Police shootings are symptoms of racism, Benedictine panel says

By Elliott Peppers
Benedictine University
Updated 10/26/2016 1:35 PM

Holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" won't solve the frequency and persistence of fatal shootings involving police during interactions with minorities during the last few years, but recognizing institutionalized racism present in the nation for hundreds of years is a start, according to a panel of history and culture experts who spoke recently at Benedictine University.

About 200 students, faculty and staff gathered on campus to discuss race and community policing in the open forum titled "Law Enforcement and Racial Inequality."


The panelists included Fannie Rushing, professor of history; Vince Gaddis, professor of history; Wilson Chen, associate professor of languages and literature; Cesraea Rumpf, assistant professor of criminal justice and sociology; Jack Thornburg, professor of anthropology; and moderator Phil Hardy, associate professor of political science.

Panelists agreed that the persistence of fatal shootings in America by police against blacks (many of whom were unarmed), which are sometimes documented on video and shared extensively on social media, is part of the larger issue of racism.

"It's no mystery that African-Americans weren't getting shot down in the streets years ago during slavery. They were needed for their labor," Rushing said. "Now they are seen as superfluous. The origin of police in America was to catch runaway slaves and bring them back. The problem is not a police problem. The problem is racism and we have to begin a national dialogue."

Students and faculty shared personal narratives of encounters with police that had impacted their lives -- from being racially profiled to suffering the death of a friend.

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"It's very difficult for me to sit here and listen to the students recount their experiences and mention those who have died after interactions with police, including Sandra Bland," said Elizabeth Boone, program director for Benedictine's Professional Development and Learning program. "Sandra Bland was a very good personal friend of mine. I was her mentor at DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lisle."

Bland, a black woman from Naperville who was in the process of moving to Texas for a new job, was arrested after being stopped by a white police officer for failure to signal, refusing to obey police commands to put out her cigarette, and get out of her car.

Charged with assaulting a police officer, Bland was found dead in her jail cell days later. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Students inquired as to how to educate others who haven't experienced racial profiling to their experiences being racially profiled and treated differently during interactions with police.

Kellen McCullum, a junior International Business and Economics major from Joliet, told an emotional narrative about the time his mother was ticketed for an obscure offense. When she presented the ticket to an officer she knew, he indicated she had been racially profiled.


Susan Mikula, acting dean of Benedictine's College of Liberal Arts, offered her insight into this national dilemma after her own controversial interaction with police during a traffic stop.

"I'm an old white woman, and when the police turned on his sirens behind me, I kept driving thinking he was trying to get past," Mikula said. "I turned into my driveway and got out of my car and that's when the officer behind me totally lost it."

Mikula said she was purportedly stopped for making an illegal left turn, but the officer relented upon her questioning that the turn was legal. She eventually learned from the officer, who was Latino, that he did not like her bumper sticker in support of President Obama.

"This is a culture of marginalization. The culture is insidious," she said. "There are good cops out there who are good people, but there is a failure to provide adequate training. This perpetuates racial stereotypes. And unlike some African-Americans who experience a volatile police interaction, I'm alive to tell about it."

Students also spoke up in support of police, stating that police are needed and more must be expressed by the public and media about the police who are positively interacting with their community.

"We do need police officers. Police officers have a target on their backs now," said one student who has a cousin who is a Chicago police officer. "We need to focus on how to keep the good cops safe as well."

Michael Salatino, chief of Benedictine University Police, stated police nationwide need more training on how to diffuse volatile encounters with citizens.

"The role of delivering police services has greatly evolved during my 45 years in law enforcement," Salatino said. "Responding to incidents involving citizens with mental health issues, the ability to regain and maintain the trust of the community, their participation in current community policing initiatives and sensitizing police officers to being better able to understand individual, neighborhood and community perceptions of law enforcement, in most part, demands that senior police administrators nationwide instill departmental philosophies of updating training for officers, educating them on the root causes of crime, and having the community actively participate in policing strategies, is paramount."

Salatino, who attended the open forum but did not speak, said police work is at times "not very pretty," but through enhanced law enforcement training, understanding of others' trepidation with police interactions, and taking the time to listen to each other, safe neighborhoods for citizens and police can come to fruition.

Another Benedictine student, who identified as Muslim, stated that Americans need to acknowledge the core issue is still black versus white.

"The burden is on all of us to recognize the core problem is racism. I get to pick my religion, not my color," she said. "I choose to wear a hijab. We need to deal with racism between black and white people before we can deal with other groups."

The university plans to hold additional forums for the community to discuss current events and social topics of concern, offering avenues for students to be comfortable expressing their opinions in a supportive environment.