Robert McCoppin, Mike Danahey and Janelle Walker
An Elgin woman lunged toward police with a steak knife in her hand as she emerged from her burning vehicle, seconds before an officer opened fire and the woman fell to the ground.
Newly released video of the police shooting last week of Decynthia Clements reveals officers trying to negotiate with her and discussing among themselves how to safely end the standoff when they realize she has a knife in the car and possibly crack cocaine and fear she is suicidal.
Officers can be heard saying that if she comes at them with the knife, “we’ll just try to get her down” and “we’re not going to end it for her.”
The scene grows more urgent when officers, after spending more than an hour trying to lure Clements from the vehicle, realize that she had apparently set the car on fire and at one point an officer is heard saying she’s holding the knife to her neck, footage shows. Smoke starts to seep from the car, even though the windows are closed, and a burst of flames emerges when she eventually opens the car door.
Elgin police Chief Jeff Swoboda said the department released the video as “one step toward transparency and accountability,” acknowledging it “can be very troubling to view.”
But lawyers for the family of Clements, a 34-year-old woman with a history of mental health struggles, said the video only reinforces for them that the situation did not require lethal force from police.
“This situation did not have to escalate to such a degree that cost a young woman her life. As we move forward with this lawsuit, those responsible for Decynthia’s death must be held accountable,” attorneys Antonio Romanucci and Andrew Stroth said in a released statement.
Clements was shot on March 12 on Interstate 90. Her car had been seen parked on a gravel road dead end by the Fox River in Elgin earlier, but she drove off when an officer approached. Her car was then seen headed onto I-90, but she tried to drive off while officers attempted to get her out of the car. At one point she told an officer that she should would leave the car after finishing her cigarette. She appeared animated and disheveled while interacting with officers.
Police released more than 30 hours of body and squad car video of the incident Thursday afternoon, including an 18-minute summary video with footage from various police cameras. City officials allowed family members and local leaders to view the footage before its wider release.
Mayor Dave Kaptain called it “disturbing.”
City Council member Tish Powell said, “I’m deeply disturbed by what I saw on the video and have some serious questions about how this was handled, particularly the last few seconds of the situation.”
Lt. Christian Jensen, the officer identified by the city as the one who fired the shots, has been placed on leave, and state police are investigating.
Stroth also called for more intensive police training on how to de-escalate situations when deadly force is not necessary. He said the officers failed to use the critical incident training protocol the department adopted for dealing with people with mental health challenges.
“This tragedy presents a prime case to push for more intensive training for officers to recognize situations that call for appropriate de-escalation techniques when the use of deadly force is not necessary,” the lawyer said in the released statement.
Stroth called the summation video, which is narrated by Chief Swoboda, “an advertisement for the police department.”
Both within the community and on the City Council, some have called for a separate investigation by an agency seen as more independent than state police.
Elgin City Council member Corey Dixon, after viewing the video, said: “I think the Elgin Police Department did everything they could right, until shots were fired by one officer. I don’t think shots needed to be fired.”
Under the circumstances, including Clements’ apparent mental health struggles, Dixon said other means besides lethal force could have been used to handle the situation, such as Tasers or rubber bullets.
“My condolences go out to Decynthia Clements’ family and friends. This didn’t need to happen, and what did took an unfortunate turn for the worst,” Dixon said.
But Dixon also credited the city and the police department on its prompt release of the video information.
“They’ve been more transparent that any organization I’ve heard about in this type of situation. They’ve made everything (recorded on video) available, and against the wishes of the Illinois State Police,” he said. “That’s unheard of.”
Swoboda said in a released statement: “We understand very well that this incident has impacted our community. We also understand that releasing this video footage, which can be very troubling to view, is one step we can take towards transparency and accountability.”
It is our goal to provide Ms. Clements’ family and the community with a factual narrative so we may all work towards healing. We are striving to strike a balance between the public’s right to know, the ongoing investigation into the incident and, of course, the needs of Ms. Clements’ family and loved ones,” Swoboda’s statement continued.
City Council member Rose Martinez called the shooting “sad and unfortunate all the way around.”
Fellow council member Terry Gavin said the video was “difficult to watch but … was exactly how it was described to me by city staff.”
Kaptain, the mayor, said his impression from the video was that Clements was a very disturbed young woman who was possibly suicidal. She was lighting things on fire and throwing them in the back of the car, which became engulfed in flames, Kaptain said.
Beyond releasing the video, the mayor said the city now needs to await the state police investigation, which could take months.
Robert McCoppin is a Tribune reporter; Mike Danahey is an Elgin Courier-News reporter; Janelle Walker is a freelance reporter.
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