The girlfriend of a 19-year-old Black man killed by police in Waukegan, Ill., spoke publicly for the first time from her hospital bed via a video conferencing system about what happened the night of Oct. 20, when officers opened fire on a car occupied by the couple. Through her tears, Tafara Williams described the events that led to the death of her boyfriend Marcellis Stinnette and the physical and emotional toll the experience has left on her.
According to Williams, the couple was smoking, sitting in her car with the engine and lights off outside of her home. She sat in the driver's seat as Stinnette sat in the passenger’s seat when a patrol car drove up behind them. Williams says she rolled down all the windows and turned on the lights so the officers could see that she and Stinnette didn’t have any weapons, nor were they doing anything illegal. She says the officer who approached them seemingly recognized the couple and called them both by name.
“He started harassing Marcellis. He stood near the car with his left hand on his gun and he said to Marcellis, ‘I know you from jail,’” said Williams. That’s when she says she asked the officer if they were free to go or if they were being arrested for any reason. Instead of responding, Williams says the officer took a few steps back and got on his cell phone.
Williams took that opportunity to drive away. She explains that she drove away slowly because she was afraid to get out of the car. She acknowledges that the officer was not following her nor were the police lights on when she turned onto a nearby major throughway but that’s where she was stopped by another officer who had gotten out of his care and seemed to be waiting for them. Williams says she lost control of the car and crashed into a building as the officer began shooting at them.
“I kept screaming, ‘I don’t have a gun!’ But he kept shooting. He told me to get out of the car. I had my hands up but I couldn’t move because I had been shot,” said Williams. “I kept asking him, why? Why he was shooting.”
Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham, who apparently knew Tafara Williams and her family prior to this incident, announced that the body cam and dash cam footage of the shooting will be released this week. Waukegan Police Commander Edgar Navarro told reporters during a press conference last Wednesday that the officer fired upon the couple after they appeared “suspicious” and tried to flee from a traffic stop.
"That officer exited his vehicle, and the vehicle that he was investigating began to reverse towards the officer. The officer then pulled out his duty weapon and fired into the vehicle," Navarro said according to USA Today.
The officer, who has yet to be identified, is said to be Latino and has worked for the Waukegan Police Department for the last five years. According to police, he shot Stinnette and Williams because he was "in fear for his safety."
No weapon was recovered from the vehicle, and the officer who shot and killed Stinnette has been fired. Williams and her family however are still confused as to why the couple was ever approached in the first place.
“It is disheartening that I stand before you again and talk to you about a police shooting that is needless, senseless, and never should have happened,” said family attorney Tony Romanucci from the Waukegan City Hall steps today. “But indeed, in this year of 2020, once again we’re talking about the needless harm; harm that should never have happened. Death that should never have happened.
“We want to make this city Waukegan, right now the example of accountability and transparency in policing,” he continued. “What Waukegan has done will give this family a sense of peace. It will not restore what has happened. Let's make that clear. And I am not condoning the actions of this police officer. We are condemning it. We could not be more critical of what this police officer did because what he did was nothing short of a profile. He profiled these poor people because of the color of their skin and that was their crime.”
Civil Rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is also representing the family, said he is tired of hearing this story which seems to be a continual loop as he has so often represented victims of police brutality and the families of those killed by police shootings as is the case with Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Jacob Blake. Both families are demanding transparency and accountability from the police force.
“When does it end? When does it end America? How many more Black people have to be killed because of police brutality, excessive force, implicit bias, systematic racism, deliberate indifference,” said Crump at the press conference. “How many more times, America? How many more times do we have to tell our children that this isn't right? That we deserve a better America, a more just society that we don't have to explain that talk to Marcellis Jr. Jacob Blake III and to George Floyd’s children. Let Waukegan be the example.”
Williams’ family is not only supporting her, but also trying to be a guiding force for the Stinnette family as they now must make arrangements to bury their son. Both families are now forever tied by their grandson.
“Marcellis was a great father to that baby. He was a gentle soul and I can still see the smile upon his face,” said Williams’ mother Tina Johnson. “I'm here demanding justice to hold these officers accountable for what they did to Marcellis and Tafara. This happened to my child and her boyfriend this time but if America doesn't stop this disease of violence, this could be anyone’s child.”
Williams continues to recover in the hospital from undisclosed injuries as a result of the shooting. Once she is released, she will have to contend with the physical scars and the mental imagery of seeing her boyfriend shot and killed in front of her.
“I lost more than a boyfriend that day. I lost the love of my life and the father of my 7-month year old son. He is the only thing I had left of Marcellis,” said Williams.
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