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Police urge calm in wake of shooting of teen
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A memorial of flowers near where Courtney Williams was shot and killed by Minneapolis police. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
Police-community relations in Minneapolis are once again strained after the shooting death of a black teenager by a police officer this weekend. According to police accounts, Courtney Williams, 15, pointed a gun at a police officer before the officer shot and killed him. The weapon police found near Williams was a pellet gun. Family members of the dead teenager and some of his friends who were with him that night are critical of the police officer's decision to use lethal force. Police officials are investigating the shooting and are asking for community members to remain calm.

Minneapolis, Minn. — It was just after midnight Sunday when police officials say officer Scott Mars, a seven-year veteran, responded to 911 calls from a north Minneapolis neighborhood that a young man was carrying a gun. The police believe Courtney Williams fit the description of the suspect. They say Mars told Williams to drop the gun. And they say Williams started to run, then stopped, turned and pointed the gun at officer Mars. Police spokesman Ron Reier says it was dark and the officer had to act quickly.

"This is shortly after midnight. It's very, very dark. Officers can't tell age. Not that age makes a difference once you have a weapon. And then, what looks like a gun is pointed toward the officer. The officer shot," according to Reier.

Williams was pronounced dead at 1:25 a.m., at a nearby hospital. The gun they found was a pellet gun. Reier says it resembled a .45-caliber handgun.

Reier says the incident is a tragedy for all involved. But he says police officers have a duty to use whatever force necessary to protect the safety of themselves and others.

"Officers are not taught to kill a person. Officers are not taught to shoot a person so they die. Officers are taught and trained to stop the threat."

There have been several officer-related shooting deaths in Minneapolis over the last four years. Last year, Walter Collins, a suspect in a drug deal, was chased and shot dead by officers in north Minneapolis. His death sparked an angry reaction that led to federal mediation between a group of community activists and the police department.

As a result of the mediation, a group called the Police Community Relations Council was formed. The council is made up of activists and police personnel. Their charge is to make sure the mediation agreement is being followed.

"Right now there's the police department's account, and there are some other kids who were out there who were saying he didn't have a gun," says Rev. Ian Bethel, a co-chair of the council.

Bethel says he's also heard people saying that Courtney Williams was shot in the back. However, he says police chief Bill McManus told him the teenager was shot in the forehead and chest. Bethel says he's willing to take McManus' account that the teenager was facing the officer at the time of the shooting.

Bethel admits that children need to be taught that they shouldn't be running around with guns and that they should obey police officers. However, he has concerns, along with friends and family members of the deceased about the shooting, such as -- why did the officer shoot Williams in the head and chest? He says he wants answers from the officers on the scene and he wants them quickly. Bethel says the longer the police take to release information about the shooting, the more likely community members are to think the police are hiding something.

"That's one of the things that I pushed for in the mediation process. Get the information out immediately. The sooner you do, the better for all parties involved. But especially the family," says Bethel.

Despite his questions about the case, Bethel says he believes McManus is doing the best he can. He says McManus has talked with people close to the family and has released some new information about the case. However, Bethel says McManus has asked for that information to remain private. Bethel says the chief might get some heat for doing so, but he says it's a gesture that reflects the chief's desire to prevent this tragic incident from tearing apart the already fragile relationship between the police and the black community.

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