Third of Police Shootings Started With Foot Chases, Tribune Analysis Finds
Levail Smith had just cracked open a can of beer outside a Rogers Park laundromat on the Fourth of July two years ago when a Chicago police tactical officer pulled over his unmarked car and approached him.
Smith, a 45-year-old ex-Marine with a history of mental problems, walked away briskly, ignoring the officer’s order to stop. In seconds, the chase was on.
After a short foot pursuit, officers cornered Smith in the backyard of an apartment building, where witnesses said he shouted, “I have a gun!” Three officers opened fire, wounding Smith in the chest, leg and abdomen. The officers appeared stunned upon discovering he was actually unarmed, one witness told investigators.
Smith was one of five people shot by police — two fatally — over that holiday weekend in 2014, and all involved foot chases.
An unprecedented analysis by the Chicago Tribune of every police shooting from 2010 through 2015, in fact, found that foot chases played a role in more than a third of the 235 cases that ended with someone wounded or killed.Surveillance video shows police officers shooting Dominiq Greer on July 4, 2014, in an alley in the Englewood neighborhood. (Law offices of Eugene K. Hollander)
About half of the pursuits began routinely — as police attempted to stop or question people for curfew violations, public drinking, thefts, disturbance calls or other minor offenses, the Tribune found. According to the analysis, nearly a quarter of those killed by police during foot chases were struck only in the back, a factor often cited later in civil rights lawsuits questioning the threat actually posed to officers.
Those same factors played out in the Police Department’s most recent controversial fatal shooting — of Paul O’Neal, an unarmed black teen who was wounded in the back in late July after bailing out of a stolen car on the South Side and leading officers on a short foot chase.
Experts say changes in how and when officers are allowed to chase suspects on foot will likely be an outcome of the ongoing probe by the U.S. Justice Department of the Chicago Police Department. At least a dozen previous Justice Department probes of police departments over the past two decades have called for establishing specific guidelines on foot chases, and other cities have implemented policies on their own following controversial police shootings involving foot pursuits.
Federal investigators will be particularly interested in how police shootings have disproportionately affected minorities, according to the experts. While African-Americans made up 80 percent of all those shot by police in the six-year span examined by the Tribune, an even higher number of those shot during foot chases — 94 percent — were black, the Tribune found.
‘Chasing bad guys’
With violence at levels unseen in decades, in part because of the proliferation of illegal weapons on the streets, Chicago police consider going after gun offenders as one of its most important missions. Indeed, police say they recovered a gun in 84 percent of the shootings by officers involved in foot pursuits, including four of the five shootings that Fourth of July weekend in 2014, according to the analysis.
“I don’t know if we would be respected or effective if we stopped chasing bad guys,” said Anthony Guglielmi, chief spokesman for police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.
Some experts say setting guidelines on foot chases doesn’t mean letting criminals run free. In fact, many departments have chosen to implement foot-chase policies to improve officer safety.
“It’s a false choice to say an officer has unlimited ability to pursue subjects or we just let the bad guy go,” said Matthew Barge, co-executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, which has helped craft and monitor policing reforms in cities across the country, including some pushed by the Justice Department.
But in a recent interview, Dean Angelo Sr., the president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, cautioned against trying to micromanage officers’ split-second decisions, saying it could do more harm than good. With more than 7,000 illegal guns seized by Chicago police in 2014, according to department statistics, the threat of violence is real.
“If there’s a (foot-chase) policy, then the officer has to call it in. It’s got to be monitored,” Angelo said. “They’re going to want to know why you’re chasing him. …To have to get into ‘Well, is this justified under the policy?’ with someone listening in on the other end and deciding if you can continue, that would be crazy.”
The data on officer shootings were released to the Tribune only after a seven-month battle with the city over its failure to fulfill public records requests. The department finally produced the data in July after the Tribune threatened to sue. Reporters then spent weeks comparing the data with information that was gathered earlier this year from the city’s police oversight agency as well as with other records, including autopsies and court records.
The Tribune’s analysis revealed case after case in which individuals being chased on foot allegedly turned and pointed a gun in the direction of officers, leaving police no choice, they said, but to shoot.
Many of the shootings took place in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods and involved chasing suspects with long criminal records who faced certain prison time if they were caught with a gun. Of the five people shot over the 2014 Fourth of July holiday, only one, 14-year-old Pedro Rios, had a clean arrest record.
