CHICAGO – A 13-year-old boy shot in the back by a Chicago police officer was unarmed and had his arms raised to surrender when he was hit by the bullet, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday, saying the incident illustrates deeply flawed implementation of department policy on the pursuit of suspects.
The bullet severely damaged part of the Black teenager’s spine, possibly rendering him permanently paralyzed by the May 18 late night shooting, the filing in Chicago's U.S. District Court says. Police have said previously the boy was in a car suspected of involvement in a carjacking in a suburb the day before and that he jumped out and started running. He hasn’t been charged.
The excessive force lawsuit says the seventh grader, who had been a passenger, was complying with orders from officers running behind him through the grounds of a West Side gas station and screaming for him to put up his hands.
The boy, referred to in the lawsuit only by his initials, “was unarmed and did as he was instructed. But the officer still shot him — recklessly, callously, and wantonly — right through his back,” lead attorneys Andrew M. Stroth and Steven A. Hart write in the filing.
The shooting is the latest to put a spotlight on the Chicago Police Department’s history of aggressive pursuit practices, which the city had vowed to change. Reform advocates say a still-inadequate pursuit policy and poor training has too often led officers to chase and shoot suspects who posed no threat. Police have said they are finalizing a permanent policy, but one was still not in place.
The officer’s name hasn't been released and he is referred to as John Doe Officer in the filing. He was relieved of his police powers last week. The lawsuit names Doe and the city of Chicago as defendants and seeks unspecified damages for, among other things, mental anguish and future caretaking expenses.
The city’s law department said in a Thursday statement that it hadn't been officially served with the complaint and that it wouldn't comment further on the pending litigation.
The 31-page filing says the boy did not have a weapon and did nothing to make the officer believe he was armed or a danger to anyone. It adds that the use of use of force “was not objectively reasonable” and “was neither necessary nor proportional.”
Police Supt. David Brown said last week that the fleeing teenager turned toward the officer and the officer fired. No weapon was found at the scene, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the agency that investigates officer shootings, confirmed last week. COPA said it had footage from the officer’s body-worn camera but couldn’t release it because the boy is a minor.
Thursday’s filing says the officer knew or should have known that safer alternatives to a foot pursuit were available. Among them, it says, was to establish a perimeter to contain the boy, then eventually arrest him. At least one police helicopter was overhead and other officers and patrol cars were in the area, honing in on the boy, it says.
The lawsuit says the department has been agonizingly slow in bringing its pursuit policy up to best-practice standards, saying that prior to June 2021 the department had “no pursuit policy at all.”
A scathing 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Justice that accused the Chicago Police Department of “tolerating racially discriminatory conduct” by officers also singled out its pursuit practices for blistering criticism.
“We found that officers engage in tactically unsound and unnecessary foot pursuit, and that those foot pursuits too often end with officers unreasonably shooting someone — including unarmed individuals,” the report said.
The report led to a federal consent decree, a court supervised plan to overhaul the department that, among a long list of requirements, demanded that a fully upgraded police pursuit policy be in place by autumn of last year, according to the lawsuit. But the suit said the city missed the deadline.
“It not only missed the September 2021 deadline imposed by the Consent Decree, but eight months later, the policy is still not in place,” the filing says.
City officials responsible for implementing the reforms have previously denied that they have dragged their feet or disregarded deadlines.
The filing argues that last week's shooting may not have occurred had a sound pursuit policy been in place, adding that the 13-year-old “is the latest victim of CPD’s systemic failures.”
In March of this year, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced that no charges would be filed against either officer.
Police had pursued Toledo after a gunshot detection system recorded shots in the area. Toledo raised his hands and simultaneously tossed a gun to surrender, but he lifted his right hand so quickly that it was impossible for the officer to determine if the boy had dropped a gun that had been in his hand a split second before.
Foxx criticized officers in the Alvarez case, saying their actions in pursuing him after suspecting his involvement in a traffic incident helped to create the situation that put them in danger. Alvarez fell during the chase and when the officer turned a corner, Foxx said it appeared to the officer that Alvarez, crouching and pushing up from the ground, may have been preparing to ambush him.