Shooting details are challenged (July 13, 2005)

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– by Patrick Flanigan, Staff Writer –
Democrat and Chronicle.

Questions about the Sunday night shooting of a 13-year-old girl by a Rochester police officer continue to dog the Police Department.

Despite statements by the department’s acting chief and Rochester’s mayor that the shooting was justified and unavoidable because the girl had a knife, many people aren’t convinced that Officer Mark Simmons had no other options when he shot at LaShedica Mason.

Skepticism stems from rumors that contradict the Police Department’s version of the events and questions about whether the shooting reveals flaws in the training given to city police officers.

LaShedica was listed in guarded condition Tuesday at Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong, where she is being treated for the shooting.

In a statement released Tuesday, the hospital said wounds to her arm and finger require orthopedic surgery, and a bullet that passed through her abdomen required 5.5 hours of surgery Monday.

A bullet fragment was intentionally left in her abdomen to avoid trauma to her right kidney. The wound is not expected to result in diabetes or other endocrine disorder, according to the hospital.

Her family and physicians “expect a full recovery,” the hospital said in a statement. “Her family appreciates the prayers and concerns for the community and would like to care for her privately.”

Police said LaShedica charged Simmons with an 8-inch kitchen knife after the officer was called to her house on St. Jacob Street for a report that she had threatened to kill herself.

Acting Police Chief Cedric Alexander said the incident happened too fast and in too tight of a space for Simmons to take any other action.

Alexander said he understands the community is upset about the shooting. He said he has been working with city attorneys to determine what, if any, evidence from the investigation can be opened to the public to help the community better understand the circumstances. He said a 13-year-old girl running with a knife is just as deadly as an adult in that situation.

“I can assure you, Officer Simmons did not come to work that night to shoot a 13-year-old girl,” he said. “He was confronted with an immediate threat, and he took action to protect himself and the lives of other people in the room. If there was something else he could have done, he would have.”

Alexander is scheduled to meet today with members of city clergy to discuss the shooting and other violent acts in the city. That meeting is scheduled to be followed by a 3 p.m. news conference at Baber A.M.E. Church on Meigs Street.

Many in the community still don’t believe that a police officer couldn’t find a way to disarm the girl without shooting her.

“They may be able to say this was justified or appropriate, but I know in my heart there’s a different way this could have been handled,” said David Vara, an independent filmmaker who has produced two highly critical videos about the Police Department.

Vara, host of Keep it on the Reel, a television program that airs on Rochester’s cable access channel RCTV 15, said he is preparing a segment of the shooting for next week’s episode. He has interviewed several people in the St. Jacob Street neighborhood who are upset about the shooting.

“The vibe on the street is bad,” Vara said. “Minorities have always known that when you call the police to your house, you’re just calling another problem. But now they’re sending that message to (family members) of the emotionally disturbed.”

Joy Powell, a community activist, led a protest march through downtown, from City Hall to the City Public Safety Building, to speak out against the shooting. Marchers chanted “Stop the violence, stop the killing” and “911 is a joke” as they walked.

Powell referenced several rumors that are circulating on St. Jacob Street that directly contradict the police version of events.

Powell, who acknowledged she had not talked to anybody in the house before the protest, said Simmons kicked in the front door and started shooting for no reason. Police, citing statements from family members n the house, said Simmons was invited into the house.

Powell, who said she personally knows and admires Simmons, said if Simmons was called to the house to deal with a distraught girl with a knife, he shouldn’t have been caught off guard.

“Why wasn’t the police better prepared to deal with that?” she asked.

Alexander has introduced two methods to help Rochester police avoid lethal force when dealing with distraught people: a team of specially trained police negotiators called the Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team and the addition of the M26 Taser stun gun to the department’s arsenal of less-than-lethal weapons.

But he said the confrontation between Simmons and LeShedica happened too fast to call for those methods r even use them if they were there.

City Councilman Adam McFadden had believed the shooting revealed poor police training, but then he met with Alexander on Tuesday afternoon and watched the chief re-enact the shooting scenario.

McFadden, who said he has taken knives away from adults while working as a bouncer, said he left the meeting convinced there was nothing else Simmons could have done.

“I don’t know a person who would have made a different decision,” McFadden said. “The other thing he could do was run away, and you just can’t do that when you’re police.”

“The whole thing is just really sad.”