By Mark Guarino
Oct. 27, 2020 at 7:42 p.m. CDT
WAUKEGAN, Ill. — Attorneys representing the family of a Black man police fatally shot last week and his wounded girlfriend applauded the quick firing of an officer but said Tuesday they still plan to file a civil suit against the city.
“We want policy changes,” Antonio Romanucci, a Chicago-based civil rights attorney, said at a news conference. “Waukegan has done right with [firing the officer], and now we want to make sure it won’t happen again.”
Waukegan police say one of their officers fatally shot Marcellis Stinnette, 19, and wounded his girlfriend, Tafara Williams, 20, in their car around midnight last Tuesday in the lakeside city about 40 miles north of Chicago. Stinnette and Williams were unarmed, police said.
The police department has not named the officer, whom it identified as a Hispanic man who is a five-year veteran of the department. He was fired Friday. The initial police report said the officer was “in fear for his safety” after the vehicle Williams was driving moved in reverse toward him.
That account contradicts the bedside testimony of Williams, who told reporters via Zoom at the news conference that after the officer arrived, she “drove away slowly because” she was “scared to get out of the car.” She said the officer started firing after she lost control of the vehicle and crashed.
Williams said the fateful night started after she and Stinnette put their 7-month-old to bed. She said she went outside to smoke a cigarette in the parked car outside their home, and Stinnette joined her in the passenger seat. She said the officer called Stinnette by name and said he recognized him “from jail.” She said they both had their hands up when the officer fired.
“When I moved, blood seemed to pour out of my body, onto the car, on the ground, everywhere,” she said. “I could hear Marcellis still breathing. I said ‘please don’t shoot, we have a baby, we don’t want to die.’ ”
Williams said police dragged Stinnette from the car and left him on the ground. “They wanted us to bleed out on the ground,” she said. Stinnette was pronounced dead at a hospital. Williams remains hospitalized with stomach wounds.
“Her injuries are substantial. She will have permanent scars and disfigurement,” said Ben Crump, an attorney for the family.
Mayor Sam Cunningham said the city will release body-cam and dash-cam video of the shooting this week after both families have reviewed the footage. The FBI and the Illinois State Police have partnered to open an investigation.
The city’s swift termination of the officer is “highly unusual” for police shootings, said Randolph McLaughlin, co-chair of the civil rights practice at Newman Ferrara in New York, which specializes in police misconduct cases.
Police union contracts typically prohibit the immediate firing of officers involved in shooting deaths, he said, adding that officers “have due process rights, also as a public employee, not to be fired without cause or a process.”
“If it’s a clear-cut case of an unjustified shooting and no evocation and no doubt, then sure, maybe you eliminate that person immediately,” he said. “But that’s a rare situation.”
In nearby Kenosha, Wis., officer Rusten Sheskey was put on administrative leave in August after video showed him firing seven shots into Jacob Blake’s back as the Black man was entering a car with his children. In 2015, Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke, who fired 16 shots into Black teenager Laquan McDonald, remained on the force until he resigned in 2019.
Attorneys for Williams and Stinnette’s family say Waukegan’s promise of transparency and dismissal of the officer are steps other cities should adopt in police shootings of unarmed citizens.
“We want to make this city . . . an example of accountability and transparency in policing. What Waukegan has done is give this family a sense of peace,” Romanucci said. “Do you hear me, Chicago? Do you hear me, Milwaukee? Do you hear me, Minneapolis? This is a time for change.”
Crump said Kenosha officials “can learn from Waukegan” in how to deal with police accountability but suggested that deeper reform is required in how police interact with Black residents in their respective cities.
“Shoot first, and you ask questions later: That seems to be the connection between these two tragedies of these two cities in such close proximity to each other,” he said.
Kenosha police say Sheskey drew his firearm because Blake did not respond to a taser and could not be subdued. State investigators from the Wisconsin Department of Justice have said that they found a knife on the driver’s side floorboard of Blake’s car. His family has said he did not have a knife in his hand when he was shot.
Stinnette’s death added to the list of Black people killed by police during a year of mass protests nationwide. On Monday night, a Philadelphia neighborhood erupted in protests, and later looting, after police killed Walter Wallace, 27, during what relatives said was a mental health crisis. The officers have not been identified.
The close-knit nature of Waukegan, home to fewer than 90,000 people, distinguishes the situation from police shootings in bigger cities. According to attorneys, Cunningham’s family knows the families of both Williams and Stinnette. Crump, who also represents Blake’s and George Floyd’s families, said Cunningham, the first Black mayor of the city, told him Tuesday the case “is personal to him” because he knew Williams since she was a child.
Latoya Johnson, Williams’s aunt, said her mother told Cunningham’s grandmother “you better do right by my family” in a phone call.
Planning to release the video quickly and firing the officer suggests the city is making a preemptive argument in a potential civil case that it has “adequate policies and supervision” in place to deal with rogue officers, said Keith Findley, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who specializes in the use of video in police misconduct cases. “For the police department to take such strong actions suggests, from some source, they have very strong evidence that the officer at least failed to comply with department procedures or worse,” he said.