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IPRA head calls CPD shooting of teen ‘shocking and disturbing’

Screen shot of video footage of Chicago police shooting of 18-year-old Paul O'Neal | Video provided by IPRA

Video footage released Friday by the Independent Police Review Authority doesn’t show the gunshot that killed 18-year-old Paul O’Neal eight days ago, but it does give a cop’s-eye view of the chaotic moments that led up to his death — and the dying teen being handcuffed in a growing pool of blood.

IPRA head Sharon Fairley described it as “shocking and disturbing” in a Friday morning press release, and the lawyer representing O’Neal’s family against the city called the images “beyond horrific.”

O’Neal was fleeing police after allegedly stealing a Jaguar from west suburban Bolingbrook; the chase ended in the South Shore neighborhood around 7:30 p.m. on July 28.

The police oversight agency released video from nine cameras — either officers’ body-worn units, or dashboard cameras mounted in police vehicles.

Body cameras worn by two officers show O’Neal’s black Jaguar bearing down on their police SUV as officers leapt out of their vehicle with guns drawn. As O’Neal swerved to avoid their squad car, the Jaguar sideswiped the SUV and narrowly missed one of the officers, and both officers open fire on the speeding car as it passes.

The body cameras roll on as the Jaguar sped down the block and collided head-on with another marked SUV. O’Neal can be seen running from the wrecked car, and the officers gave chase down a gangway until O’Neal ran into a backyard and the police are slowed by a tall gate.

On the video, gunshots can be heard from behind the closed gate. After one officer helps another to scale the gate, the pair circle around to a neighboring house in the 7400 block of South Merrill Avenue and sprint to the backyard, where three officers already have a bleeding O’Neal pinned to the ground. The officer who shot O’Neal did not activate his camera before joining the chase, and IPRA has said there is no other camera angle that shows the fatal shot.

“You f—-ing shoot at us?” one officer asks the prone O’Neal as he is handcuffed. Another, searching the teen’s backpack, asks: “Have you got anything on you?”

O’Neal does not appear to respond before the camera turns away. He would die of his wounds during surgery.

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As other officers arrive, they seem confused about whether O’Neal shot at them, or if the teen was alone in the vehicle. Two officers help another, who apparently had been in the police car that collided with the Jaguar, check himself for gunshot wounds.

“They shot at us, too, right?” he asks.

“I shot at the car after he almost hit you,” replies the officer. “He almost hit my partner so I f—ing shot at him.”

Another officer asks: “Who was shooting in the alley? Was that them?”

Police have said O’Neal was unarmed.

Later, in footage recorded from a camera worn by a sergeant who responded to the scene, the senior officer instructs officers to shut off their body cameras, and warns one officer — apparently one who fired shots during the melee — not to talk about what happened in front of officers who are wearing their cameras.

“Here’s the thing,” the sergeant says. “Any statements you’re making in front of peoples camera and stuff like that are just killing you.”

In all, IPRA released video from nine cameras, but is reviewing footage from multiple other cameras. In her statement, Fairley said the investigation is “still very much in the early stages,” but investigators had determined that releasing the videos would not compromise their investigation.

Dean Angelo, president of Chicago Lodge 7 of the Fraternal Order of Police, issued a statement cautioning against a rush to judgment.

“While there are multiple aspects to consider pertaining to the released videos, it is important to be mindful of how rapidly this event unfolded. Due to the fact that this chaotic incident occurred in a matter of moments, each individual perspective needs to be taken into consideration,” Angelo said.

“Now more than ever, police-involved situations which result in a death need to be completed in a time frame necessary to ensure that a thorough and impartial examination is adhered to,” Angelo’s statement continued. “While this case remains fluid in nature, it is of critical importance to every Chicagoan to not rush to judgment and to allow the systems in place to play out.”

