By Jeremy Gorner and Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
CHICAGO — In their training, Chicago police officers are presented with scenarios in which they’re confronted by dangerous individuals while other people are nearby. The goal is to eliminate the threat while keeping bystanders safe.
Yet over the years, innocent victims have been shot by police, most recently last weekend when an officer shot and killed Bettie Jones, a 55-year-old mother of five. Interim police Superintendent John Escalante quickly acknowledged the shooting was an accidental misfire by an officer aiming at a 19-year-old student who police said had a baseball bat and was being combative.
The fatal shooting of Jones and the student, Quintonio LeGrier, has come under especially intense scrutiny in light of the federal civil rights investigation prompted by the release last month of a dashboard camera video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots at Laquan McDonald.
The department’s training figures to be one component of the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation. One longtime Chicago officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said firearms training includes teaching officers to assess their surroundings, taking into account whether people are nearby.
But they must balance everything against the threat they try to stop.
“You assess the situation and respond accordingly, but what the bottom line is if it is your life or someone else’s life is in danger, that takes precedence over everything,” the officer said.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the department does not keep track of innocent bystanders shot by police officers.
In the split-second that life-or-death decisions must be made, mistakes clearly happen. In 2010, an officer on the West Side accidentally shot a fellow cop while aiming at a man carrying what turned out to be a paintball gun.
Some situations might seem an obvious call — a report of a gunman at a crowded downtown festival, for example, would dictate not firing a gun.
Yet one of the most infamous examples of a police officer taking an innocent life was the 2012 killing of Rekia Boyd, who was mistakenly shot in the head when off-duty Detective Dante Servin fired into a group of people outside his West Side home.
Servin fired from his car at a man he claimed was pointing a weapon toward him after the officer told the man and his friends to keep the noise down. Servin struck and wounded his intended target, Antonio Cross, early morning March 21, 2012, but also hit Boyd, who was standing a few feet away.
Servin’s actions led to rare criminal charges against a Chicago police officer in the death of a civilian. He was acquitted in a trial that turned largely on legal questions of whether the off-duty officer fired his weapon intentionally or was reckless. But the department’s internal investigation into his actions focused on whether he violated Chicago police policy that morning, including firing into a crowd.
Servin has maintained he feared for his life that night. And, according to the Independent Police Review Authority documents, he said he did not believe anyone else was in harm’s way when he fired his weapon. In the end, the IPRA concluded that though Servin “could reasonably believe” there was a “threat to his or her safety,” he should not have fired.
“However the same officer would also reasonably identify the inherent danger that could result in firing his or her weapon at a subject in close proximity to innocent bystanders,” an IPRA investigator said in a report. “The level of care and concern expected of an officer with similar training and experience, in a similar circumstance, makes Detective Servin’s use of deadly force objectively unreasonable, and therefore in violation of policy.”
IPRA recommended in September that Servin be fired, a move that was backed by former Superintendent Garry McCarthy shortly before McCarthy was fired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel amid the McDonald video fallout. The matter is now before the nine-member mayoral-appointed Chicago Police Board.
According to the Chicago police general orders, officers are not allowed to fire into crowds, fire warning shots or fire into buildings or through doors, windows or other openings when the person being targeted isn’t visible. They’re also prohibited from shooting people trying to kill themselves or fire at a moving vehicle when the vehicle is the only weapon being used against the cop.
David Klinger, an expert on police use of force, said officers being trained for shootings must take into account people standing behind the person they’re targeting, as well as others to the side or in front of the suspect. Klinger said officers must practice what he calls “subject discrimination,” getting an idea of who is the likely innocent bystander and who is the likely suspect when pulling up to a scene.
Ultimately, training and experience come into play, the longtime Chicago officer said. “When the stress level goes up, normally performance goes down unless you have been in pressure situations before, and you are able to still perform with a clear head and see things,” he said.
(c)2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Protesters demonstrate at City Hall in Chicago, Illinois, United States, December 31, 2015. REUTERS/Alex Wroblewski