Chicago Police are investigating whether an officer’s 19-year-old son was shot and killed over the weekend as part of a gang initiation.
Some gangs were doing initiations in which members are instructed to go around and kill whoever they could, a police official said Monday.
During a news conference, Supt. Eddie Johnson said Monday it is clear that the victim, Arshell Dennis III, was not targeted because his father is a cop. He suggested it could be “a case of mistaken identity.”
“Detectives are working really hard,” Johnson added. “Any shooting victim that’s in Chicago is unacceptable, but this one hits close to home.”
The city’s bloody 2016 crossed another tragic line this weekend when Dennis was gunned down in front of his family’s home in Chicago’s Wrightwood neighborhood.
Dennis was supposed to return Sunday afternoon to St. John’s University in New York, where he studied journalism. Instead, his family spent the day planning his funeral, fending off reporters and meeting privately with Johnson.
Meanwhile, Chicago wrote another violent chapter in a year already full of anguish.
“The loss of our son is stunning and painful,” Dennis’ family said in a statement.
Dennis is the son of Officer Arshell “Chico” Dennis, who once served with Johnson as a patrol officer in the 6th District. Johnson spent about 20 minutes visiting the officer’s family in the light-brick home where the shooting took place, entering and exiting through the back door. The home is tucked into a generally quiet pocket of the Southwest Side.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel also called to express his condolences.
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Johnson “shared with them that the police department is all one family, and they are grieving with them, and that if there is anything they can do for them, the police department will be there,” a family friend told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Family members referred to Dennis in their statement as “Trey.” They called him “smart, funny and the light of our lives.” He was a junior at St. John’s. His freshman-year roommate, 20-year-old Kyle DePina of Boston, said they used to discuss the violence in their respective cities.
“It’s crazy,” DePina said. “You never think it will happen to someone you’re close to until it happens.”
DePina published a videotaped interview of Dennis online. In it, Dennis discusses music, Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods and even police brutality.
“I couldn’t change the world,” Dennis said on the video as he discussed music’s influence on society. “For me to be able to change the world, that would take, maybe, I think it would take two lifetimes to change the world.”
Neighbor Terri Bachstrom described Dennis as a quiet and well-mannered kid and said, “He wasn’t in a gang. He wasn’t affiliated with any of the nonsense that’s going on in Chicago.”
But now Area South detectives are trying to figure out why he was shot to death while sitting with a 20-year-old man outside the home in the 2900 block of West 82nd Street. Dennis was shot in the chest and pronounced dead at Little Company of Mary Hospital at 12:45 a.m., authorities said. The 20-year-old was shot in the arm and chest and taken to Christ Medical Center in serious condition, police said.
CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said investigators “are not ruling anything out.” But based on what they know about the victims, the neighborhood and the local gangs, a leading theory is that Sunday’s shooting was “a case of mistaken identity.” Neither victim had a criminal record, gang affiliation or history with CPD, he said.
“Officer Dennis dedicated his life to make this city safer, and his son Arshell was a good kid, making his parents proud and studying for a promising future as a journalist,” Johnson said in a statement. “As always, the men and women of the CPD will stop at nothing to find who was responsible and bring a sense of closure and justice to Officer Dennis and all of the families affected by violence.”
Johnson has led CPD through four tumultuous months that have featured escalating tension between police and the neighborhoods they serve. The unease reflects national discord, but it is fueled by local strife. Just last week, CPD alerted its members that leaders from three West Side gang factions met to discuss plans to shoot Chicago police.
That plan was an apparent response to the fatal police shooting of Paul O’Neal, who police chased into the South Shore neighborhood after he allegedly stole a Jaguar from west suburban Bolingbrook. O’Neal was unarmed, and the body camera worn by the officer who fired the deadly shot wasn’t working.
The city recently marked its highest single-day toll of shooting deaths in years when nine people were killed on Aug. 8, while sexual assaults, robberies and aggravated batteries are on the rise compared to year-to-date totals for the same period in 2015.
The Justice Department launched a pattern or practice investigation of CPD eight months ago, in the days after the release of video depicting the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
CPD Officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot Laquan, is being prosecuted for murder.
Wrightwood residents said the kind of violence that ended in Dennis’ death Sunday is not common in their community. Pat Williams, who lives three doors down from Dennis’ family, said she left Bronzeville in search of a “peaceful” place.
But that peace was shattered early Sunday. Another neighbor, Brenda, who declined to give her last name, said she found herself crawling to the back of her house after hearing the gunshots. Eventually, she returned to her living room. And that’s when she heard a woman crying outside.
Brenda said, “I think it was the mother.”
“And she was crying so hard, I went to the back of the house to not hear it.”