The irony was surely unintentional, but on Saturday the Chicago Tribune provided the perfect illustration of the opposing directions the city of Chicago and its police department are simultaneously being pulled. On the Tribune’s website, the top story concerned the shooting of Paul O’Neal, who on July 28 was killed by police after fleeing from a stolen car. Police videos of the incident were released on Friday and greeted with the sort of outrage we’ve come to expect, though in this instance the outrage is not without some justification. Immediately beneath that story was one recounting the latest mayhem in the city: “4 dead, 17 wounded in Chicago shootings.” The dead included a 16-year-old boy.
The 16-year-old and the others who died, like most of the 386 people killed in Chicago so far this year, will soon be forgotten by all but their family and friends, but Paul O’Neal’s name will be long remembered as the latest martyr in the Black Lives Matter movement. He was unarmed and reportedly shot in the back while running through the backyard of a South Shore neighborhood home. In the moments prior to being shot, O’Neal led officers on a high-speed chase in a stolen Jaguar, sideswiped one police car and crashed head-on into another before running away.
The videos released by the Chicago Police Department on Friday are troubling on a number of levels, not least for the fact that O’Neal was killed. But even exclusive of the grim outcome, the videos reveal the tactical nightmare that can arise when inexperience, confusion, and poor communication among police officers combine in a rapidly evolving, highly stressful event. They also reveal the pitfalls of recording every utterance a police officer might make in the course of such an event, then having those utterances analyzed, dissected, and misunderstood by people who themselves have never experienced even a remotely similar event.
In the videos, we first see two officers responding to the pursuit, only to find themselves in the disadvantageous position of coming head-on with the car being chased: these officers are headed south on Merrill Avenue near 74th Street when the stolen Jaguar is coming north. The body camera worn by the passenger officer shows him inexplicably with his gun already in hand as he exits the car and the Jaguar comes into view. When O’Neal tries to weave his way between a parked SUV and the police car, he clips them both. The passenger officer opens fire as the Jaguar passes. He fires his first rounds with one hand, putting one through the hood of his own police car and placing his partner, who had exited the driver’s seat and narrowly avoided being hit by the Jaguar, in genuine danger of being shot. The passenger officer appeared to fire about ten rounds in total.
The driver officer unholsters his weapon and fires what appears to be a single round at the Jaguar, which continues north and runs the stop sign at 74th Street before colliding head-on with another police car coming south on Merrill. After this collision, O’Neal jumps from the car and runs westbound down a driveway. Officers give chase, and all but one are impeded by a locked gate leading to the backyard. As the one officer makes it over the gate, more gunshots can be heard somewhere nearby. We later see the aftermath, with O’Neal wounded and dying near the back door of a home.
In addressing reporters about the incident on Saturday, Superintendent Eddie Johnson spoke of the split-second decisions officers must make. “Listen,” he said, “I’ve been involved in four police shootings and countless incidents where we had stolen autos. It’s not easy being the police.”
Which is certainly true, as far as it goes, but the job can be made easier if certain principles are observed, as they appeared not to be in this incident. What follows is one cop’s critique of what appears on the videos, one based on a long career of dealing with just this type of situation. I understand fully how easy it is, from the comfort of my home and with the benefit of hindsight, to second-guess an officer who has erred in the heat of dangerous situation. That said, it comes down to some basic principles that could and should have been observed during and after the fatal encounter.
We begin with the first two officers who fired. The driver of the car unnecessarily placed himself and his partner in danger by stopping in the street as the Jaguar approached. O’Neal very nearly ran over the driver officer. And if O’Neal had instead chosen to stop, he would have been between two sets of officers, with all of them exposed to a cross-fire if shooting were to start. The more prudent course of action would have been to pull out of the way and let the Jaguar pass. They didn’t, beginning the chain of events that led to O’Neal’s death.
The next link in the fatal chain came when the passenger officer opened fire. Chicago P.D. policy prohibits firing at moving vehicles, and here the officer had no compelling reason to deviate from that policy. Making matters worse, he fired without adequate control of his weapon, at first holding it with one hand. His first or second shot went through the hood of his car, some number of the next few were fired in the direction of his partner, and the rest went northbound in the direction of not only the Jaguar, but also of homes and another police car coming south to the eventual head-on collision.
