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City Turns On Its Own Expert In Bid To Fire Chicago Officer Who Killed 2

Last year the city of Chicago defended Officer Robert Rialmo in a civil trial. Now city attorneys are trying to prove he acted recklessly.

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A barricade is shown outside the Chicago Police Department Training and Education Academy on Tuesday, June 25, 2019.

A barricade is shown outside the Chicago Police Department Training and Education Academy on Tuesday, June 25, 2019.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

When police use-of-force expert Emanuel Kapelsohn testified last year in court about the police shooting of Quintonio LeGrier, he did so as a paid witness for the city of Chicago.

In fact, Kapelsohn estimated Chicago taxpayers paid him $35,000 to render his opinion that officer Robert Rialmo acted reasonably and within policy when he shot and killed LeGrier, and accidentally shot and killed LeGrier’s neighbor Bettie Jones the day after Christmas, 2015.

On Tuesday, Kapelsohn testified again to that same conclusion as part of a police board evidentiary hearing. But this time, lawyers for the city of Chicago sought to discredit Kapelsohn’s expert opinion as part of their effort to fire Rialmo for the shooting.

Kapelsohn’s appearance in both proceedings highlights the awkward position of the city’s law department, which just a year ago defended Rialmo’s actions to convince a Cook County jury that he was in reasonable fear for his life when he killed LeGrier and Jones, and is now trying to convince the Chicago Police Board that Rialmo acted recklessly and unjustifiably when he opened fire.

Rialmo shot and killed Jones, 55, and LeGrier, 19, while responding to a 911 call about a domestic disturbance in LeGrier’s apartment on the West Side of Chicago. Jones opened the door for police and pointed them to the upstairs apartment when they arrived. Rialmo said he was forced to shoot after LeGrier came toward him with a baseball bat. He said he accidentally shot Jones while shooting at LeGrier.

Kapelsohn testified on Tuesday that Rialmo was right to shoot at LeGrier because of the threat he posed, and that the accidental killing of Jones does not change the fact that it was a justifiable shooting.

“It is tragic what occurred, but that doesn’t mean...what the officer did was wrong,” Kapelsohn said. “He’s doing the best he can to stay alive.”

Kapelsohn also lauded the officer for demonstrating “very good shooting.” Rialmo hit LeGrier with all but one of his shots, which Kapelsohn said was about three-times more accurate than the national average for police officers firing their guns.

The one shot Rialmo missed hit Jones in the chest and killed her.

Kapelsohn testified there was nothing Rialmo could do to avoid shooting in the direction of Jones, and that he likely could not see her and did not know she was directly behind LeGrier.

In a sometimes testy cross examination, attorney for the city Jim Fieweger challenged Kapelsohn’s conclusion, pointing out that Rialmo previously testified he knew Jones was behind LeGrier and did not have time to get out of the way.

Fieweger also questioned Kapelsohn about his recent testimony on behalf of Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor.

Noor shot and killed an unarmed woman who approached his squad car after she had called 911 to report a possible rape. He was convicted of third-degree murder. Kapelsohn, who is a frequent expert witness for police officers, testified in Noor’s criminal trial that the officer’s decision to shoot the 911 caller was “objectively reasonable.”

This week’s police board hearing is one of the last steps in an accountability process that started nearly four years ago. An investigation by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability found that Rialmo was not justified in shooting LeGrier or Jones, and that he lied about aspects of the encounter. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson disagreed with those findings, saying Rialmo’s decision to shoot was within department policy, and that Jones’ accidental death was “tragic” but “nonetheless justified” because of the threat posed by LeGrier.

Now it is up to the Chicago Police Board to decide if Rialmo violated policy and should be fired. The board is not expected to make its decision for another month or more, according to a police board official.

Last year, the city of Chicago paid Jones’ family $16 million to settle a lawsuit over her death. The city fought a lawsuit brought by the family of LeGrier using Kapelsohn’s testimony as part of the defense.

The jury in that case awarded LeGrier’s parents $1 million, but also determined that Rialmo was in reasonable fear for his life when he shot LeGrier. The judge ruled that invalidated the million dollar award because if RIalmo was in fear for his life, then he was legally justified in shooting – which means there could be no wrongful death payout.

Tuesday was the second day of the police board hearing. On Monday, Rialmo testified that he had no choice but to shoot LeGrier because the teenager was charging at him with a bat, and he was not able to warn Jones or aim away from her direction because she was standing behind LeGrier.

He admitted that he did not try and give Jones life-saving aid, even though she was still breathing after being shot in the chest. Rialmo’s attorneys pointed out that he was not required to do so.

Bettie Jones’ daughter, Latisha Jones is scheduled to testify on Wednesday.

Latisha Jones was in her mother’s apartment the night of the shooting, and was with her as she lay dying from Rialmo’s accidental shot.

Also scheduled to testify Wednesday is officer Anthony LaPalermo, Rialmo’s partner the night of the shooting. LaPalermo has previously testified that LeGrier posed a deadly threat and Rialmo had to shoot, however he also said he did not see LeGrier swing the bat, or hear Rialmo tell LeGrier to drop the bat, as Rialmo described.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.

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