The body camera footage of a Chicago police officer shooting Adam Toledo shows the 13-year-old boy obeying the cop’s commands to stop and raise his hands. But some experts on police use of force caution that the public should not look at that moment in isolation.
City officials released video and other records connected to the March 29 shooting on Thursday, leading to grief across the city and protests, including one Friday that drew thousands of people to march through Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Logan Square neighborhood.
“The body-worn camera footage does provide some information, including that it appears that the subject’s hands were raised and empty at the moment he was shot,” said Ashley Heiberger, a retired captain of the Bethlehem Police Department in eastern Pennsylvania.
“But we need to be aware that the human eyes and brain don’t function exactly like a camera,” said Heiberger, who writes and testifies as an expert witness about police use of force. “Simply because something is visible on the video doesn’t always mean that we can expect the officer to have perceived it.”
Chicago Detectives Chief Brendan Deenihan showed reporters part of the bodycam footage and a composite video that shows Adam and another person, identified by authorities as 21-year-old Ruben Roman Jr., walking together down a street in the Little Village neighborhood.
Prosecutors said Adam was next to Roman as the man fired a gun seven or eight times, which prompted the police response. At some point, prosecutors said, Roman handed the gun off to the 13-year-old.
Body camera video from the shooting officer, six-year Chicago Police Department veteran Eric Stillman, shows him chasing Adam through an alley and yelling for the boy to stop. Seconds later, Adam did stop.
The video put together by the Police Department freezes on a frame appearing to show a gun in the boy’s hand.
Stillman can then be heard telling Adam, “Show me your f***ing hands,” and the boy complies. The gun does not appear to be in Adam’s hand when he is shot. The officer shoots a single round as the boy is raising his arms above his head.
Christopher Cooper, a Chicago-based attorney who represents cops accused of excessive force and writes articles on the topic, said Stillman “obviously” did not see the boy toss the firearm.
“You can put 10 officers in that situation and five will shoot,” said Cooper, a former U.S. Marine and police officer in Washington, D.C., saying the shooting was justified.
But attorney Carlton T. Mayers II, a Chicago-based national police reform expert, pointed out that Adam complied with the officer’s orders.
“He put his hands up, his hands were empty and the officer still used deadly force,” Mayers said. “There was no imminent threat.”
As chilling as that moment may have been, it should not be the main focus of investigators, according to Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center.
“It’s not a question of what happened right when the officer fired,” said Bobb, who consults with law enforcement agencies on policies including the use of force. “Most officers do have a legitimate fear for their life or safety at that point.”
The key question, Bobb said, is whether the officers “got themselves to that point by some mistake of tactic or strategy, and whether the whole incident could have been contained and the persons arrested without the use of force that we saw taking place — i.e., a shooting.”
“Were there alternatives to the use of force being employed or to a method to capture the suspect?” Bobb asked.
For example, Bobb said, if Roman was the suspected shooter, and if the officer saw that man hand off the gun to Adam, it might not have been a good idea to pursue the boy.
Experts said officials should also examine how city policies factored into the shooting, from foot-chase policies to gunshot-detection technology.
Mayers pointed out that officers arrived on the scene after a ShotSpotter alert.
“Their perception is that they’re going into a situation where somebody is armed with a firearm and they’ve already discharged it,” Mayers said. “They think that there could be an imminent threat before they even get to the scene. But all that [ShotSpotter] tells you is that there were shots fired or something that sounds like a gunshot in a vicinity.”
Mayers said the sensors can’t identify shooters or determine the threat level.
“Maybe they were just playing around with the gun,” he said. “So that leaves a lot to [an officer’s] imagination as to what kind of situation they’re walking into.”