By Mark Guarino, Meryl Kornfield and Kim Bellware
April 15, 2021 at 8:50 p.m. CDT
CHICAGO — More than two weeks after a Chicago police officer shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo, a police oversight agency on Thursday released a video of the March shooting that had set the city on edge.
The graphic video, which the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) posted to its website, shows the police officer chasing Adam through an alley, ordering him to stop and show his hands. Adam appears to stop at the opening in a fence, turn and raise his hands as the officer fires once, striking him in the chest.
The 13-year-old crumples to the ground and the officer immediately calls for an ambulance as he rushes to Adam, turns him over while asking him if he is okay and where he has been shot, and begins chest compressions.
The officer was identified as 34-year-old Eric Stillman in a police report included in the documents released by the oversight panel.
At the point in the video where Adam stops at the fence, he appears to be holding something in his right hand. Police say it was a gun that was later recovered behind the fence. But a lawyer representing the Toledo family said it’s “not relevant” if Adam dropped a gun because he followed police orders.
“That child complied,” Adeena J. Weiss-Ortiz said. “Adam complied with the officer’s request, dropped the gun, turned around. The officer saw his hands were up and pulled the trigger.”
After police released still images showing what they claim is Adam holding a gun, Weiss-Ortiz said the video would need to be forensically analyzed before making such a determination.
“I see no evidence whatsoever that Adam Toledo shot at police,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) told reporters Thursday.
Lightfoot, the Toledo family, and attorneys for both sides released a joint statement Thursday saying the video is “the first step in the process toward the healing of the family, the community and our city. We understand that the release of this video will be incredibly painful and elicit an emotional response to all who view it, and we ask that people express themselves peacefully.”
Adam was a seventh-grader at Gary Elementary School on the South Side and lived with his mother, grandfather and two siblings in the Little Village neighborhood. In speaking with reporters Thursday, Lightfoot, her voice trembling, said the video was “extremely difficult” to watch. “I say that not only as a mother of a 13-year-old myself, but as a mother who is deeply passionate about protecting our young people.”
The footage from Stillman’s body-worn camera, along with other video, audio and text documents released Thursday, shows the scene that led up to and followed Stillman firing the fatal shot.
Cook County prosecutors said Adam and Ruben Roman, 21, led officers on a foot chase through a Chicago alley around 2:30 a.m. on March 29. Police detained Roman, who had allegedly fired shots at officers, while Adam kept running.
Stillman can be heard yelling at Adam as he chases him down the alley. “Stop right f—— now! Show me your f—— hands,” Stillman says, followed by “drop it,” as Adam begins to turn around.
In the grainy, unsteady footage from Stillman’s body-worn camera, as well as security camera video from a nearby building, Adam’s right arm seems to move back behind the fence. He then turns, putting his hands up; almost simultaneously Stillman fires.
Other body-camera footage showed the chaotic scene following the shooting. Responding officers appeared confused about what had happened and who had fired the fatal shot.
“Were shots fired by police?” one officer asked.
“I don’t think so,” an officer responded.
After another officer takes over for Stillman, continuing chest compressions on Adam, Stillman steps away, seemingly distraught enough that other officers comfort him.
Minutes later, a commanding officer instructs those at the scene to turn off their body cameras.
The department’s ShotSpotter technology recorded eight shots fired; a total of seven shell casings were found at the scene. Prosecutors said they matched with the Ruger 9mm handgun found nearby. Prosecutors said that gun was dropped by Adam near where he was shot after Roman had previously fired it.
Last weekend, Cook County prosecutors charged Roman with felony reckless discharge of a firearm, felony unlawful use of a weapon by a felon, and felony endangerment of a child.
COPA, in a statement, said it was in “the very early stages” of the investigation and was interviewing civilian and law enforcement witnesses. Its work will focus “not only on the officer’s use of deadly force but also the actions of other involved officers leading up to and following the deadly shooting to determine whether each officers’ actions complied with Department policy directives and training.”
Stillman, according to a report, is on administrative duty. He has been a Chicago police officer since 2015. Stillman was named in three complaints and four use of force reports between 2017 and mid-2000, according to Invisible Institute, a journalism nonprofit group that tracks Chicago police data.
Tim Grace, an attorney for Stillman, accused Adam of not complying with Stillman’s commands and said the officer was “faced with a life threatening and deadly force situation.”
“The officer had no place to take cover or concealment, the gun was being orientated in his direction and he was left with no other option,” Grace said in a statement.
Grace blamed “the media” for fanning the flames and accused Roman, seen with Adam before Stillman shot him, of giving the teenager a gun.
