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May 20, 2022

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A Black teenager was stopped by police after Ill. courthouse shooting and spent the night in jail. He was never a suspect


KANKAKEE, Ill. — Within hours of a fatal gunbattle on the Kankakee County Courthouse lawn this past summer, city officials went on live television to allay the town’s fears.

It was an isolated incident in which two people died from their bullet wounds and a third was seriously injured, they said. Two men — one Latino and one Black — already had been apprehended. There was no longer any threat to community.

A few hours later, Kankakee police Chief Robin Passwater stood in front of the television cameras again to offer an update on a murder charge filed against one of the men and a vague postscript about the other:

The Black male, the one he described as “running away from the scene” after shots were fired, was not connected to the case after all. He was, however, being held on an unrelated, unspecified charge.

For the media, the brief addendum served as an important reminder that the initial narratives provided by police in chaotic breaking-news situations oftentimes do not match the reality.

But for 19-year-old Kankakee resident Amauri Gee, a Black male who been stopped that day while walking to the library, it reflected the racial and economic inequities that permeate the justice system.

Records show officers stopped Gee several hours after the shooting, while he was walking across a bridge nearly a mile from the courthouse, and held him overnight in jail because he had failed to appear in court for a misdemeanor traffic ticket. Gee says officers told him he fit the description of someone involved in the gunbattle, which city officials initially confirmed and then later disputed.

Gee’s experience exemplifies the kind of small, typically unpublicized, occurrences that can erode community trust in local law enforcement. Experts say such stops happen at troubling levels in smaller towns, where there are fewer civil rights groups and journalists monitoring law enforcement conduct.

Gee agreed to speak to the Tribune at his mother’s urging, but he repeatedly expressed doubts that his story would be considered newsworthy or that anyone would care.

“I’m a Black teenager in Kankakee,” Gee told the Tribune shortly after his arrest. “You just expect stuff like this to happen to you. There’s no sense getting mad about it because it won’t make a difference.”

Kankakee police never publicly released Gee’s name, but city officials initially confirmed to the Tribune that Gee had been stopped in connection with the courthouse slayings. Earlier this week, however, Passwater said he was referencing a different Black teenager during his news conference. That teen also was held on an unrelated warrant after officers determined he had nothing to do with the shooting, he said.

The Tribune could not confirm the warrant involving the other teenager because his case is being handled in juvenile court, where records are kept from public inspection.

“I don’t know if Amauri misunderstood the reason why he was he stopped or not. I wasn’t there,” Passwater said. “There was a lot going on that day.”

Under orders from his mother to find a job, Gee said he had headed out to the Kankakee Public Library in the early afternoon of Aug. 26 to use the computers and fill out online applications. His mother, Kiwanna Williams, warned him to be careful because there had been a shooting at the courthouse that morning and police still had streets closed off.

Gee shrugged off his mother’s concerns. He was walking, so he didn’t expect to have any problems getting where he needed to go.

As he crossed the bridge into the downtown, a police car pulled up. Gee said the officer told him his jacket matched the description of a suspect in the courthouse shooting and they needed to ask him some questions. One patrol officer patted him down, while another rifled through his backpack.

They didn’t ask him any questions about the shooting or any crime, Gee said. He said he never worried, not even for a second, that he would be wrongly arrested for the courthouse killings because he believed the officers’ motivations to be transparent.

“I knew they were lying,” the teen said. “They just wanted to stop me, and they picked the shooting as their excuse.”

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, police said there were no video recordings of Gee’s arrest. City officials declined to release any law-enforcement bulletins that included physical descriptions of suspects in the courthouse case, citing the pending trial against the lone person indicted in connection with the shooting. Gee’s jacket — the reason he said police used to justify the stop — was a well-worn Nike windbreaker with an uncommon mix of orange and green fabric.

Passwater told the Tribune that in the minutes of pandemonium after the shooting, witnesses told police a Black male had also been involved in the incident. A sheriff’s deputy stopped a Black teenager, the one with the aforementioned juvenile case, who had been waiting in a car for the first man shot and who ran when the gunbattle began, Passwater said.

Gee’s police report makes no mention of the courthouse shooting. Instead, it states Gee was stopped for “possibly fitting” the description of someone involved in an unspecified incident near the bridge. He was not arrested or questioned in connection with that incident either, records show.

Passwater told the Tribune he could not locate records about the incident the report alleges. He said the officer who stopped Gee did not remember a lot about the interaction.

“The fact is, if Amauri didn’t have the outstanding warrant, they would have talked and sent him on his way,” Passwater said. “It would have been over quickly.”

It marked the second time Gee had been stopped by Kankakee police claiming he looked like a suspect in a criminal investigation. According to separate accounts provided by Gee and his mother, he was stopped the first time when he was 15 years old because police said he fit the description of someone wanted for burglary. He was detained briefly on the sidewalk, then allowed to leave.

