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‘It didn’t have to be done that way’: Mother of Man Shot By Chatham Police Speaks Out

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Speak out for Gregory
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Speak out for Gregory Facebook Page
Gregory Small, Jr., was shot four times by a Chatham police officer in March.

Late in the afternoon on March 5, Keena Small sat in a small interrogation room at the Chatham Police Department.

Hours earlier, from inside the front door of her house, Small watched a Chatham police officer shoot her son, Gregory Small, Jr., four times. The 911 dispatcher she’d called instructed her to stay inside.

Keena Small dialed 911 seeking help; she told the dispatcher that 30-year-old Gregory Small said he “was going to kill people” and was hurting himself with a knife — symptoms of mental illness he has. Officer Adam Hahn yelled at him to drop the knife as Gregory Small ran towards him.

Moments after Hahn shot him, Gregory Small dropped the steak knife he had been using to cut himself in the neck and head. The police officer allowed emergency medical personnel to come to the scene. Keena Small continued to watch as they loaded him into an ambulance and took him to HSHS St. John’s Hospital in Springfield.

Then, Chatham police escorted Keena Small and her younger son, Jared, to the police station.

“After watching my son be shot, I'm brought to the police station to sit in a room with no one else in there with me, crying, devastated, not knowing what's happening with my son,” Keena Small told NPR Illinois in an interview.

She said she felt as if she were being investigated for a crime. Eventually, Illinois State Police investigators told her in an interview that her son was undergoing surgery and in stable condition.

“This was all done wrong,” Keena Small said. “At the end of the day, don't slap charges on my son because something wasn't done right.”

Gregory Small was indicted for felony assault earlier this month for advancing on Hahn while holding a knife. After undergoing several surgeries and spending time in the intensive care unit to treat his injuries, Gregory Small is now recovering at home.

The Illinois State Police and the Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright determined in March Hahn was justified in using force likely to cause great bodily harm. Wright did not press charges against the two-year veteran of the force.

Wright charged Gregory Small with felony assault in an attempt to get him into Sangamon County Mental Health Recovery Court, Wright has said in emails to Small’s defense attorney. In the emails released to media in response to public records requests, Wright argues that court-mandated treatment is “the only remaining option given Mr. Small’s history of violence and threats of violence toward himself, his family, law enforcement and the general public since 2018.”

Wright has since offered to lessen the charge to a misdemeanor and have Gregory Small enroll in the recovery court as part of his bond agreement, which means he would not have to plead guilty, Wright’s emails show.

Sunshine Clemons, who is Gregory Small’s sister and cofounder of Black Lives Matter Springfield, in May began an online activism campaign, Speak Out For Gregory, which calls for Wright to completely drop the charge against her brother.

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Rachel Otwell
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Illinois Times
On May 15, people in Springfield gathered for a "Mental Health and Justice Awareness Rally."

Clemons says charging Gregory Small after he was shot while experiencing a mental health crisis is wrong. Keena Small echoed these criticisms in her interview with NPR Illinois. She argued the charge against him is being used to justify the narrative the police officer was right to shoot him.

“If they don't charge him with assault, can you really justify shooting somebody four times [including] one time in the back?” Keena Small asked.

‘That’s Who He Is’

Keena Small described her son as quiet and hardworking. Growing up, Gregory Small mowed lawns for neighbors and became an Eagle Scout. While some teens rebel or go through stages of being “sassy,” Keena Small said that was never her son. After high school, he took a few classes at Lincoln Land Community College. He worked for an agricultural supply store and then got a job with the state.

A few years ago, his father, Gregory Small Sr., suffered several strokes, leaving him immobile on his left side. Keena Small became a full-time caregiver for her husband, feeding him, bathing him, taking him to doctor’s appointments. In 2018, Gregory Small offered to quit his job and move in with them to help out. He would transfer his dad to his wheelchair, drive his parents to doctor’s appointments and hang out with his dad at home while his mom ran errands.

“That’s Greg. That’s who he is,” Keena Small said. “He has a big heart.”

In September 2018, when they were living in Springfield, Gregory Small had his first mental health episode, his mother said. Keena Small remembers her son’s eyes “glazed over” and he wouldn’t respond to her.

At first, she thought he might be in diabetic shock. Her husband had gone into diabetic shock once, which put him in the hospital for several weeks. So, she tried to offer Gregory Small some orange juice. But it didn’t work; she said her son became aggressive and violent.

“When I touched him, it set him off,” Keena Small said..

According to police reports, Gregory Small attacked his mom, striking her with a bookend and punching her. He also hit one of his sisters, who arrived to help, in the face. The two women ran out of the house, and Gregory Small followed them, chasing them around the yard and punching his sister again.

A neighbor intervened, and the women were able to drive to the hospital. Keena Small was treated for her injuries, including staples in her head.

Springfield Police officers arrived to find Gregory Small on the front porch “covered in blood”, looking “disoriented,” according to police reports. They took him to St. John’s hospital to be evaluated, then arrested him and took him to the Sangamon County Jail. The family declined to press charges, Keena Small said, and he was released.

Asked if the incident changed their relationship, Keena Small said no. She said her son doesn’t remember what happens during the episodes.

“I know him. I know who he is,” she said. “When he has these episodes, it's not him. I don't know how to explain that. But it’s like you're looking at somebody completely different.”

Since 2018, Springfield and Chatham police have responded five additional times when Gregory Small has had an episode. Twice in summer of 2019, he ran into traffic in Chatham. During one incident, police reported he kept saying “I want to die” and “please kill me.” Police took him to Memorial Medical Center.