Police reported that a gun had been found in 68 of the 81 instances in which a civilian ran from police before being shot. And in at least 53 of those shootings, police said the suspect had pointed or fired a gun at the pursuing officers, according to the data.
In the 13 incidents in which the person shot did not have a gun, four listed no weapon at all recovered at the scene, according to the data supplied by the Police Department. A handful listed weapons such as knives or tire irons, while one case cited a suspect armed with a “board with nails” and another listed “unknown object” and a vehicle as the weapons involved.
In justifying the shootings, police often used boilerplate language, most frequently that the officer feared for his or his partner’s life — a key requirement, under departmental policy, before police can open fire.
Experts on policing issues say that the Justice Department probe is likely looking at how often Chicago police officials used nearly identical descriptions of the officers’ actions, particularly the “turned and pointed” language used in the dozens of shootings reviewed by the Tribune.
“When you see standard or canned language, that’s good reason to be concerned,” said Jonathan Smith, a former section chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which is conducting the inquiry of Chicago police in the fallout over the court-ordered release of video of the shooting of black teen Laquan McDonald by a white officer.
‘Turned and pointed’
In the five shootings over a 36-hour period in the 2014 Fourth of July weekend, police said that three of those shot turned and pointed their weapons at officers during a foot chase.
That was the case with Rios, an eighth-grader who was crossing busy Cicero Avenue in the Old Irving Park neighborhood just after dusk on July 4 when two Chicago police officers in a marked squad car saw him holding his right hand to his side as though he had a gun, according to police reports. The officers made a U-turn to catch up to him, and Officer Nicholas Redelsperger, then a 16-year veteran of the force, got out of the squad car and called to Rios to stop and come over to talk.
Instead, Rios allegedly turned and pointed a long-barreled .44 Magnum handgun — later described by a police union official as a “Dirty Harry gun” — at the officers and took off running. Redelsperger chased Rios on foot past a low brick building on the northeast corner of Cicero and Berenice avenues while the other officer, Eric Bellomy, drove the squad car into the alley to cut off Rios’ path.
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Nearing the mouth of the alley, Rios allegedly turned again and pointed the gun at Redelsperger, who fired two shots, striking Rios twice in back, according to autopsy results. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 10:07 p.m.
The large silver revolver Rios was carrying was lying in the middle of the alley when evidence technicians arrived, according to police reports. Tests showed the gun had not been fired.
Speaking to news outlets that night, Pat Camden, then an FOP spokesman, said Rios’ own actions led to his shooting.
“It kind of shows you that there are people in the world who don’t think right. If you point a gun at a policeman, you will get shot,” Camden said. “You put your hands in the air, I guarantee you, you will be fine.”
A pending federal lawsuit brought by Rios’ family disputes Redelsperger’s claim he was in fear of his life, noting Rios was shot in the back.
Similar allegations are often made in lawsuits against the city over police shootings — many of which have been settled for seven-figure sums. The Tribune’s analysis showed that of the 30 people who were killed by police after a foot pursuit, at least seven had been shot only in the back side of their bodies.
Police, however, say an armed suspect can still pose a threat while running away. Speaking to reporters after the Fourth of July weekend shootings, then-Superintendent Garry McCarthy gestured behind his back, miming how a fleeing suspect was very capable of shooting at the officers chasing him while being wounded himself in the back by police.
In a ruling just last month, the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates every police shooting, found that Redelsperger was justified in shooting Rios even though investigators noted that the officer’s assertion that the gun was pointed in his direction couldn’t be confirmed by witnesses or video.
“It is undisputed that (Rios) was running away . . . both times the officer fired his weapon,” the IPRA report stated. “Even if Rios did not intentionally point the gun at (Redelsperger), it is possible, if not likely, t hat (Rios) turned to see whether and how closely the officer was in pursuit, and, in so doing, gave the officer the impression that he was threatening use of the gun.”
Attorney Mark Brown, who represents Rios’ family, said it was “disheartening there isn’t a higher level of scrutiny” when officers claim someone running away from them turned and pointed a weapon.
Attempts to reach Redelsperger and the other officers involved in the five Fourth of July shootings were unsuccessful, and the Police Department declined to make any of the officers available for interviews. rr
‘Pale as ghosts’
In examining foot pursuit policies in other cities, Justice Department officials often zeroed in on the pretext behind the stops. If minor offenses — such as trespassing and public drinking — touched off a large number of the chases, it raised red flags, according to Smith, who is now the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
The Tribune’s analysis found that was the case in 40 of the 81 shootings by Chicago police that involved a foot chase.
