Michael Diggs, president of the Decatur Branch of the NAACP, was at Wednesday's news conference. He said the police briefing procedure had worked smoothly and just in time, as he was already aware of rumors making the rounds that presented the police in a disparaging light.
"When the NAACP needs to come forward and protest or do whatever, then we will," said Diggs.
"But if we don't have to because procedures are going well, then we just want to make sure the community understands what is going on. You might say we are intermediaries, and we just want to make sure the police are connected to the community and the community is connected to the police."
The actual investigation into the actions of the Decatur police officers in the shooting is being handled by the Illinois State Police, which is standard procedure in these situations. Lt. Anthony Kestner, a commander with the State Police Zone 5 Division of Criminal Investigation, told Wednesday's news conference he will head the inquiry.
He said the state cops will have little to say for the moment as the investigation continues. But Brandel said his police department, which is also conducting its own investigation, will be releasing officer body cam video of the shooting.
The police chief said his department wanted to be as open and frank about what happened as it can. "We have solid relationships, wonderful relationships, with our community," Brandel added. "And I hope those relationships have put us in a position where we are able to handle this situation the best we can as we move forward and trust that the system conducts its investigation like it is supposed to. And, when the time is right, that information will be released to the public."
In the meantime the city is left to worry about streets gripped by fears of gun crime. Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said the police, despite their heroic efforts, are going to need help from citizens if we want to combat violence.
"We are constantly asking people to speak up about what they know," said Wolfe, referring to witnesses and others who have information that could put criminals behind bars.
"The prosecutors can't do their jobs and keep bad guys off the street if they don't have the support of the community when it comes to saying what we know and then showing up for court to give evidence. The city is never going to get a handle on this if we don't have the community backing us up."
One approach to reluctant witnesses to shootings and other crimes is not to have to rely on them so much. The city of Decatur is now spending some $500,000 a year to lease a FLOCK brand camera system which watches high-crime neighborhoods and helps police trace vehicles driven by criminals.
City Manager Scot Wrighton said FLOCK had already proved to be a "fantastic" success and the mayor said the city wanted to expand its camera program.
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Contact Tony Reid at (217) 421-7977. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyJReid
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