By Giavonni Nickson
There was nothing common about the Gary Common Council meeting Tuesday, August 20. Outraged members of the community confronted elected officials regarding the Rashad Cunningham murder investigation during the meeting, which spanned over three hours.
Rashad Cunningham, 25, was shot and killed by a Gary Police officer Saturday, August 17.
Gary police spokeswoman Lieutenant Dawn Westerfield said in an initial release, officers pulled over Rashad Cunningham while conducting a traffic stop in the vicinity of East 23rd St. and Kentucky Avenue at approximately 3 a.m.
The Lake County Coroner’s Office ruled the death a homicide and no officers were injured. Cunningham was pronounced dead at 4:30 a.m.
Lieutenant Westerfield did not provide information on the circumstances leading up to the shooting in the initial release but did affirm that the shooting was being investigated by the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.
Cunningham’s family, dissatisfied with the early status of the investigation, has hired civil rights attorney Andrew M. Stroth, managing partner of the Action Injury Law Group which handles police shooting cases across the country.
The consensus between members of the Cunningham family is that the shooting was unjustified.
“Five children no longer have their father because of the unjustified acts of officers within the Gary Police Department,” said Stroth in a recent interview.
Witnesses said Cunningham had a concealed carry permit for the gun that was on his lap during the police encounter. They allege that he did not reach for the weapon.
The case continues to evoke an emotional outpouring and anger from community members, as witnessed in a vigil held for Cunningham this week.
“I have not seen this many people out in support for the victim of a police shooting. The people are outraged. The people are not going to let the Gary Police Department get away with this one,” said Kwabena Rasuli, co-founder of The Jackson Family Honor.
The Cunningham case is not the first instance of police shootings in the city.
“This is starting to happen too much in Gary. Over the last three or four years, there have been too many police shootings. Why are we as Black people vulnerable to police brutality whether it’s by a white cop or a Black cop?” said Rasuli, who decided to speak out in solidarity with the family and the local Black Lives Matter chapter.
Questions linger for the family even after the Gary Police Department released the following statement:
“On Saturday, August 17, 2019, at 3:16 a.m. the Gary Police Department responded to a call of “shots fired” in the area of 23rd and Kentucky Street. While investigating the call, the officers encountered a parked vehicle with three occupants. Officers approached the vehicle and during the course of the investigation a police officer’s weapon was discharged resulting in the death of Rashad Cunningham.”
“The family wants answers and the family has demanded to get all video that exists,” said Attorney Stroth on behalf of the Cunningham family.
According to Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, there are no recordings to release because the Gary Police Department does not use body or dashboard cameras.
Though camera footage is not an option in this case the Cunningham family has announced further demands.
“The family has demanded the dispatch recordings between officers and the police department. The family is demanding the release of the names of the two officers involved in the shooting and the family wants the officers and the city held accountable for the unjustified and unconstitutional shooting of Rashad Cunningham,” said Stroth.
During the Gary Common Council meeting, Rashad Cunningham’s uncle echoed the same sentiment, declaring this shooting unconstitutional. While at the podium he addressed elected officials and recited lines from the Declaration of Independence.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rights given to all human beings by their creator and governments are created to protect them. My nephew was not protected.”
He stared boldly as he addressed Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and members of the Gary Common Council.
“It was your fiduciary duty to protect him and he was not protected. He had a second amendment right to carry a weapon. His pursuit of happiness is now gone. He was trying to provide for his children, whom he loved. They will never see their father again.”
Cunningham leaves behind five children, including a one-year-old.
Tuesday night’s meeting rang with cries of grief, and discontent from the community, in what some describe as a wall of silence between the Gary Police Department and the community.
“We want swift answers. If the officer is found to be wrong he needs to be brought to justice right away and made an example of. We need an independent citizens review board to look at what’s happening in our community,” said Rasuli.
Tension grew as distressed family members tearfully expressed their pain and frustration. What started as minor rumblings among those in attendance Tuesday night turned into a loud uproar.
Ron Brewer, Common Council president, was charged with maintaining order as emotions flared and animosity rose late into the evening. “I will clear this room if I have to. This is no disrespect to the family at all, we just have to keep order here.”
The most riveting statements of the night came from Cunningham’s mother, Tonia Simmons, and girlfriend Heather Fox.
Simmons said, “I have not been contacted with the mayor or the Gary Police Department. No one wants to talk to me about anything that happened regarding my son.”
Simmons used her time at the podium Tuesday night to ask pressing questions that have hounded her since the morning she found out her son had been murdered.
“When will the city formally give the names of the police officers that were involved?” asked Simmons. “Does the city have any video evidence at all? Can we hear the dispatch recordings? Do officers have a mental evaluation before becoming employed? What is the protocol of a police car that sees a parked car sitting in front of his home? Where is the money going if the police officers can’t have dash cameras and videos to protect, because my son needed protection that morning from the police officers,” exclaimed Simmons.
The Gary Police Department has not officially released the names of the officers involved in the shooting. There has been no official confirmation that Officer Isaiah Price was connected with the shooting but family members believe he was involved and question his policing tenure.
Simmons, distress in her voice, asked a number of questions of the Gary PD.
“This officer has numerous complaints about falsifying information, was fired from the Chicago Police Department but still allowed to patrol the Gary streets. Is he still patrolling at this moment? Why was Isaiah Price, the officer that killed my only son, allowed to still patrol the streets considering the numerous complaints that were filed against him? Why?”
After only moments at the podium, her voice elevated, infuriated over a perceived lack of transparency within the Gary Police Department.
The Gary Police Department released a statement regarding the investigation.
“In following the protocol of the Gary Police Department, this shooting is being investigated by the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. The results of the investigation will also be reviewed by the Lake County Prosecutor’s Office as a routine practice. While Gary Police will work closely with the Sheriff’s department, any additional information will be released by county officials.”
Simmons described her son by saying, “He was not the type to start any trouble and had no criminal history. He stayed to himself and loved his kids and his family.”
The crowd chanted “Justice for Rashad, no justice no peace” as Simmons took her seat.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson released the following statement to the press and on her Facebook page.
“The loss of life is a tragedy. We offer condolences to the family of Mr. Cunningham. We realize the frustrations associated with losing a loved one, and our community has many questions about the incident. Answers to those questions will come with a full, independent investigation. When we get those answers, the Gary Police Department will be open and transparent in communicating with the public.”
Her expressed condolences do not appear especially sufficient for Heather Fox, Cunningham’s girlfriend and mother of their one-year-old child.
“It’s been more than 72 hours and we don’t have any answers. The mayor never reached out to us, she made a Facebook status comment, what’s a Facebook status going to do for us?”
Fox made known her suspicion about the handling of the investigation and pledged to diligently seek justice for Rashad Cunningham.
“You guys are trying to hide something,” said Fox. “There were two witnesses that saw him get shot down in cold blood for no reason. He never had a run-in with police. You will see me and you will see our family at the Gary Police Department every day until we get answers.”
Giavonni is a passionate freelance writer native of Gary IN. She covers business, politics, and community schools for the Chicago/Gary Crusader.