The debate over the police shooting of an innocent man intensified at Wichita City Hall on Tuesday, with the mayor admonishing activists for interrupting a pastor supporting police and some police critics getting thrown out for arguing with the council.
It was the most tense day yet at a City Council meeting since Andrew Finch was shot to death on his porch Dec. 28 by police responding to a fake report of a murder and hostage situation in progress.
Decorum broke down during a pro-police speech by the Rev. Jeanne Garrelts, co-pastor of City Church Assembly of God.
Garrelts, whose husband and co-pastor Tom delivered the invocation at the meeting, said the city should pay for Finch’s funeral and possibly provide some support for his children, but not a high-dollar settlement.
“People have been jumping on the bandwagon to accuse and cause problems,” she said.
Police critics have been a weekly presence at council meetings, calling for firing and criminal charges against the officer who fired the fatal rifle shot when Finch lowered his arms during the incident.
Police have said the officer believed Finch, who was unarmed, was reaching for a weapon in his waistband.
Garrelts acknowledged that Finch was an innocent bystander and said his death was a tragedy.
But she elicited moans from about a dozen people when she said Finch should have kept his hands up.
“I think he knew when police said ‘raise your hands,’ they’re to be held up until an officer is beside him to check (for weapons),” she said.
Finch died in an incident of “swatting,” in which online gamers tried to provoke a special weapons and tactics, or SWAT, team response with a made-up incident. The genesis was a dispute over a $1.50 wager over an online game of “Call of Duty.”
Garrelts squarely placed the blame on the gamers and the man that one of them is said to have contacted to make the swatting call, Tyler Barriss, 25, of Los Angeles.
Barriss, accused of involuntary manslaughter, is the only one who has been charged with a crime. Finch, 28, had nothing to do with the game. Police wound up at his house because it was the former address of one of the gamers.
Outbursts from the audience escalated from moans and groans into shouts as Garrelts said the officer would have been justified in an actual hostage situation.
“If the 911 call had been true, if the person at that address had shot a man in the head, if he had hostages locked up, if he had poured gas on the floor, this policeman who shot Mr. Finch would not have been the villain, but someone who would have saved the hostages inside,” she said.
As the interruptions got louder, Mayor Jeff Longwell stepped in.
“No one is yelling when you’re at the podium, everyone is respectful of your opportunity to share with this body,” Longwell said. “I just simply ask for you to be respectful and pay that respect back just as you received it when you stood at that podium. Thank you.”
Public speeches to the council are limited to five minutes and the activists grew more agitated after the clock counted down to zero and Longwell allowed Garrelts to keep speaking.
“You’re letting her go on way too long,” one woman shouted out. “The rest of us did not get that much time.”
Later, Longwell said he usually lets people run a little long to finish a thought anyway and that Garrelts had lost some of her allocated time to interruptions. A time-coded recording showed she spoke just under seven minutes.
When Garrelts finished, to a round of sarcastic applause, Bill Stofer, who ran for council last year, tried to go to the podium to give a rebuttal.
But he wasn’t on the list of speakers who had signed up for the meeting. At that point, City Hall security police Officer S.M. Matzek stepped up and told him he had to go.
“Sir, SIR! You have to leave,” the officer said. “Leave. Leave. Leave.”
She also ordered activist Monica Marks to leave, for calling out, “Let him talk” during the exchange.
Stofer and the officer continued to argue as he made his way up the aisle to the door.
“This is typical of the repression...” he said.
“Just leave, sir.”
“I am leaving.”
“Be quiet and leave.”
“De-escalate the situation.”
On the way out the door, he said activists will protest at the NCAA basketball tournament in Wichita next month, an event the city has coveted as a chance to project a positive image on a national stage.
“Justice for Andrew Finch,” Stofer said as he left the council chamber. “We will be back. We will occupy the tournament. You will hear us speak.”