Three officers involved in the shooting were stripped of police powers by Superintendent Eddie Johnson last week, a move praised by Fairley. In a statement Friday afternoon Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has faced the harshest spotlight of his political career over police misconduct, also lauded Johnson’s response to the shooting.

“A young man lost his life, and as a city we grieve any time that happens,” Emanuel said. “I support Superintendent Johnson’s quick and decisive action over the past eight days, which I believe underscores the fundamental change in how the city handles police shootings.”

Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin said O’Neal “was simply executed” in a statement he released.

Fairley’s office two weeks announced that it had found two police-involved shootings to be unjustified; in both cases, officers had opened fire on suspects in moving vehicles. A department policy on use of deadly force, revised in February 2015, prohibits CPD officers from “firing at or into a moving vehicle when the vehicle is the only force used against the sworn member or another person.”

After watching video with O’Neal’s mother and sister Friday morning just hours before the video was released, the family’s attorney, Michael Oppenheimer, said the recording of officers as their adrenaline subsides was equally disturbing: one officer remarks that the shooting likely means he will face a 30-day suspension.

Briana Adams, 22, the sister of Paul O’Neal, speaks with the media Friday at a news conference. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Briana Adams, 22, the sister of Paul O’Neal, speaks with the media Friday at a news conference. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

O’Neal’s mother and sister watched the video at IPRA headquarters about an hour before they were uploaded to the agency’s website. O’Neal’s family is suing the as-yet unnamed police officers.

At Oppenheimer’s office Friday afternoon, O’Neal’s sister, 22-year-old Briana Adams, told reporters the videos were “very disturbing,” but she and her mother had to see for themselves the last moments of Paul O’Neal’s life.

“I wanted to know the truth myself,” said Adams, tears gliding down her face, her voice barely audible. Rocking anxiously in her chair, Adams described her brother as a cheerful young man with “goals.”

“Me and my mother stayed there to motivate him,” she said. “We kept him in the right path. As much as we could.

“We just want answers, the truth.”

Oppenheimer ridiculed the idea that the body camera worn by the officer believed to have fired the fatal shot wasn’t working.

“I can only imagine what that body cam footage would have shown if we were able to see it,” Oppenheimer told reporters outside IPRA headquarters Friday. “They decided that they would control this. We don’t see it, and so the coverup has begun.”

Coverup allegations have dogged IPRA investigations, as the agency has come under fire since the November release of police dashboard camera video of the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald — footage not made public until nearly two years after the shooting, and only after independent journalists sued the city.

The release of the O’Neal shooting video, just eight days after the teen was killed, stands in contrast to the nearly two years that passed from the shooting of the 17-year-old McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.

IPRA, charged with reviewing all police shootings and misconduct allegations against officers, has a track record for lengthy investigations that seldom result in discipline for officers. In the eight months since Fairley was appointed, IPRA has called for the firing of three officers — doubling the number of firings the agency has recommended in the previous eight years.

The prolonged delay in releasing the McDonald video prompted allegations that CPD and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration worked to keep the video from going public ahead of the closely fought 2015 run-off election.

Dashboard camera footage of Van Dyke firing 16 shots into McDonald — a 15-second burst of gunfire that continued as the teen slumped to the pavement — was released in November. In April 2015, the city paid $5 million to settle a lawsuit by McDonald’s family; that was a week after Emanuel won a closely fought run-off election against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

The video triggered protests across the city, including a demonstration that shut down Michigan Avenue’s retail district on the day after Thanksgiving — the “Black Friday” shopping day. In the ensuing months, the chant “16 shots” have become common at sporadic demonstrations across the city. IPRA investigators — then under the command of Fairley’s predecessor, Scott Ando — had cleared VanDyke of wrongdoing, and reports showed officers backed up Van Dyke’s statements that McDonald was moving aggressively at officers when he was shot, though that version of events was contradicted by the dashcam video.

In the wake of the McDonald furor, the city Police Board has mandated that all video and initial reports on police shootings should be released within 60 days of the shooting.