Police shooting of 13-year-old in Chicago leads to calls in the city for radical police reform

By Kim Bellware, Mark Guarino and Robert Klemko

April 16, 2021 at 9:39 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO — The fatal police shooting of a 13-year-old Adam Toledo has the city bracing for protests as a mayor who campaigned on police accountability searches for answers and progressives renew their call for “radical” police reforms.

A protest began Friday evening in Logan Square on Chicago’s Northwest Side, posing an earlier-than-expected challenge for a police department and a city gearing up for a potential violent reaction to the conclusion of the Minneapolis trial of Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd last year, which ignited nationwide protests. 

On Thursday, Chicago authorities released police body camera and surveillance footage of Officer Eric Stillman chasing Toledo on March 29 then firing a bullet into his chest. Toledo died at the scene despite the efforts of Stillman and other responding officers to revive him. 

The video shows Toledo, who is Latino, carrying an object police say was a firearm during the chase, but tossing it behind a fence and raising his hands in the split-second before he is fatally wounded. Police spokesman Tom Ahern described the shooting as an “armed confrontation” in a tweet on the day of the killing.

“At the time Adam was shot, he did not have a gun. Okay?” said Toledo’s family’s attorney, Adeena Weiss-Ortiz, at a news conference Thursday. “If he had a gun, he tossed it.”

In early April, in the wake of Toledo’s killing but before release of the videos, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) had called for reform of the department’s foot chase policy.

Lightfoot said she found the video incredibly 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,” she said Thursday. “We all must proceed with deep empathy and calm and importantly, peace.

“This is an important moment for us to take stock, to listen, and then to reinvest in strategic ways that will really improve the quality of young people’s lives,” she said.

Illinois state Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Democrat whose district includes the far West Side of Chicago, said Lightfoot must embrace radical police reform now.

“This was bound to happen,” said Ford, “because we have not been strong enough in fighting for and implementing reforms in the city of Chicago. And it will happen again.

“We’re going to need a mayor to understand that we need radical changes in . . . policing in Chicago. She has to make sure she puts policies in place that control behaviors . . . or people will lose their children. This is like a war on the family and the community.”

Ford has been calling for critical race theory education for law enforcement officers, many of whom have “never ever lived around Black people or Brown people, yet they spend most of their day overseeing them in their eyes.” Critical race theory, in part, says that institutions such police departments are inherently racist.

Ford along with Illinois’ House Black Caucus of 30 legislators have pushed for an end to qualified immunity for police with a bill that opens up individual officers to civil litigation if they violate individual rights. The measure also would require local municipalities to disclose information about settlements resulting from law enforcement violations. The bill passed the House Restorative Justice Committee in late March.

Others are skeptical of what they see as incremental efforts to change the police. “We are in a position where we’re trying to move the discussion toward real systemic change, not more reform,” said Chicago activist Ja’Mal Green, who participated in a protest outside the Chicago police headquarters on the South Side on Friday. “Policing in America doesn’t work. The system of policing must be taken down and we must start over.”

The Invisible Institute, a journalism nonprofit which tracks officer complaints and other police data in Chicago, said Stillman, who is White, has had three complaints filed against him since 2017 and four use-of-force reports in that span.

Stillman, who joined the department in 2015, is assigned to the 10th District on the city’s predominantly Black and Latino West Side. The complaints against him were for search-related conduct, according to the records. One complaint was determined “unfounded,” one was closed with no finding and a third is pending investigation. In the use-of-force reports, all four subjects were Black men in their late 20s or older.

Several hundred protesters who rallied in Logan Square, near the home of Lightfoot on Friday evening carried signs and banners calling for “Justice for Adam,” Lightfoot’s resignation and the abolition of the police department. Families of people who were killed by the department shared their stories and rallied support for continued pressure on police and city officials.

Sandra Nevarez, whose son Marc Nevarez was fatally shot by police in October, pleaded for officials to let young people suspected of wrongdoing have their day in court. “Illinois doesn’t have the death penalty. Is [the Chicago Police Department] now the death penalty?” Nevarez asked the crowd. “Let these kids go to court. Let them defend themselves. Let them bury their parents, not the parents bury their kids.”

According to a public opinion survey by the Chicago Index taken in March before Toledo’s shooting, 73 percent of respondents indicated they thought the city is on the “wrong track” while just 16 percent of respondents rated Lightfoot’s performance as “excellent or good.”

The Chicago Police Department fared slightly better in the survey, with 37 percent of respondents saying they were “satisfied or very satisfied” with the police force.

India Jackson, 20, speaking ahead of Friday night’s protests, said people in Chicago’s youth activist community are struggling.

“Everyone is drained that this keeps happening,” said Jackson, who leads communications for GoodKids MadCity, a youth-organized group on the city’s South and West Sides that is among the organizers of Friday evening’s protest. “But this is a different type of heartbreak because Adam Toledo was a child.”

Groups like GoodKids MadCity are pushing for the defunding and eventual disbandment of the Chicago Police Department.

Jackson said she was “floored” when news emerged in February that Lightfoot had spent $281.5 million in federal covid-19 relief money on personnel costs for CPD, a move that angered not only activists but progressive members of the Chicago City Council. The city’s budget department said money went to officers who staffed airport coronavirus screenings, a virus field hospital at McCormick Place, virus testing sites across the city and resident wellness checks.

“Criticism comes with the job of mayor, but this one’s just dumb,” Lightfoot told reporters at the time.

Jackson said, “We want [city leaders] to invest those funds into our community: schools, housing, food banks, medical centers. People are suffering from poverty and the CPD is sitting on a billion dollars.”

There has not been a critical mass of calls for Lightfoot to resign in the same way former mayor Rahm Emanuel faced widespread condemnation over his handling of the video release in the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a landmark shooting in the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.



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