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A Family Cries ‘Justice for Hannah.’ Will Its Rural Town Listen?

2020-08-07 14:46:02

SEDALIA, Mo. — Seven weeks had passed, and still there were no answers. So once again, a small cluster of friends and family gathered in the leafy courthouse square and marched for Hannah Fizer, an unarmed woman shot and killed by a rural Missouri sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop.

“Say her name! Hannah!”

“Prosecute the police!”

Their chants echoed protests over police killings in Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta and beyond. But this was no George Floyd moment for rural America.

Though people in rural areas are killed in police shootings at about the same rate as in cities, victims’ families and activists say they have struggled to get justice or even make themselves heard. They say extracting changes can be especially tough in small, conservative towns where residents and officials have abiding support for law enforcement and are leery of new calls to defund the police.

“It’s like pulling teeth,” Ms. Fizer’s mother, Amy, said.

The deputy who shot Ms. Fizer has not been charged or disciplined, and Ms. Fizer’s parents say they have not received any updates about the investigation into her June 13 death. They said that investigators never interviewed them, and that the sheriff declined to tell them the name of the deputy who shot her.

Over the weeks, the rallies for Ms. Fizer tapered from a hundred protesters to a couple dozen. Every Saturday morning, they wave signs and ask passing cars to honk in support of the 25-year-old woman with a big grin and flower tattoo, who loved swimming and Chinese takeout and dreamed of having children, and of a larger life beyond her night-shift job at a gas station. Her family and friends have become her movement.

“We’re just doing it all on our own,” Amy Fizer said.

There are hundreds of stories of law enforcement killings in small towns and rural areas, but scant research into how and why they happen. One analysis by FiveThirtyEight found that between 2013 and 2019 there was a slight rise in shootings by officers in rural and suburban areas and a decline in big cities. Experts say rural shootings may be tied to higher rates of gun ownership, a lack of mental health services, or insufficient training for officers responding to people in crisis.

Ms. Fizer’s parents said they know only the barest facts about what happened the night she died.

She spent the last day of her life splashing around in a kiddie pool with her best friend, Taylor Browder, and Ms. Browder’s young children, talking about life and her future in Sedalia, an old railroad town of 21,000 people that is home to the Missouri State Fair. Ms. Fizer had attended the Sedalia Police Department’s citizen’s academy in 2016 but quickly decided she did not want to become a cop. She sometimes talked about working as a parole officer.

Ms. Browder said that Ms. Fizer headed home to the apartment she shared with her boyfriend to take a nap and shower before her overnight shift at the Eagle Stop gas station on the western edge of town.

At about 10 that night, a Pettis County sheriff’s deputy pulled her over for speeding. In an interview, Sheriff Kevin Bond said that the deputy “met with verbal resistance” when he walked up to Ms. Fizer’s car and that he told investigators she claimed she had a gun and threatened to kill him.

Ms. Fizer’s friends and family have a hard time believing that. Ms. Fizer’s boyfriend owned a gun, they said, but in a conservative county where the Second Amendment is sacrosanct, Ms. Fizer did not like guns or carry one.

Investigators later found five shell casings by the driver’s side door of her Hyundai, but no gun in her car.

David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, said the prevalence of guns may explain why cities and rural areas have nearly equal rates of law enforcement killings even though murders and violent crime rates tend to be higher in cities.

More than half of the people fatally shot by rural officers were reported to have a gun, according to a seven-year tally by Mapping Police Violence. Ms. Fizer was among the roughly 10 percent who were unarmed.

Ms. Fizer and the deputy who shot her were both white, a common dynamic in shootings that occur in overwhelmingly white, rural parts of the country. Black and Hispanic people are killed at higher rates than white people in rural areas, but the demographics of rural America mean that about 60 to 70 percent of people killed by law enforcement there are white, according to an analysis by Harvard researchers.

Unlike in other cases that have galvanized efforts to change policing, there is no body camera footage of the shooting. The sheriff’s office stopped using body cameras after software problems and a crash on the hard drive that recorded the data. Fixing it was “just cost prohibitive” for a rural sheriff’s office where money is tight and starting pay for deputies is $26,000, Sheriff Bond said.

Sheriff Bond said there had been no prior use-of-force complaints against the deputy who shot Ms. Fizer. The deputy, who has not been named, was put on paid leave, and the sheriff said he immediately called in the Missouri State Highway Patrol to handle the scene and investigate the shooting.

The Highway Patrol finished its investigation last week and handed over a report to the Pettis County prosecuting attorney, who had a special prosecutor appointed. Ms. Fizer’s family said they have not been told about the results of the report, and have been following developments through the news.

“If this would’ve happened in the city, something would have been done by now,” said Haley Richardson, a friend who said Ms. Fizer was kindhearted and stood up for vulnerable people. “We’re going to stay out here. We just want answers.”

Ms. Fizer’s relatives said that a divide in money and class between them and authorities in Pettis County had made them feel like second-rung citizens. Ms. Fizer was not rich, and members of her family had been in and out of prison and struggled with drug addictions.

“If you’re on the outer fringes of society you’d know,” Amy Fizer said. “They pull you over. They do what they want, when they want.”

Some of Ms. Fizer’s friends and relatives said they had already been outraged by Mr. Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis police custody, which happened about three weeks before Ms. Fizer was shot. They joined Black Lives Matter rallies as the movement spread throughout small towns across America.

But they also emphasized that they did not want to abolish the police. They supported law enforcement. Just not this deputy, or this sheriff. The aftermath of the shooting led to calls for Sheriff Bond to resign and prompted a police sergeant in suburban Kansas City to challenge the sheriff in November’s election.

“You have law enforcement running around without any body cameras, dash cameras, the minimal equipment,” said the challenger, Brad Anders, who lives in Sedalia. “The investigation, whatever it may reveal, is never going to be enough. There are questions that will never be answered.”

The anger over Ms. Fizer’s death exploded on local Facebook groups. Sheriff Bond said people had threatened to publish his home address and harassed and threatened a deputy and his family, and he warned that “instigators” were using Ms. Fizer’s death to sow “social chaos.”

When a statue of a World War I “doughboy” infantryman honoring veterans was vandalized in July in the town square — an incident unrelated to the protests for Ms. Fizer — his officers opened an investigation and arrested an 18-year-old on vandalism charges.

“Do you want this to continue and cause irrevocable harm to our community?” the sheriff wrote. “Are you willing to allow Pettis County to become the test project for some social justice experiment for rural America?”

Ms. Fizer’s father, John, had complicated feelings about the upwelling of nationwide anger at the police. He was angry. He wanted justice for his daughter. But he counted himself as a conservative Republican and worried that the protests in Sedalia could be co-opted by left-wing outsiders — a pervasive, but largely unfounded fear in small towns after Mr. Floyd’s killing.

In a Facebook post, Mr. Fizer wrote that he did not want “Antifa-type outrage here in our quiet hometown.”

“I love my law enforcement,” he said. “I’d hate to think where we’d be without them.”


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