April 07–The question put to Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson on the witness stand Thursday was blunt.
Are police officers sometimes justified in shooting a fleeing suspect in the back?
“Yes,” Johnson replied calmly in a Cook County courtroom. Then the 29-year police veteran pointed at a scar near the top of his head, saying he had a constant reminder “right here” of a suspect who had turned and fired at him years ago during a foot chase.
“Just like this,” testified Johnson, demonstrating for the jury by moving his body a quarter-turn and pointing with his finger like a handgun at the wall behind him. “So I know it can happen.”
Johnson’s bare-bones recollection of the 2005 off-duty shooting incident — the first time he’s spoken about it publicly since becoming superintendent a year ago — came in the third day of trial in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the mother of Christian Green. The 17-year-old was fatally shot in the back by a veteran police tactical officer on the Fourth of July 2013 as he ran away with a gun.
Johnson did not elaborate for the jury on what happened in the 2005 shooting. A Police Department spokesman later said Johnson, who at the time was a sergeant assigned to the Wentworth Area detective division, was working a plainclothes security job for a South Side business when a suspect tried to carjack him at gunpoint.
During the ensuing foot chase, the suspect fired four shots at Johnson, one of which apparently grazed him in the head, said spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. Johnson took cover with his weapon drawn but didn’t fire a shot, according to Guglielmi. The suspect was never arrested.
Lawyers for Patricia Green called the superintendent as a witness because at the time of her son’s shooting he was the acting street deputy who responded to the scene and signed off on the officers’ use-of-force reports of the incident. He also gave a sworn deposition in the lawsuit last year.
Dressed in a crisp white uniform and sipping occasionally from a Styrofoam cup of water, Johnson testified in Cook County Circuit Court for about an hour about his general experience working the scenes of police shootings and what he did specifically to investigate on the day Green was killed.
The appearance of Chicago’s top cop to give sworn testimony in a police shooting case was unusual and drew a horde of media to Associate Judge Elizabeth Budzinski’s tiny Daley Center courtroom. Johnson’s predecessor, Garry McCarthy, testified once during his four years as superintendent, but that was in a criminal case in which McCarthy had arrested a gun offender, Guglielmi said.
While Johnson’s testimony was mostly dry, one poignant moment took place when, during a sidebar with the lawyers and judge out of the courtroom, Green’s mother suddenly burst into loud sobs from her seat across from the superintendent.
For several awkward moments, Johnson sat on the stand, quietly staring ahead, while the jury looked on and reporters on the courtroom benches craned their necks to see.
When the judge came back in the room, she saw the commotion and told a sheriff’s deputy, “Can you take her out of the courtroom?”
Patricia Green re-entered the courtroom after Johnson’s testimony resumed.
Green’s death was one of scores of officer-involved shootings in recent years that occurred after a foot chase. An unprecedented database compiled by the Chicago Tribune shows that foot chases played a role in more than a third of the 235 police shootings from 2010 through 2015 that ended with someone wounded or killed.
The issue was red-flagged by the U.S. Justice Department in its scathing report in January that found Chicago police routinely violated the civil rights of citizens, particularly in African-American and Hispanic communities.
Last month, Johnson unveiled a list of the department’s “next steps for reform” that included new training that would cover when and how officers should engage in foot pursuits.
Johnson was not asked, however, about those reforms during his testimony Thursday.
Green was shot by Officer Robert Gonzalez on a warm, humid holiday afternoon as the veteran tactical officer and his partner, Officer George Hernandez, responded to a call that two other officers from their squad were chasing a person with a gun.
Surveillance video from a nearby liquor store played in court Tuesday showed Green trying to throw a gun into a trash can as he sprinted up State Street. The gun bounced off the can’s rim onto the sidewalk. Green doubled back, bent quickly and picked the weapon up before taking off again.
At 57th Street, Green crossed into a vacant lot with Gonzalez and Hernandez in pursuit in an unmarked Chevrolet Tahoe. The Tahoe jumped the curb into the lot. As Gonzalez was about to get out of the SUV, the officers said Green turned toward them with a black Smith & Wesson .45-caliber pistol in his right hand and pointed the barrel in their direction, records show.
Riding in the passenger seat, Gonzalez aimed out the window of the Tahoe and opened fire, taking 11 shots before seeing Green stumble a few yards and collapse. A bullet had entered Green in the left side of his back and pierced his lung and heart. He died en route to Stroger Hospital.
The gun carried by Green was found in the vacant lot more than 70 feet from the teen’s body, according to court records. Initial police reports showed that Green had been shot in the chest, a fact that was not corrected or raised by investigators with the Independent Police Review Authority when the officers were interviewed.
Johnson told the jury he arrived at the scene shortly after the shooting and spent about two hours gathering information from detectives and walking the officers through the event “to try to make a determination whether the shooting was within department guidelines.”
The superintendent said all four officers were kept separate while the investigation was ongoing — an important protocol that keeps each officer’s version of events from mingling with another’s.
“I don’t want them in a group so one person’s story becomes another person’s story,” Johnson said.
Green had been transported by ambulance by the time Johnson got to the scene and he never saw where on the body he was shot or followed up on the autopsy results, Johnson said.
Later that day, Johnson signed off on Tactical Response Reports submitted by Gonzalez and the three other officers stating Green had pointed a gun at both Gonzalez and another officer, Manuel Leano, during the foot chase.
At one point, Green’s lawyer, Victor Henderson, asked Johnson pointedly whether it was his job to “stick by” his fellow police officers no matter what.
“If a police officer is wrong, it’s my job to articulate that,” Johnson said. “The facts will guide my decision.”
Henderson has alleged that a shoddy investigation by the Police Department and IPRA allowed Gonzalez and his colleagues to conspire to get their stories straight before they were interviewed about the shooting.
Hernandez, Leano and the other officer at the scene, Douglas Nichols Jr., all backed up Gonzalez’s account in their interviews with IPRA. The interviews were held back-to-back in the same IPRA office, each lasting less than 20 minutes, records show.
In his interview the next day, Gonzalez explained to an IPRA investigator that he felt he had “no other option” but to fire.
“I felt like I was going to um, you know, be killed or incur, uh, great injury,” Gonzalez said, according to a transcript of the audio-recorded interview obtained by the Tribune.
“Great injury,” the investigator said. “So you were in fear of your life?”
“Yes, in fear of my life,” Gonzalez replied.
The much-maligned agency ruled the shooting was justified in September 2014.
In her opening remarks, Gonzalez’s attorney, Assistant Corporation Counsel Dana O’Malley, said what happened on that Fourth of July was a “tragedy” but that Green’s own actions led to his death.
“Officer Gonzalez didn’t go out to shoot anyone that day,” O’Malley said. “He was put in a situation where he had no choice.”
The Green shooting was one of three fatal police shootings Gonzalez was involved in over a two-year span, records show. In the other two cases — the 2012 shooting of 16-year-old Rickey Childs and the 2014 shooting of Ronald Johnson III, 25 — it was Gonzalez’s partner who opened fire.
Court filings show that beginning in the early 2000s, Gonzalez was investigated by the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division as well as the FBI for his connection to a corrupt team of tactical officers led by then-Sgt. Ronald Watts.
Gonzalez was never charged with any wrongdoing, but Watts and another member of his team were sent to federal prison for shaking down a drug courier for protection money at the now-shuttered Ida B. Wells housing complex.
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