Many businesses in downtown Chicago had boarded up their windows by Thursday. Lightfoot said much of the preparation for social unrest was already underway because of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd. The case is expected to go to the jury as soon as Monday. Lightfoot pleaded for people to consider the Toledo family in their actions after the video’s release.
“We all must proceed with deep empathy and calm and, importantly, peace,” Lightfoot later told reporters.
Adam is among at least 265 people shot and killed by police in the United States this year, according to a Washington Post database tracking such shootings. He is among the youngest people fatally shot by police since The Post began tracking police shootings in 2015. The only younger people were two 6-year-olds and a 12-year-old, all of whom were unarmed. Adam is first person younger than 14 shot and killed by police since 2017.
Adam’s death has ignited familiar tensions in Chicago, where streets were filled nearly every weekend last summer by protesters demanding police reform. Since March 2019, the department has been under a federally mandated consent decree, but it has consistently failed to meet the majority of its court-mandated deadlines for reform measures related to how the department handles training, use of force, and accountability.
Sheila Bedi, director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago, said incidents like the shooting of the 13-year-old suggest “there’s been a lack of political will” for true police reform and that the decree itself is viewed by some within the police department “as a paper tiger.”
“The decree was supposed to inject into the Chicago Police Department a respect for the sanctity of life, require de-escalation, and that officers take all other means before engaging lethal force,” she said. “The fact that a tragic incident happened under those circumstances underscores how policing can’t be reformed and the need to reduce the power and presence of police in our communities.”
Since the shooting, small marches have taken place downtown and in some neighborhoods, while some activists unsuccessfully demanded that Vice President Harris, who visited Chicago on Tuesday, press Lightfoot for greater police reform.
“The murder of this young man was not justified,” said Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef, of the Chicago Activist Coalition for Justice, an organization that planned to march downtown Thursday. “Black and Brown people are under attack and in danger. [Adam’s] life taken is a clear example of the long history of police brutality in the city of Chicago and around the country.”
Following the video’s release, reaction from city and regional officials was swift, ranging from a City Council member who owns a restaurant on the North Side sharing condolences while also pleading for protests to remain peaceful, to aldermen from the city council’s liberal wing who had backed proposals to defund the police.
“An armed agent of the state executed a child because that child ran,” Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said via Twitter.
Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) tweeted that “Adam Toledo should still be with us,” echoing the same sentiment about Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd — two other high-profile victims of Chicago police killings.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said the state was committed to working on systemic issues.
“This is a moment that calls for justice for our children and accountability in all our public institutions,” Pritzker said in a statement.
By Thursday evening, hours after the video was released, people had gathered by a memorial that sprung up about 30 feet away from the spot where Adam was shot.
A poster read “#JusticeForAdam” on one side and “Black And Brown Youth Are Not A Threat” on the other. Some mourners lit candles, a Mexican tradition to illuminate the way for the journey to the afterlife.
Among those who came to pay their respects was Adrian Ortiz, 32, who placed a bouquet of white roses at the memorial.
With a Mexican flag hanging out of his pocket, Ortiz stepped back from the memorial, his eyes brimming with tears.
“That kid listened. He stopped running. He put his hands up. He didn’t have a gun in his hand then. At what point did the cop say, ‘I’m going to shoot him, even if he follows the orders I’m giving him?’ ” Ortiz said. “This could be my family. This could have been me.”
Ortiz, who drove to the memorial from his South Side home on Thursday, said the video of the shooting “just tore at me.” He said he felt upset that people had questioned why Adam was out in the early morning with an older man.
“If this kid was hanging out with the wrong people, that does not justify him passing away in the street,” he said. “It just hurts a lot that we’re criminalizing him. He’s 13, and he died in an alleyway. How is that okay?”
Calls to release the video of Adam’s shooting echoed a similarly tense period in the tenure of Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), Lightfoot’s predecessor, whose second term was damaged after a federal court ordered the release of a 2014 dashboard-camera video showing a Chicago police officer fatally shooting 17-year-old McDonald 16 times. The video was released in 2015, a year after the incident. According to media reports, the mayor’s aides, city lawyers and top police officials knew of the video’s contents, which contradicted official police accounts of the shooting.
Immediately following Adam’s shooting, Lightfoot was likewise criticized for holding back the video, despite a state law that prohibits posting video material in cases involving minors. Lightfoot and Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown asked for the video’s release, and COPA subsequently determined that the law “does not bar publication of the body-worn and third-party video camera footage the agency has obtained to date,” as it said in a statement.
Adam’s family viewed the video Tuesday. Weiss-Ortiz said in a statement that the video was “extremely difficult and heartbreaking” to watch. The family asked that “Adam’s memory can best be honored by refraining from violence and working constructively for reform.”