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Black Lives Matter Springfield Calls For Dropping Charge Against Man Shot By Chatham Police

Courtesy of Sunshine Clemons

Police reform activists in Springfield are calling for an aggravated assault charge to be dropped against Gregory Small, Jr., a Chatham man who was shot by police on March 5.

Sunshine Clemons, Small’s sister and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Springfield, said their mother called 911 as her son was suicidal and attempting to self-harm with a knife.

According to the state’s attorney office, Small advanced on Chatham Police Officer Adam Hahn while holding the knife. After directing Small to drop the weapon, Hahn shot him four times. Small was hospitalized for several weeks. He underwent multiple surgeries and a stint in the intensive care unit. He is now recovering at home, Clemons said.

Clemons described Small, 30, as quiet and introspective. She said he has a big role in her daughter’s life, taking her to Chuck E. Cheese and attending father-daughter dances with her when she was younger. Clemons said Small worked for a time for the State of Illinois, but left to help his mom care for his father.

Following an Illinois State Police investigation that determined the officer’s actions were justified, Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright declined to press charges against the officer.

Meanwhile, Wright charged Small with one count of aggravated assault for advancing on the officer while armed with the knife, a Class 4 felony punishable by probation or up to three years in prison.

“I don't feel that it's right for someone who's in a mental health crisis moment, when someone calls for help for them, for them to walk away with four bullet holes and a criminal record,” Clemons said. She added the criminal charge could negatively change the course of her brother’s life.

In a statement Wednesday, Wright said he’s been working with Small’s attorney to have the case referred to the Sangamon County Mental Health Recovery Court.

“The objective of all involved has been to ensure Mr. Small receives wrap-around services and mental health treatment to address the root cause of his tragic encounter with law enforcement,” Wright said.

In order to have the case referred to mental health court, Small would have to plead guilty to the felony charge. Upon successful completion of the program, the conviction would be cleared.

“Our Mental Health Recovery Court provides an opportunity for treatment and recovery rather than conviction and punishment,” Wright said. “That is our objective in this case.”

But Clemons rejected the idea that Small would have to plead guilty for what occurred while he was having a mental health crisis. She also said he’s already following a treatment plan now, as well as recovering from the gunshot wounds.

“The charges don't reflect the reality of the situation,” Clemons said. 

BLM Springfield has created a “Speak Out for Gregory” campaign with social media posts and pages. BLM Springfield is asking people to call Wright and Chatham Police Chief Vernon Foli to request they drop the charge against Gregory. The Facebook page has already attracted more than 4,000 followers, and garnered statewide attention.

“A mental health crisis is not a crime and should not be treated as such,” said State Sen. Robert Peters, chair of the Illinois Senate Black Caucus, in an emailed statement Wednesday. “We need to invest in alternative responses so that this never happens again, because our responsibility is to provide treatment, not trauma.”

The group is planning a rally “Mental Health and Justice Awareness Rally” at 2 p.m. on Saturday at the Illinois State Capitol.

Recovery and reform

Clemons said the family decided to make a public call now to dismiss the case against Small, months after the March incident, because they wanted to first focus on his recovery without media and public attention.

She said she also initially thought the state’s attorney and police might “do the right thing.”

“We hoped that it would be realized that these charges are unnecessary and should not be the end result for him,” she said.

The police shooting comes at a time of heightened scrutiny over police conduct, particularly how they interact with people with mental illness. According to a Washington Post database, since 2015, nearly a quarter of those shot and killed by police have a mental illness. The trend has led to increasing calls to change the way police are trained, as well as proposals for new ways to respond to emergency calls during mental health crises.

In Chatham, Foli, the police chief, said he agreed with findings of the state police investigation that his officer was justified in using potentially deadly force against Small.

“The officer handled it extremely well. He did what his training taught him to do,” Foli said.

He also said he agreed with the charge against Small. Still, he said his office had received a couple hundred phone calls and more emails in support of dropping the charge. But he emphasized it’s not within his power to do so, only Wright can make that decision.

Clemons said there should be another system in place to deal with people in crisis instead of calling the police. But, since there is not one, police should be better trained to address these situations.

A preliminary hearing in Small’s case is set for May 27.

Correction: Small helped his mom care for his father; a previous version of this story incorrectly stated it was his stepfather. 

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.