Two of the five Fourth of July shootings began with seemingly routine calls. The day after Rios was killed, tactical officer Roman Zawada and his partner were on patrol when they saw Neven Woods drinking in front of a boarded-up house in the Englewood neighborhood. When the officers got out of their car to ask questions, Woods took off running, according to police reports.
Woods, identified by authorities as a known gang member, jerked a .38-caliber revolver from his waistband and held it at a 90-degree angle at his side as he ran through the alley with Zawada close behind, according to police statements.
Zawada yelled for Woods to drop the gun and then, from about 5 feet away, fired a single shot into Woods’ right buttock, according to records reviewed by the Tribune.
Police charged Woods, then 23, with being a felon in possession of a gun, assaulting an officer with a weapon, having a weapon with a defaced serial number and being an armed habitual criminal. The criminal charges are still pending, but IPRA has ruled the shooting justified. Woods’ criminal defense attorney declined to comment, citing the pending case.
Just 24 hours earlier, a street stop that started under similar circumstances — drinking in the public way — ended with the shooting of Smith.
Tactical officer Timothy Manning, who like Smith is a former Marine, had worked until 3 a.m. the night before as hundreds of additional officers were put on the street to try to quell violence over the holiday weekend. Two hours into his second shift of the day, Manning spotted Smith with the beer and confronted him, according to court records. A lawsuit filed by Smith alleged Manning already had his hand on his gun as he approached.
Smith, a 6-foot-6 slender man in fitted clothes, fled on foot. With Manning sprinting after him, Smith scaled a 6-foot fence and hid in the vestibule of an apartment building. Manning, a seasoned officer with nearly eight years of experience at the time, started ringing doorbells. When a tenant buzzed the officer in, Smith slipped through the front door and then ran through an apartment and down a flight of stairs leading to the backyard with Manning on his heels, according to police reports.
A handful of officers who responded to Manning’s call for backup confronted Smith in the yard with their guns drawn. Witnesses said Smith had his hands down at his sides but was shouting, “I have a gun!” according to police reports and IPRA records.
Three officers opened fire, shooting at Smith a combined eight times and striking him in the chest, leg and abdomen. When officers approached Smith and discovered he was unarmed, a witness who was barbecuing in the yard next door told IPRA investigators, “They went pale as a ghost.”
“They could not believe it … they showed remorse immediately,” the witness said, according to a transcript of his testimony.
At the scene that day, Camden described the incident as a case of attempted “suicide by police.” One of the officers who was there later told investigators Smith had said he was “tired of this life.”
Smith underwent hours of surgery but survived. He was convicted on a trespassing charge, records show.
Smith, whose experience in the Operation Desert Storm conflict left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, ran out of fear, his attorney Lance Northcutt said. Manning, meanwhile, told IPRA that he suspected Smith was armed and that he was reaching for his waistband when he pulled the trigger. Officers Hector Davila and Allen Finley told IPRA investigators they heard the gunshot and, fearing that Manning had been shot, they made the split-second decision to fire as well.
“The notion that he was one minute outside on a sunny day, drinking a beer and all of a sudden wanted to commit a suicide by police belies the facts,” Northcutt said.
IPRA closed the investigation with no finding of wrongdoing. In July, the city settled a lawsuit filed by Smith for $450,000.
The Justice Department has pressured at least a dozen other cities to examine guidelines on foot chases in recent decades.
Most of the changes have followed a set of recommendations first rolled out by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2003.
In Las Vegas, officers are now required to weigh the physical danger of following a suspect into a confined space such as an abandoned building. In Portland, Ore., police must end foot pursuits if the subject they are chasing poses no immediate public threat, they lose the cover of their partner or they can identify the suspect and apprehend him later.
Often, under foot pursuit policies, officers must weigh the severity of the crime before beginning a chase. In Dallas, a foot-chase policy implemented several
years ago after a controversial police shooting emphasizes that “flight alone does not constitute sufficient legal justification to detain or arrest an individual.”
Amid the ongoing Justice Department probe in Chicago, IPRA has already called for a series of reforms including spelling out when it is appropriate for officers to chase suspects or to use deadly force during a foot pursuit. The recommendations were outlined in a report released after the agency concluded that there wasn’t always evidence that suspects posed “an imminent threat to the officer or anyone else” before being shot.
