Has Chicago shifted its stance on officer-involved shootings?

The new police superintendent suspended the police authority of three officers involved in the shooting of an unarmed black man. But will that be enough to start winning back the trust of the black community there?

Jose Osorio/Chicago Tribune via AP
Police investigate an officer-involved fatal shooting in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood July 29, 2016. The three officers who fired on the unarmed black man have been stripped of their police authority.

After a Chicago police officer shot Laquan McDonald 16 times as the black teenager walked away, with a knife in his hand, it took thirteen months before Chicago police released a dashcam video that showed the shooting, and prosecutors charged the white officer with first-degree murder.

Eight months later, it took just 48 hours before the new police superintendent pulled the badges of all three officers involved in the shooting of another black teenager.

Superintendent Eddie Johnson suspended the three officers because it appeared they violated department policy when Paul O’Neal, 18, was shot in the back Thursday as he fled from police after crashing a stolen Jaguar into two police cruisers and a parked car, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The swift response of Mr. Johnson, a pair of “fresh eyes” Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed in the spring “to confront the challenges” Chicago is facing, shows Johnson’s efforts to rebuild the city’s relationship with its police department, for decades one of the most violent in the country. Though other prompt responses, such as in Baton Rouge, La., were met with skepticism that they were publicity stunts, those in Chicago previously outspoken about excessive police force are already welcoming Johnson’s actions.  

One voice is Rev. Michael Pfleger, the pastor of Chicago’s Saint Sabina Catholic Church, and a social activist.

"So often nothing happens with police, and there's this feeling like, 'See, nobody's going to discipline (them) anyway, so why should we trust the system?'" Rev. Pfleger said Saturday, according to the Tribune. "I think Eddie [Johnson] doing something like that makes it very clear that if he feels that something was done wrongly that he's going to take an action, and that's very, very important to rebuilding trust. ... We know there's this great divide between police and the community, and one of the things that needs to be done is ... we've got to be able to see that when police do wrong they're going to be disciplined."

The clash between Mr. O’Neal and police occurred Thursday, when the department says he was chased into the South Side neighborhood in a stolen Jaguar. After O’Neal crashed into one police SUV and a parked vehicle, two officers opened fire on the Jaguar. O’Neal then collided with another police cruiser, and fled on foot. A third officer chased O’Neal, and shot the unarmed 18-year-old, sources told the Tribune. O’Neal was shot in the back, an autopsy the medical examiner released Saturday found. 

Johnson, whom Mayor Emmanuel appointed in the spring after passing over three candidates recommended by a civilian review board, suspended two of the officers of their police authority Friday, and suspended the third officer the next day.  

Johnson said Friday it “appears that departmental policies may have been violated.” Because the investigation into the incident is ongoing, police are prohibited from commenting on which policy was violated. In 2015, though, the department revised its use-of-force policy to prohibit firing on a moving vehicle if it was the only threat against the officers or others, according to the Tribune.

"While the chronology of events is complex and still under review by the department and (the Independent Police Review Authority), I have reviewed the preliminary information of our on-scene detectives and am left with more questions than answers," wrote Johnson, in a department-wide memo Friday that explained his decision to suspend the officers. "I am the first one to publicly acknowledge that policing isn't easy. ... Everyday you risk your life, make split second decisions, and rely on the training you received to keep communities safe. ... With every decision I make as Superintendent, I keep these truths in mind to be fair to you as officers, and to every Chicagoan."

To strip an officer of their police authority is much more serious than assigning them to desk duty, which is not considered punitive. The three officers involved in the shooting will be suspended until the conclusion of an Independent Police Review Authority Investigation. Johnson’s actions, then, are a drastic move away from how the city handled the shooting of Mr. McDonald in October 2014.  

Thirteen months elapsed before a court, responding to a Freedom of Information Act request by a journalist, ordered the release of the video that showed the shooting of McDonald. A few hours before the video was released, the officer, Jason Van Dyke, was charged with first-degree murder, to which he has pleaded not guilty. 

Following ensuing protests and a US Department of Justice investigation into the city’s policing practices. Mayor Emanuel began the process of trying to repair mistrust between police and Chicago's black community. One of Emanuel’s most notable steps was the appointment of Johnson, a 27-year police veteran and an African American.

As other regions across the country have confronted their own tension between police and blacks, those jurisdictions have also adopted a swifter, stricter responses to officer-involved shootings. One example is Louisiana. Just a day after Alton Sterling, an unarmed black man, was shot outside a convenience store, the governor called on the Justice Department to conduct an investigation. Although some experts hailed the governor's quick call to action, critics questioned if it was just a publicity stunt.

"Louisiana is kind of launching a PR campaign that says, ‘This is no longer who Louisiana is.’ But it is who Louisiana is. We need to remember that,” Melina Abdullah, a Los Angeles-based organizer with Black Lives Matter whose family is from Louisiana, told The Christian Science Monitor then. “This story of Alton Sterling is the same kind of story my grandfather used to tell."

"Our politicians and law enforcement … are trying to negate a negative light being shown on the city," Donney Rose, a local activist, told the Monitor then. “The politicians and law enforcement have no choice but to address it – it's shining a megawatt on Baton Rouge.”

As details continue emerge in Chicago about the death of O’Neal, with videos of the incident expected, it remains to be seen how much the suspension of the three officers will win back the trust of Chicagoans. No matter the outcome, though, Johnson’s response is, perhaps, faster than ever before. 

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