The state’s attorney’s office also released police records that described an incident in December 2018 in Pinellas County, Florida, where Gregory Small had moved briefly. He allegedly punched an elderly man, whom he didn’t know, in the face. He then apologized and hugged the man.

Keena Small said he moved back to Springfield, and was committed to McFarland Mental Health Center where he was treated for a mental illness. She declined to say what his diagnosis is to protect her son’s privacy.

Treatment

Gregory Small has been under the care of a psychiatrist since 2019, his mother told NPR Illinois. Keena Small said his medication has been adjusted and changed over the last couple years, which she thinks may have contributed to her son’s recent episodes.

Dr. Crystal Clark, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, said changing dosage or medication can be a risky time for patients because it may not effectively treat their illness, which could mean a return or worsening of delusions, hallucinations or other symptoms.

Clark said effective treatment for mental illness — and getting to a point where patients are symptom-free — can depend on the severity of the condition and how well the patient responds to medications. But there are other challenges too.

Medications may be expensive or not covered by insurance. Access to mental health care, including how often patients can see their provider, may be limited because of a shortage of mental health care professionals. Medications can also have side effects, such as brain fog or weight gain, and some patients will stop taking meds to avoid those.

“There's so many factors, especially with the constraints of our mental health system, that can lead to an illness reaching that severe episode and severe mental illness going unchecked and untreated,” Clark said.

Clark said another challenge people with mental illness face is the stigma that they are violent, despite studies showing they’re actually more likely to be victims of violence. Their behavior may appear bizarre or scary to those who don’t understand their illness.

“For police, that can be seen as a threat,” Clark said. The stigma can be worse for Black patients, especially Black men who are already stereotyped as aggressive and violent, Clark said.

“If we can reframe that, and humanize those with mental illness, as well as Black men and women, then we might be able to see them as human and take a moment to think about what are the consequences of taking this person's life,” Clark said.

She said she understands Gregory Small had a knife during the encounter with the police officer. But she said she wonders if the outcome would have been different if the officer had tried to de-escalate from a distance.

“I do think that takes a different kind of training, maybe a little more risk, and a little more understanding that the goal of the patient is not to harm anybody,” Clark said.

Felony Charge And Video Release

In the early morning hours of January 3, Keena Small called 911 because her son was agitated and then stopped responding to her. In police reports, she said she feared Gregory Small would become violent as he had a couple years before.

Two Chatham police officers arrived, and one asked Gregory Small if he wanted to go to the hospital. He nodded “yes,” and the officers called an ambulance. But by the time the ambulance arrived, he resisted going with emergency medical personnel. One of the officer’s called the Sangamon County State Attorney’s office for permission for an involuntary committal. The officers were able to get him in the ambulance and to the hospital.

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In neat cursive handwriting, Keena Small made a statement in support of her son’s hospitalization, explaining his medical history. She commended Chatham Police Officer Darrek Galloway and Sgt. Mark Poani for their professionalism.

“Each time the Chatham Police were involved in the past and present, it gave me a confident feeling of safety and care for my son and our family,” Keena Small wrote in that statement early this year.

But she said her feelings have changed since March.

“This last time when he was shot, it didn't have to be done that way,” Keena Small said. “I've seen it done differently.”

She disputes that Gregory Small was charging at Officer Hahn, saying instead that the two “met” in the front yard. Plus, Keena Small said it’s clear her son didn’t want to harm the officer because after he was shot and sitting on the ground, he continued to use the knife to hurt himself — not threaten the officer.

Keena Small’s frustration has mounted since then, with the felony charge against her son and the release of dashcam video by Chatham Police. She continues to believe the best thing for Gregory Small is to continue his recovery and treatment without a felony charge hanging over his head.

The Chatham Police Department initially denied FOIA requests to release video footage of the incident, saying the state’s attorney’s office and Small's defense attorney asked them not to because it may interfere with Gregory Small getting a fair trial.

But under public pressure from the “Speak Out For Gregory” movement and attention to the case on social media, Chief Vernon Foli said the department decided to make the footage public. Police posted a 10-minute version of the footage to Facebook in May. The full footage is now on the Village of Chatham’s website.

Keena Small said she felt like Foli making the decision to publish the video on Facebook last month was an attempt to defend his department.

“You don't have to get on there and narrate it like it's some theatrical play,” she said of the way the footage was edited.

Foli maintains the video accurately showed what occurred. He said that the department released it in an act of transparency. He also stands by Officer Hahn’s actions, pointing out that the state’s attorney determined he was right to use lethal force. He also commended Hahn for calling emergency medical personnel, and staging closeby so they could arrive when the scene was secure.

As for the charges, Foli referred questions to Wright, the Sangamon County state’s attorney. Wright declined to answer specific questions, but referred NPR Illinois to previous communications with Gregory’s defense attorney.

“Our objective remains the same, a treatment-based resolution without a plea or conviction,” Wright wrote in a June 16 email, explaining the indictment.

He added that he “remains open” to a misdemeanor charge and Gregory Small’s voluntary participation in Mental Health Recovery Court.

Despite the trauma of the last few months, Keena Small said the outpouring of support for her family has been a bright spot. She’s heard stories about her son from friends and fellow parishioners from her church that make her proud. For now, she’s focusing on caring for her son as he recovers.

“No one wants the best for Greg more than his mother,” she said. “I just don't want to see him put into a situation that's going to do more damage to him than help him.”

A preliminary hearing is scheduled in Gregory Small’s case for 1:30 p.m. on Thursday.

Clarification: The state’s attorney’s office and Small's defense attorney asked that video footage and other police reports related to the case not be released because it may interfere with Gregory Small getting a fair trial. A previous version stated the state's attorney's office had made the request.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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