“Both times, his only crime was walking while Black,” his mother said. “What kind of message do you think that sends a teenage boy? What does it tell him about how this community sees him or values him?”

Across the country, Black and brown people are stopped by police more often than white people. A Trump-era Department of Justice study found Black pedestrians were stopped 61% more often than white pedestrians on the streets and 13% more than whites while driving.

Illinois also has wide disparities, with the most recent state study showing Black pedestrians were stopped at nearly five times the rate of white pedestrians in 2020. The problem, however, is more difficult to define in communities outside the Chicago area, where the police departments report small data sets and don’t prioritize tracking their stops.

With a population of about 26,000, Kankakee recorded just 22 nontraffic stops in 2020, according to a Freedom of Information Act request. Fourteen of those stopped were white, three Black and five Hispanic.

About 41% of Kankakee residents are Black, while 19% identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Records show Kankakee officers did not provide a reason for stopping the majority of Black and Hispanic people, though the standard police forms ask them to do so. A reason was given for every white pedestrian stopped, according to documents reviewed by the Tribune.

“Too often race and the color of one’s skin is a substitute — or is a stand-in — for suspicion,” Ed Yohnka, director of communications in public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, told the Tribune. “People end up being targeted for stops, for searches, for policing activities on the basis of their skin color, and not because they’re engaged in any criminal activity.”

Gee said it took police only a few minutes to declare he was not involved with the shooting, which authorities now say involved a Latino gang rivalry. Gee is not Hispanic and has no public record of gang ties.

Police, however, still arrested him on a bench warrant stemming from an unresolved traffic ticket. In February, Gee had been involved in a minor accident and ticketed for driving without a license. He did not appear for his court date, and the judge issued a warrant for his arrest.

Court records show Gee was never served with the warrant and was unaware of its existence. Financial difficulties forced him and his mother to move out of their home during the pandemic and they had not yet found a permanent place to live, making it difficult for authorities to locate the teen.

Gee said police officers told him not to worry about the warrant. He only needed to post $200 bond and he’d be free to go. It’s not like he would be spending the night in jail, he recalls them saying.

The teen, however, knew it wouldn’t be that easy. He didn’t have that kind of money, and he doubted his mother did either. The bond amount would be needed to keep a roof over their heads.

Gee called his mom anyway, and she confirmed his suspicions.

“I told him I would see if I could raise enough money, but I wasn’t sure I could do it that quickly,” Kiwanna Williams said. “I told him that he might have to stay in jail until I could come up with it.”

In many cases, what officers may think of as an inexpensive, inconsequential ticket turns into a much larger ordeal for those who cannot afford to pay it, experts said.

“A white motorist somewhere probably either gets a lawyer or takes care of it or does something else so they never find themselves in this particular set of circumstances,” Yohnka said.

Gee was booked into the Kankakee County Jail and spent a sleepless night wondering how long he would be there. His mother had encouraged him to stay strong, so he tried for her sake.

“It was the only time I felt a little scared,” he said of his night in jail. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me or if things would be OK.”

With help from a public defender, he was released on his own recognizance after a bond hearing the following morning.

“It wastes an enormous amount of resources. The people of Kankakee were not safer because this young man spent the night off the streets in jail,” Yohnka told the Tribune. “And the people of Kankakee and Kankakee County spent tax dollars to keep him in that jail overnight.”

Passwater, however, believed it to be a fitting punishment for someone who failed to appear in court. When people don’t show up, he said, they create more work for police and increase the number of contacts a person has with law enforcement, he said. As the number of contacts increase, the chief said, so does the likelihood of something bad happening as a result.

Though he acknowledged Gee would not have spent the night in jail if he had $200, Passwater said he doesn’t see it as proof the system is inequitable to those without money.

“He doesn’t get any sympathy from me,” the chief told a Tribune reporter. “If he had shown up to court the first time, he wouldn’t be in the situation. He never showed up to court and that’s all he had to do.”

Gee, who turned 20 last month, appeared at both status hearings related to his traffic ticket since his arrest. He has entered a not guilty plea, and the traffic court judge encouraged him to get his driver’s license before his next court date in February.

He doesn’t know how he’ll pay the fine that almost certainly will be imposed, but he applied for several jobs and is hopeful about getting at least one of them. His mother said it will be up to him to figure it out.

As he stood outside the courthouse and watched Kankakee police officers enter the domed building after a recent court appearance, Gee shook his head when asked if he ever got an apology for wrongly tying him to a crime he didn’t commit.

Would he accept one now?

“No,” he said. “It’s too late for any of that.”

He doubts they’ll have many more chances to interact. He and his mother moved out of Kankakee a few weeks ago.

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