"Bitch-ass motherfucker, fucking shoot at us," a Chicago police officer told the bloodied, dying body of Paul O’Neal, an 18-year-old black man who was, to be clear, unarmed when officers shot and killed him on July 28.
It’s not clear exactly what happened at the moment of the shooting — once again, it seems like the shooting police officers’ body cameras fell or malfunctioned. But there is footage, released August 5, of other officers arriving to the scene after a tense chase, finding O’Neal bloodied and near death behind a Chicago house.
This is the scene of just the latest police shooting to trigger outrage from Black Lives Matter activists, who protest racial disparities in the criminal justice system. To many critics, it is just another example of an issue that quickly rose to the national spotlight after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.
Chicago police shooting of Paul O’Neal: what we know
Warning: graphic images of the aftermath of a police shooting:
The confrontation began on July 28 when Chicago police officers tried to stop a reportedly stolen car that O’Neal was driving. O’Neal didn’t stop — and rammed a police vehicle to get away from the officers. During this, police opened fire at the moving car — a violation of department policy.
O’Neal crashed the car into another police vehicle, then took off running through nearby houses, based on videos released by the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) on August 5. After catching up to him, police shot him when he was behind a home — the shots are heard in the video footage, but not seen.
The police officers with functioning body cameras then ran around to the backyard, where O’Neal was bloodied, dying on the floor, and surrounded by police officers. That’s when one officer said, "Bitch-ass motherfucker, fucking shoot at us." They then began cuffing him.
The shooting itself was not captured by video. But O’Neal was shot in the back and unarmed, showing that he could not have possibly shot at the officers, like one alleged. A source told a local ABC affiliate that apparently the officers who fired the fatal shots thought O’Neal had shot at officers previously on the scene.
That O’Neal couldn’t and didn’t fire a gun could be crucial to the ongoing investigation. For officers to legally use force, they must reasonably believe O’Neal posed a threat to them or others. That’s undermined by the fact O’Neal didn’t have a gun, but the officers may potentially argue that O’Neal proved to be a violent threat when he rammed a stolen car through police vehicles.
The shooting is under investigation by the IPRA. Sharon Fairley, chief administrator of the agency, said in a statement that the agency working "as deliberately and expediently as possible in pursuit of a swift but fair determination" over the shooting, the Chicago Tribune reported. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson also stripped three officers of their police powers, saying they appeared to violate Chicago police policies.
On video, the officers involved in the chase and shooting are heard discussing the possible consequences of their actions — how the media will react and whether they’ll get placed on desk duty or fired. One officer remarked, "I’m going to be fucking crucified."
With the lack of footage of the actual shooting and an officer proclaiming O’Neal, unarmed, fired at the officers, Black Lives Matter activists are skeptical and suspicious of the police’s side of the story. Over the past few years, several police accounts of shootings or killings have also fallen apart when interrogated with video evidence — making it especially hard for activists and protesters to take cops at their word.
This shooting is yet another example of body cameras falling off or malfunctioning at a critical time — in the moment the public most needs the cameras to work properly. (The most recent example is the police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.) This raises questions about the efficacy of these cameras: Are they not reliable? Are they of poor quality? Or are officers tampering with the equipment when they know they’ll face scrutiny for their actions if they’re caught on camera?
And given the vast racial disparities in police shootings, the details of this shooting have a lot of Black Lives Matter activists upset.
Black people are much more likely to be killed by police than their white peers
An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox’s Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: They accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it’s based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.
Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica’s Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica’s analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."
There have been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, six police officers were indicted for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.
One possible explanation for the racial disparities: Police tend to patrol high-crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black. That means they're going to be generally more likely to initiate a policing action, from traffic stops to more serious arrests, against a black person who lives in these areas. And all of these policing actions carry a chance, however small, to escalate into a violent confrontation.
That's not to say that higher crime rates in black communities explain the entire racial disparity in police shootings. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, "There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates." That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.
One reason to believe racial bias is a factor: Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."
Part of the solution to potential bias is better training that helps cops acknowledge and deal with their potential subconscious prejudices. But critics also argue that more accountability could help deter future brutality or excessive use of force, since it would make it clear that there are consequences to the misuse and abuse of police powers. Yet right now, lax legal standards make it difficult to legally punish individual police officers for use of force, even when it might be excessive.
Police only have to reasonably perceive a threat to justify shooting
Legally, what most matters in police shootings is whether police officers reasonably believed that their lives were in immediate danger, not whether the shooting victim actually posed a threat. So in the O’Neal case, the question is whether the officers involved thought he reasonably posed an immediate threat to them or others.
Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies use of force, told Vox’s Lind. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — what departments call the "defense-of-life" standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.
The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger said, comes from a Supreme Court decision called Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He’d stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn’t shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, "they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you’ve got a violent person who’s fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."
The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer’s "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.
That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who’d survived his encounter with police officers, but who’d been treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broken his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack.
The court didn’t rule on whether the officers’ treatment of him had been justified, but it did say that the officers couldn’t justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.
What’s "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can’t just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now," Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, said.
In general, officers are given lot of legal latitude to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.
For some critics, the question isn’t what’s legally justified but rather what’s preventable. "We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most are preventable," Ronald Davis, a former police chief who heads the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Washington Post. Police "need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun," he added. "When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot."
Police rarely get prosecuted for shootings
Police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.
"There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility," David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Amanda Taub for Vox. "And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction."
If police are charged, they’re very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.
The statistics suggest that it would be a truly rare situation if the officer who shot and killed O'Neal was convicted of a crime. In this case, the family doesn’t even have the advantage of video footage of the shooting itself, which persuaded prosecutors before to press charges for the police shootings of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Laquan McDonald in Chicago.