Video released on Friday shows Chicago police firing repeatedly at a stolen car as it careens down the street away from them, then handcuffing the mortally wounded black 18-year-old who was at the wheel after a chaotic foot chase through a residential neighbourhood.
None of the footage from last month shows the moment Paul O’Neal was shot in the back; the fatal bullet was fired after he exited the stolen car and was running from police. Shortly afterwards, O’Neal can be seen lying face-down on the ground in a backyard, blood soaking through the back of his T-shirt.
An officer is heard angrily accusing the suspected car thief of firing at police. Another officer asks, “They shot at us too, right?” suggesting police believed they had been fired upon and that they did not know how many suspects were present.
No gun was recovered from the scene.
Attorney Michael Oppenheimer, who represents O’Neal’s family, said the video showed officers taking “street justice into their own hands”.
In all, nine videos were released from both body cameras and at least one dashboard camera. It was the city’s first release of video of a fatal police shooting under a new policy that calls for such material to be made public within 60 days. That and other policy changes represent an effort to restore public confidence in the department after video released last year showed a black teenager named Laquan McDonald getting shot 16 times by a white officer.
The McDonald video sparked protests and led to the ouster of the former police superintendent. The officer who shot him is now awaiting trial on murder charges.
The latest recording catches the stolen car being pursued by officers as it blows through a stop sign. Before gunfire breaks out, the suspect sideswipes one squad car and then smashes into another as officers open fire.
An officer can be heard explaining that the suspect “almost hit my partner. I (expletive) shot at him”. Another officer who apparently fired his weapon laments that he was going to be on “desk duty for 30 (expletive) days now”.
Soon after the July 28 shooting, Police superintendent Eddie Johnson stripped three of the officers of their police powers after a preliminary investigation concluded they had violated department policy. On Friday, he promised that if the officers acted improperly, they would “be held accountable for their actions”.
Authorities have not said specifically what policy the officers broke.
In February 2015, former superintendent Garry McCarthy revised the department’s policy on the use of deadly force to prohibit officers from “firing at or into a moving vehicle when the vehicle is the only force used against the sworn member or another person”.
But the policy also says that officers “will not unreasonably endanger themselves or another person to conform to the restrictions of this directive”, meaning they have the right to defend themselves if they or someone else are in imminent danger of being struck.
The head of the Independent Police Review Authority, the agency that investigates Chicago police misconduct, called the footage “shocking and disturbing”. She did not elaborate.
The officer who killed O’Neal said he believed O’Neal had fired at him and he returned fire with three to five rounds.
The moment of the shooting was not recorded because the officer’s body camera was not operating at the time, police said.
Police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi said the officer’s body camera could have been deactivated when the stolen Jaguar slammed into his squad car and set off the air bags. He also pointed out that the body camera suddenly starts working after the shooting — an indication that the officer, believing the incident was over, thought he was turning the camera off when he was actually turning it on.
“We don’t believe there was any intentional misconduct with body cameras,” he said.
Oppenheimer alleged that the non-operating body camera was part of a police effort to cover up what he called a “cold-blooded murder”.
Officers seemed keenly aware that they were wearing body cameras and that those cameras were recording all of their comments. At one point, an officer can be seen telling others that he did not know who was firing. Then another officer came up and said, ‘Hey,’ perhaps a quiet reminder about the cameras. Whatever the intent, the officers immediately stopped talking.
An autopsy confirmed that O’Neal died of a gunshot wound to the back.
Oppenheimer said O’Neal’s family viewed the video on Friday, and relatives were so distraught that they left without speaking to the media.
Ja’Mal Green, an activist who identified himself as a family spokesperson, repeatedly said there was no explanation other than murder to describe the shooting.
During the pursuit, more than a half-dozen officers race between houses into backyards in a desperate search for the person who fled from the car. One officer needs help scaling a wooden gate. Another is unable to climb over and walks around to the rear of another home where the suspect is on the ground.
Chicago Fraternal Order of Police president Dean Angelo said it was important the public not rush to judgment of the officers involved in the shooting.
“Due to the fact that this chaotic incident occurred in a matter of moments, each individual perspective needs to be taken into consideration,” he said, adding the union hopes the investigation is guided by “the utmost level of professionalism and expertise”.
On Thursday, before the videos were released, Angelo said their public airing would be unfair to the officers and could turn public opinion against them and even jeopardise their safety.