In the early hours of November 11, 2018, 26-year-old Jemel Roberson was working security at a bar in the Chicago suburbs when a shooting broke out.
Shortly after Roberson subdued the suspect at gunpoint, police arrived — and fatally shot the black, armed security guard as he pinned the suspect to the ground.
Now, nearly three months after Roberson’s death, a series of videos released this week by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office show the chaotic scene that unfolded as bystanders reacted to Roberson’s shooting.
The videos were recorded by police body cameras and bystanders’ cellphones. In one, a security guard who worked with Roberson tells police that Ian Covey, the white officer who opened fire, did so despite being told that Roberson was security. Other witnesses can be heard crying and yelling in the background.
“Your man shot my man. The police shot security. That’s what happened,” the other security guard says. Later, he continues, saying: “Do you not see us with vests on, bruh? Why would I have a vest on, bruh? This s**t ain’t for fun.”
The videos do not include footage of Roberson actually being shot by police, however, or the moments that preceded it.
Roberson’s death has drawn national attention, with critics arguing that the police were too quick to fire. The police department initially argued that Roberson ignored “verbal commands” before the shooting, but later released a second statement claiming that the shooting was a case of “friendly fire,” and that Roberson’s death was a tragic accident.
Roberson’s family disagrees, arguing that the shooting violated his civil rights. Local activists have said that they believe race was a factor in the shooting: witnesses said that Covey, a white officer, simply opened fire after seeing a black man with a gun, despite people screaming that Roberson was a security guard.
After weeks of silence, law enforcement has recently begun releasing information in response to public records requests and a lawsuit from Roberson’s family. But the releases have not come from the Illinois State Police, which is tasked with the main investigation. Instead, smaller agencies like the sheriff’s office and the Midlothian Police Department released the information independently.
Covey’s name, for example, was only released in January, one day after Roberson’s mother amended a wrongful death lawsuit filed last year to directly name the officer who shot her son. The police department then confirmed his identity in a statement, after weeks of arguing that it could not release the officer’s name due to safety concerns and the state police investigation.
“Given that the vitriol has died down slightly and given that the name was being batted around, speculated to, as well as the plaintiff pursuing it and amending the complaint, it just seemed to be time,” Nick Valadez, a lawyer for Midlothian, told the Chicago Tribune last month. In a statement discussing the recently released videos, Cara Smith, the chief policy officer at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, said that the release was a response to an open records request and was done “in the interest of transparency.”
Roberson’s death occurred in the midst of an ongoing national conversation about racial disparities in police violence and the dangers black gun owners face when interacting with police. The months since his death have raised new questions about police transparency, with his community arguing that police officials are shielding Covey from punishment.
Roberson’s death drew national attention
Roberson was working at Manny’s Blue Room Bar, in Robbins, Illinois, last November when security personnel asked a group of men to leave following an argument. Soon after, at least one man returned to the bar and began shooting, injuring some of the people in the bar. Security returned fire and Roberson detained the man.
Roberson “had somebody on the ground with his knee in back, with his gun in his back, like, ‘Don’t move,’” witness Adam Harris told the local news outlet WGN last year.
When officers from the Robbins and Midlothian police departments arrived, one officer, now identified as Covey, opened fire, killing Roberson. According to witness statements given to local outlets, Covey fired even as witnesses told him to stop. “Everybody was screaming out, ‘Security!’ He was a security guard,” Harris said.
“They still did their job, and saw a black man with a gun, and basically killed him,” he added.
In preliminary findings released last year, Illinois State Police (which is tasked with investigating the police shooting) argued that the officer gave Roberson “multiple verbal commands” to drop his weapon before opening fire. “According to witness statements, the Midlothian Officer gave the armed subject multiple verbal commands to drop the gun and get on the ground before ultimately discharging his weapon and striking the subject,” state police said in a statement.
The agency added that Roberson was not wearing anything that identified him as a security guard. Gregory Kulis, a lawyer representing Roberson’s mother in the civil rights lawsuit filed after the shooting, said that Roberson had a hat with the words “SECURITY” on it. The videos released this week show that other witnesses on the scene continued to tell officers that Roberson was a security guard in the moments after the shooting, but these accounts were not included in the first news releases from the department.
