Body Camera Failed to Record Chicago Police Shooting of Black Teenager

by | August 2, 2016

 By Annie Sweeney and Jeremy Gorner

 
Footage from police dashboard cameras and body cameras helped lead to the swift sidelining of three officers involved in the latest fatal shooting by Chicago police, but officials acknowledged Monday that the shooting itself was not captured on video.
 
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the department is investigating why the body camera worn by the officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Paul O'Neal failed to show those critical moments.
 
The Thursday night shooting came as the embattled Police Department accelerates its use of body cameras in a bid to improve transparency. Police have expanded a pilot project that started in 2015 in just one district to an additional six districts just last month with the addition of hundreds of cameras. The three officers had begun using the cameras just recently, Guglielmi said.
 
Whatever the reason, the failure to capture O'Neal's shooting shows the technology won't be the panacea that some had hoped.
 
"People's hopes and expectations have gotten a little exaggerated," said Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert on police accountability. "There is a problem with officers not turning them on. ... They are refusing to (or) not thinking about it as part of their regular work habit. It is going to take a while for us to get full compliance."
 
O'Neal, who was unarmed, was shot about 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the South Shore neighborhood after he crashed a reportedly stolen Jaguar into two Chicago police vehicles and took off running near 74th Street and Merrill Avenue.
 
Two officers had opened fire at O'Neal while he was still in the Jaguar, according to police sources. A police dashboard camera captured one of the officers firing his weapon, a source said.
 
A third officer who had been in one of the police vehicles struck by the Jaguar gave chase after O'Neal fled on foot and fatally shot him.
 
Based on a preliminary review, police don't believe that officer intentionally disabled the body camera, a source said. Rather, investigators suspect the crash or the officer's lack of experience operating the camera played a role in the failure.
 
O'Neal was shot in the back, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office.
On Monday, O'Neal's mother filed a federal lawsuit against the undisclosed officers, alleging they opened fire "without legal justification."
 
The Independent Police Review Authority is investigating the shooting, but police Superintendent Eddie Johnson moved quickly over the weekend to strip the three officers of their police powers, putting them on paid administrative duties. He didn't disclose the specific reasons for his actions other than that they had violated department policies.
 
But in 2015, the department revised its use-of-force policy to prohibit officers from firing on a moving vehicle if it was the only threat against the officers or others. The policy, however, states that officers should not "unreasonably endanger" themselves or others to adhere to the policy.
 
The swift action by Johnson won praise from critics who have long accused the Police Department of a code of silence when it comes to dealing with wayward officers.
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who has studied police misconduct for years, said it was noteworthy that Johnson acted against the officers for decisions that led up to the shooting.
 
"There are often shootings that if you were just analyzing what was happening in the last second you might say the shooting is consistent with policy and justified," he said. "But if you take two or three steps backward, there may have been no reason for the situation to have escalated to this point.
 
"That is another piece of the welcome change ... looking at the decisions and actions that led up to the shooting to see if we can do something better in the future. What do we need to train our officers better?"
 
Still, Futterman said he remained cautious.
 
"A circle the wagons (mentality) doesn't change overnight," he said.
 
In a telephone interview Monday night, Dean Angelo Sr., head of the Fraternal Order of Police union that represents rank-and-file officers, said he has talked to two of the officers. They are "concerned about their livelihood" and know they'll undergo intense scrutiny for their split-second decisions, he said.
 
Angelo said there's "a learning curve" to properly using the body cameras and that it can be difficult for officers to remember to activate them "in a heavy-stress situation."
 
Chicago's increased use of body and dashboard cameras comes as the department faces one of worst crises in its history. The court-ordered release of a video in November of a white officer shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times led to widespread protests, the firing of then-Superintendent Garry McCarthy and the launching of a U.S. Justice Department probe of policing practices.
 
According to department policy, the cameras should be activated by officers when they are making stops or responding to calls, including foot and vehicle pursuits.
 
Walker, the policing expert, said most departments allow for some latitude for officers who fail to turn their cameras on under certain pressing circumstances.
 
"We have to say that it is possible in the heat of the moment the officer did not think to turn on his camera," he said.
 
But evidence that cameras were intentionally disabled should result in discipline, Walker said.
 
At a news conference at the scene of O'Neal's shooting, a lawyer for his mother, Tanisha Gibson, announced the lawsuit had been filed Monday in federal court.
 
Attorney Michael Oppenheimer accused the officers of exacting "street justice" and expressed frustration at the Police Department's disclosure that no body cameras captured O'Neal's shooting.
 
"Supposedly, it is a new era where we get body cams to make things transparent," he said. "Many, many times police officers get blamed for something they may not have done. ... The body cams are supposed to correct that to show the truth. All we have asked is for the truth to come out."
 
Asked if his case was hurt by O'Neal being in a reportedly stolen Jaguar, Oppenheimer said the teen didn't deserve to be killed.
 
"The penalties for ... those crimes do not include death," he said.
 
O'Neal's mother did not attend the news conference, but activist Ja'Mal Green, acting as a spokesman for the family, said Gibson wanted the public to know that her son "wanted to be someone in life."
 
Still, Green said, O'Neal had his struggles.
 
"He lacked a father in his life, he lacked mentors and the resources he needed," said Green, who is free on bail after his own arrest last month on charges he attacked a police commander during demonstrations over fatal shootings by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. "And so he got caught up in a few things with his friends, but he was not a bad kid."
The IPRA investigation into O'Neal's shooting will likely take months to complete.
 
But the McDonald scandal, which included allegations that city officials tried to hide the troubling video of the shooting from the public, led to a new city policy that calls for the release of videos of police shootings within 60 days.
 
But the release of the video in this case could come even sooner than that.
 
"The superintendent said today he is pushing for the video to be released as soon as the investigation comes to a point where it will not hamper the case," police spokesman Guglielmi said Monday. "... We would defer to IPRA. Ever since this incident happened ... (Johnson) wanted it to be extremely fact-based, and he wants it to be open. ... The department has nothing to hide or conceal."
 
Futterman, the U of C law professor, said critical video such as this should be released within two weeks. How soon the department moves on the video will be another strong indication of its commitment to reform, he said.
 
(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune