By Mark Berman and Mark Guarino December 7, 2015
CHICAGO — Prosecutors in Chicago will not file criminal charges against a police officer who shot and killed a black man last year, an incident that occurred a week before a different fatal shooting that brought national scrutiny to Chicago’s police force, officials said Monday.
The decision was announced by Anita Alvarez, the state’s attorney for Cook County, Ill., and came on the heels of the Justice Department announcing plans for a broad civil-rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department.
Alvarez held a lengthy news conference Monday to announce the decision, going over details of the investigation, what police and witnesses said and playing a dashboard camera video that captured a portion of the incident.
George Hernandez, a Chicago police officer, shot and killed Ronald Johnson III in October 2014, the week before a different officer shot and killed Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old. The fatal shooting of McDonald was captured in a graphic dashboard camera video that was released last month, drawing attention to Chicago at a time of intense national focus on how police officers use deadly force.
Johnson had left a party with three other people when someone opened fire on their car, so they eventually parked and got out of the car, Alvarez said. No one was hurt, but the bullets shattered the rear windshield and damaged the car.
These officers saw that Johnson was carrying a gun and ordered him to drop the weapon, but he instead ran away while holding the gun, Alvarez said. He encountered other officers and, prosecutors say, there was a physical struggle between Johnson and an officer who wound up knocked to the ground while Johnson ran away.
Hernandez was with two other officers getting out of an unmarked police car when Johnson ran behind their car. Hernandez fired five shots, striking Johnson twice.
“Based upon an objective review of the evidence and the law, we have determined that the prosecution could not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the actions of Officer Hernandez were not reasonable and permissible under the laws of the state of Illinois,” she said.
On Monday, authorities played video footage of the incident recorded by a police dashboard camera and then replayed it in slow-motion. The video shows Johnson running behind the car and across the street, and just after as he leaves the frame, Hernandez is seen firing his gun.
During the news conference, authorities also showed a still image of Johnson that appears to show something in his hand while he was running. Prosecutors say a 9mm pistol was recovered from Johnson’s body. In addition, they played portions of 911 calls from people in that area reporting gunfire, calls that prompted responding to the scene encountered some of the men who were in the car with Johnson at the time, Alvarez said.
Ronald Johnson’s family, though, says the dash-cam video Avarez showed to reporters Monday is too grainy to determine that Johnson held a gun when he was shot.
“He has nothing in his hand. It’s too blurry to really tell because he was running and swinging his hands up and down,” Dorothy Holmes, 46, said in an interview.
Holmes described her son as someone “who put a smile on your face,” a young man who took in stray animals and nursed them back to health. And she said Monday she was disappointed that Alvarez failed to file charges against the officer.
She described Alvarez as “more his attorney than the state’s attorney.”
Michael Oppenheimer, an attorney for the family, said its federal lawsuit against Hernandez will continue to move forward despite the release of the video. He called Alvarez’s presentation Monday “a joke.”
“She spent the entire time trying to justify what the police department did,” he said. “It’s almost like she represented them.” he said.
Oppenheimer said he believes the police planted the gun found near Johnson’s body and that the dash-cam video purposely “turns away” once Johnson staggers across the street and falls dead in Washington Park. He also questioned the timeline offered by officers, saying that he believes police only gave statements after they watched the video.
Alvarez said that “all of the evidence points to the fact” that Johnson had a gun when he was shot, including accounts from other people in the car with him the night he was killed.
In a brief news release the day Johnson died, the Chicago Police Department said officers responding to a report of gunshots in the 5300 block of South King Drive found Johnson.
“A foot pursuit ensued during which time the offender pointed his weapon in the direction of the pursuing officers,” the release said. It added that after Johnson was shot, his weapon was recovered.
Alvarez said Monday that prosecutors had to carefully examine the fact that Johnson was shot in the back. Even though he was fleeing, she said he was running toward a public park and could have fired as he ran or stopped, turned and open fire.
Police officers have considerable leeway when it comes to using lethal force. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that while police could not shoot at a fleeing suspect just to prevent their escape, they are allowed to shoot if they believe the person is violent and poses a significant danger.
Earlier Monday, the Justice Department said it was launching a broad investigation into the Chicago Police Department to look at the way officers use force and to see if their actions are unconstitutional.
That federal probe followed protests and unrest in Chicago over the way authorities handled the shooting of McDonald, a teenager who was holding a knife when an officer fired more than a dozen shots at him last year.
The city released video footage of McDonald’s death last month after being ordered to do so by a judge. The same day, Alvarez announced murder charges against Jason Van Dyke, the officer who killed McDonald.
Less than a week after Van Dyke was charged and the video released, Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) dismissed the head of his police department. He also announced a new task force that would look at ways to improve police accountability.
John Escalante, the interim superintendent of the Chicago police, issued a statement Monday, saying that “it is right, it’s fair, and it is just that there be difficult questions asked anytime any amount of force is used by an officer.”
“Yet just as we must hold officers accountable when their actions are outside the bounds of our policies and our laws, we must also acknowledge that there are times when the use of force is justified,” he said.
Alvarez said that the dashboard video of Ronald Johnson’s shooting was shown to the FBI, who said they were not going to participate in the investigation.