Four other people, including a man believed to be the suspect behind the bar shooting, were injured in the incident. The suspect’s name has not been released publicly and no charges have been filed over either shooting.
After previously identifying Roberson as an “armed subject” in reports, Midlothian Police Chief Daniel Delaney issued a November statement calling Roberson “a brave man who was doing his best to end an active shooter situation.”
“The Midlothian Police Department is completely saddened by this tragic incident and we give our heartfelt condolences to Jemel, his family and his friends. There are no words that can be expressed as to the sorrow his family is dealing with,” Delaney added. He told the Chicago Tribune that the department would release another statement on the shooting “after the agency concluded its inquiry and ‘all of the facts’ are known.”
Covey has been on administrative leave since the shooting.
As the shooting unfolded, Roberson was a “good guy with a gun.” It didn’t matter.
Coverage of Roberson’s shooting has focused on exactly how long it took the officer to use his weapon after he arrived at the scene, and what commands, if any, were made before he opened fire. Witness statements provided to media have suggested that the officer involved in the shooting did not react to cries that Roberson was a security guard. But the statement from the state police argued that the responding officer had no way to know Roberson was security and that he only fired after Roberson did not respond to commands.
Dorian Myrickes, a colleague of Roberson’s and one of the people injured in the initial gunfight, told the Associated Press last year that he did not hear the police officer issue any commands.
“I never heard the cop demand him to do anything, (but) everybody was telling him (Jemel) was security,” Myrickes told the AP.
The shooting prompted confusion and anger among those who knew Roberson. “How in the world does the security guard get shot by police?” asked Walter Turner, a pastor at Chicago’s New Spiritual Light Baptist Church, one of several churches where Roberson assisted as a musician, during a November interview with ABC7 Chicago. “A young man that was literally doing his job and now he’s gone.”
Others who knew Roberson said that the shooting reinforces their belief that police are too quick to use force. “It’s the continued narrative that we see of shoot first, ask questions later,” said Rev. LeAundre Hill of Purposed Church, another church where Roberson assisted, told WGN.
Roberson’s family noted that Jemel’s desire to become a police officer added to the tragedy of his death. “He was getting ready to train and do all that stuff, so the very people he wanted to be family with, took his life,” said Patricia Hill, another pastor at Purposed Church.
A spokesperson for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which is assisting with investigating the initial bar shooting, said that Roberson had a valid firearm owners ID card, but did not have a concealed carry license. The state police task force charged with investigating the shooting is expected to release its final findings in April, USA Today reports.
Roberson’s death was one of several incidents in recent years where a black gun owner was fatally shot by police. In July 2016, after telling a Minnesota police officer that he was carrying a legal firearm when he was pulled over, Philando Castile was shot while reaching for his wallet.
In July, Harith Augustus, a black barber working in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, was shot by Chicago police after an officer stopped the man and questioned him for “exhibiting characteristics of an armed person.” Video showed Augustus attempting to show an officer what appeared to be an Illinois firearm owner’s ID, before being startled by an officer attempting to grab him from behind.
And less than two weeks after Roberson’s death, police in Alabama fatally shot Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford Jr., a black gun owner trying to flee a mall shooting. Police statements initially argued that Bradford was the gunman, and later suggested that the man wouldn’t have been shot if he hadn’t “brandished a gun,” but witnesses said the man was trying to help others flee.
ThinkProgress’s Lindsay Gibbs previously wrote that Roberson’s death suggests that the calls for more armed guards that so often emerge after mass shootings carry a unique risk for black people. “Roberson was both an armed security guard and a good guy with a gun. He risked his life to apprehend a shooter. And police killed him anyway,” Gibbs writes.
On January 19, Roberson’s mother, Beatrice, held a press conference where she explained why she was finally ready to discuss her son’s death. “I want justice for my son. I want this officer put away. I want him to lose his job,” she said.
“If a young man shot a police officer, that young man’s picture would be on the TV tonight,” Kulis, Ms. Roberson’s lawyer, added according to the New York Times. “But for two months we have been looking for the name of the officer that killed Jemel Roberson.”