The driver officer, after narrowly escaping being run over, may have believed the gunshots he heard were coming from the Jaguar. The idea that his partner may have been firing in his direction probably never crossed his mind. But even with this reasonable though erroneous justification, the single round he fired was nonetheless inadvisable. It had little chance of having the desired effect, and it was fired in the direction of the approaching police car.
Turning now to the officers in the car that collided with the Jaguar, I don’t fault them for coming nose-to-nose with it. It must have appeared to them that the Jaguar would stop south of 74th Street, and they were eager to assist in the anticipated foot chase. As the Jaguar swerves around the first police car, gunshots can be heard, and these officers may have believed – again, reasonably but erroneously – it was some occupant of the Jaguar who was shooting.
Even after the collision and the compounding mistakes, the fatal shooting might have been avoided had the officers adhered to another basic principle: When a suspect flees “through the houses,” as we say in the trade, one must not feel compelled to chase him. Instead, set up a perimeter around the block where he is believed to be, then let the situation stabilize before conducting a systematic search with police dogs. It is clear from the videos there were sufficient officers in the area to contain O’Neal in the one-block perimeter between 73rd and 74th Streets, and between Merrill and Clyde Avenues. Had this been done, O’Neal eventually would have been found hiding behind some bushes or inside a trash can or what have you. Today he’d be in jail but alive, and the two officers who had fired at him would be facing some discipline for an out-of-policy shooting but nothing more.
As I watched the videos, I couldn’t help but wonder when I would see some evidence that someone was taking charge at the scene. Chicago P.D. supervisors, i.e. sergeants and above, can be identified by their white shirts. There were several officers in white shirts at the scene within minutes, including at least one captain, yet I neither saw nor heard anything indicating that any of them was in command of the situation. The officers who had fired were allowed to walk here and there throughout the crime scene, all the while saying things on camera they surely have come to regret. Dozens of officers milled about with no apparent direction, with many needlessly crossing through the crime scene.
It is the duty of the first supervisor at the scene of an officer-involved shooting to get answers to these questions:
- Is anyone injured?
- If yes, where are they, and is medical help on the way?
- Are all officers accounted for?
- Who fired his weapon?
- How many rounds did each officer fire, and from where?
- Which direction did the rounds go?
- Are all the suspects accounted for?
- Are there any witnesses?
- Is there any evidence that needs to be safeguarded?
When these questions are answered, the officers who fired can be sequestered while others can be directed to contain the scene and watch over any evidence, such as shell casings and expended magazines, that needs to be preserved and photographed in place. Any officer without a specific task within the crime scene needs to be directed to its outer perimeter so as to protect the scene’s integrity.
What officers must realize is that in any officer-involved shooting, the very moment the tactical situation ends, it instantly becomes a matter of preparing for litigation. Any lapse in procedure, any off the cuff remark that’s recorded, no matter how innocent, will be seized upon as evidence of some malevolent conspiracy among the police. Attorney Michael Oppenheimer has been retained by O’Neal’s family, and he began preparing his jury pool by labeling the shooting an “execution.”
It was hardly that, but the videos released on Friday will nonetheless provide Oppenheimer with much to exploit. Among the moments recorded after the shooting were the officer who shot O’Neal accusing him of shooting at the police, then asking a colleague, “They shot at us too, right?” He later says to another officer, “The way [stuff’s] going, I’m going to be f***ing crucified.” Also recorded was the first officer to fire lamenting that he faces 30 days of desk duty.
But even as we acknowledge the mistakes the officers made, it bears reminding that it was Paul O’Neal who, more than any of the officers, had control over his fate. It was he who chose to steal a car, lead police on a dangerous chase, nearly run down an officer, ram a police car, and finally flee on foot. Had he made a different choice at any of those junctures he would be alive today.
Yes, the police made mistakes, but it was O’Neal’s own choices that brought those mistakes about. If the Chicago Police Department is further villainized in the wake of this incident, whatever shrinking group of officers that remains willing to do proactive police work will continue to diminish. Before long, the headlines of the Chicago Tribune won’t include any that tell of errors by the police, for you can’t make a mistake if you never try to arrest anyone. The headlines will only tell of the worsening violence as the city collapses further and further into lawlessness.