YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — Tragic? No question. But an ongoing danger to the community? No, said Northern York County Regional Police Department Chief David Lash, speaking July 6 of a shooting death at the Cousler Park basketball courts in Manchester Township the night before.
“This was a targeted incident,” Lash said. “The people involved seemed to know each other.”
Not so, says the mother of 20-year-old Justin Griffith, who died of a bullet wound to the torso.
“Justin was not a target,” Chawna Griffith said Tuesday. “Justin was a victim playing basketball.”
Griffith said she believes police are handling the core investigation itself well. “Those officers are doing a really great job investigating,” she said. “They’re doing a great job communicating with me.”
Her issue is with the quick implication that someone in any case like this one was targeted.
“It’s in a way trying to give their community some calm, as if to distance it and say, ‘Don’t worry, guys. It [the problem] left when everyone else left,'” she said. “But it didn’t.”
“To say it was ‘targeted’ prior to completion of an investigation, I think, is just a bit inappropriate,” Griffith said.
“Let’s get all the facts. Let’s find out who did this. And then we can make comments about who was a target and who wasn’t,” she said.
Lash didn’t respond to four phone messages left for him — seeking an update on the investigation and now reaction to Griffith’s comments — subsequent to the initial July 6 interview, including Monday and Tuesday of this week. Police have not yet named any suspects.
Griffith said her son — who “was not perfect,” as most 20-year-olds aren’t, she said — had an agreement with her that she could check his location, based on his cell phone’s position, whenever she wanted. She did just that the night of July 5.
“I knew what he was doing. He played basketball three to four times a week,” she said. “So when I saw he was at Cousler Park, I was at ease.”
But “maybe 10 to 15 minutes later, I got a call” from an unfamiliar person calling from an unfamiliar number. She arrived at the hospital in time to watch Justin being wheeled in. She never saw him alive again.
For days, “I just lived in a state of disbelief and anger.” Now, a week after her son’s death and a day after his funeral?
“I’m not gonna lie and say that I’m not angry, right?” she said. But “today I do wake up with some peace” thanks to the people who “have all reached out to me with these stories of this young man who in some way made a lasting impression on them.”
That includes people like Matt Marshall, the athletic director at York Suburban High School, where Justin Griffith played football.
“Justin always had a passion for the game,” Marshall said. And beyond that, “Justin was a kid that had an infectious smile, a welcoming personality that was really a joy for everybody to be around.”
Marshall helped abc27 News identify Griffith — the proud Trojan wearing his No. 7 — in game footage produced by the station’s sports team in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
Chawna Griffith said she was equally touched by the words in recent days of strangers, “whether it’s the young lady who told me after a football game, he saw her sitting on the floor of the parking lot. And home [for her] was just bad. He didn’t know her. He didn’t know her story,” Griffith said.
“He just talked to her as if they were friends forever,” she said, recounting the story as told to her by the woman. “In her darkest moment, he became her friend.”
Just as he had been taught to do.
“In our home, we grow up believing that even if it’s one person, even if it’s one day, it’s our job to leave this earth better than we came,” Chawna Griffith said.
“And I’ll tell you what,” she continued. “Justin fulfilled his life. Even if it was just for 20 short years, Justin fulfilled that a thousand times’ fold, and for that, I’m grateful to be his mom.”
Her own lesson to her children carries even more meaning now.
“I have now been put into a position that I think no mom wants to be in,” she said. “But now I’m going to use this position.”
One thing she wants people to know about gun violence, speaking now as a suburban parent of any race, whose child lived in one suburb and was fatally shot in another: “This is not a city problem,” she said. “And I think it’s important that we don’t distance this problem as if it’s strictly a problem for kids and parents in the city. Because it’s not.”
She said there’s another reason to be particularly careful about the implications suggesting someone like her son was something other than an innocent, random victim — even if this isn’t the intention:
“When we’re looking at a young man of color and the first thing that comes to your head is, ‘He must have done something,’ you’re part of the problem too,” Griffith said.
Thinking of all she has heard from friends and strangers about Justin this past week — the story of one young man whom Justin talked successfully out of dropping out of school, juxtaposed with the way Justin died — what would Chawna Griffith ask not of society overall, but of young men in schools, on football fields and on basketball courts everywhere?
“What I would like to see is more young men — especially, when you leave high school, when you’re in college — go back to your schools and show other young men that there’s a different prospect,” she said. “Kids need to see other Justins. Kids need to see other young men who came through their programs come back and show them what life is like after the program.
“If we’re involved — all of us, but especially young men — then we’ll begin to see changes in all communities, not just the city,” she said.