“We have reviewed many cases in which the subject is fired upon while fleeing from the officer,” the report noted.
Despite the growing chorus for reforms, change has been slow to come in police departments across the country, according to a national survey released last year by associate criminal justice professors Robert Kaminski of the University of South Carolina and Jeff Rojek of the University of Texas at El Paso.
Among the roughly 500 agencies that responded, just 15 percent reported that they had written foot pursuit policies.
“(T)he vast majority of agencies left the decision to pursue to officer/deputy discretion,” the authors noted.
While Chicago is among those cities without a formal policy, Angelo, the FOP boss, said there are already common-sense training measures on the books that take into account officer safety, such as not separating from your partner during a chase, especially if you don’t have a radio. Still, he said, once a chase is on, adrenaline often takes over.
“I’ve been chasing someone and I don’t have a radio,” he said. “You just go. This is your job. He needs to get caught for whatever reason it is. And then you come back and you think about it and your partner goes, ‘Man, where were you?’ And (he) gives you a crack upside the head and says, ‘What are you, stupid?’ And it was stupid.”
The Tribune’s analysis found that many foot chases began with calls from residents who’d heard shots fired or saw an armed person roaming their neighborhood.
That was the case when Officer Lawrence Cosban and his partner responded to a pre-dawn dispatch call on July 4 about two armed males seen entering an apartment building in the Englewood neighborhood. They spotted Dominiq Greer standing in the street outside of the building. Cosban, a rookie with two years on the job, tried to interview the 23-year-old, but Greer ran across a commercial stretch of Vincennes Avenue, according to police reports. Cosban trailed closely behind.
A security camera mounted overhead recorded Greer as he ran into a dark alley and tried to ditch the gun he was carrying. But Greer’s attempt at hurling it onto a rooftop fell short, and the gun tumbled instead through the air before slamming to the ground and discharging.
The video shows Greer stumble forward and try to steady himself on the asphalt with his hands before Cosban rounded the corner with his gun drawn.
Cosban told an IPRA investigator that he saw Greer on the ground and ordered him to raise his hands and stay still. When Greer allegedly didn’t comply, Cosban fired eight shots, striking Greer seven times in the back, chest, legs and arms, police records show.
Greer, who survived, filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the police earlier this year, but in a bizarre turn of events, he was arrested by officers outside his lawyer’s office and charged with first-degree murder in a 2015 slaying. IPRA ultimately ruled that Cosban acted within department guidelines.
A few miles from where Greer was shot, officers responded to another July 4 call of a person with a gun in the Gresham neighborhood. As officers approached the scene, they saw Warren Robinson, 16, walking down the street near 87th and Sangamon streets in a black hooded sweatshirt that matched a description given by the caller, police said.
Robinson ran down 87th and was chased by Officer Francisco Mendoza, who later said he saw him with a gun in his hand, according to police reports. As Mendoza turned a corner onto Sangamon, he saw Robinson crouched by a front porch apparently trying to blend in with a party going on at the residence. The teen then ran through a gangway and into the backyard, where he hid under a disabled car that was parked in back, according to police records.
Two other officers, Michael Wagner and Armando Garza Jr., cornered Robinson under the vehicle and ordered him to drop his weapon. Instead, Robinson started to crawl out from under the car still holding the gun in his hand, prompting all three officers to open fire, according to police reports.
According to an autopsy report, Robinson was shot 18 times. Eleven bullets riddled his upper and lower back, so many that the “paths of each individual bullet and wounds cannot be determined,” the report stated. Seven more bullets penetrated the back of Robinson’s shoulders, arms and forearms. He was pronounced dead on the scene shortly before 7 p.m.
A wrongful death lawsuit is pending in federal court. Michael Oppenheimer, the attorney representing Robinson’s mother, did not respond to repeated calls for comment on the case.
At his news conference recapping the bloody weekend, then-Superintendent McCarthy said Robinson had pointed a loaded .38-caliber pistol at the officers numerous times. He bristled when a reporter asked whether the police bore some of the responsibility for citizens being shot.
“That’s absurd, and quite frankly I’m outraged by it,” said McCarthy, who a year and a half later would be fired over the Laquan McDonald shooting scandal. “Try taking a gun out of somebody’s hands. Have you ever done it? It’s a little difficult to do.”