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Foxx: Second look at fatal cop shootings reassures public, police

State's Attorney Kim Foxx holds a press conference in January. File Photo. Brian Jackson/ For the Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD — In an effort to add another layer of accountability to the handling of fatal shootings by police officers, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx on Thursday announced her office has drafted legislation to allow the state’s appellate prosecutor’s office to do a second review of cases.

Foxx’s criticism of the Laquan McDonald shooting investigation helped fuel her campaign to victory. And she has vowed to make changes in the way police-involved shootings are investigated and prosecuted — noting it took prosecutors 13 months to charge Officer Jason Van Dyke in McDonald’s killing.

Under the measure, the existing Special Prosecutor Act would be changed to allow Cook County to designate the Office of the State Appellate Prosecutor as special prosecutor in officer-involved death cases. The statewide office has a unit dedicated to investigating complex cases including officer-involved shootings. Current language in the law prohibits Cook County from being able to utilize the office — based on the size of its population.

If the state’s attorney’s office decides not to charge an officer criminally, the State Appellate Prosecutor would be tasked with reviewing that investigation and making its own recommendation about whether charges were appropriate, the state’s attorney’s office said.

If the special prosecutor reached a different conclusion than the state’s attorney’s office, that finding would also be made public and the state’s attorney’s office would recuse herself from the prosecution of any charge in the case.

Foxx said there were discussions with family members of victims who were killed in police-involved shootings and advocates for police accountability, among others. But she said the talks started with the McDonald case and the need to restore the public’s trust in the process.

“The credibility of the system and this office’s handling of those types of cases had changed,” Foxx said.

Fatal police-involved shootings are “different” than other cases her office evaluates, Foxx said.

“Certainly one of the concerns that I heard from law enforcement had been the politicizing of these types of cases, not wanting people to charge these cases based on politics,” Foxx said. “And what we wanted to do was take that out. Having a secondary review on those cases where we have declined gives that assurance to the public and I think to the officers that we have been thoughtful in the review of our cases.”

Since taking office in December, Foxx’s office has filed first-degree murder charges against two police officers in shooting cases — while also declining to pursue charges against the Chicago Police officer who shot and killed Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones. Her office at the time released a memo detailing the basis for that decision.

Foxx said when charges weren’t filed in those deaths, she noticed “the public still lacked the belief … that the evaluation of those cases was not rooted in something in there other than the facts of the evidence and law.”

That decision came more than a year after Officer Robert Rialmo opened fire on 19-year-old LeGrier, whom the office said charged down the staircase of a Garfield Park duplex and swung a baseball bat at him. Rialmo fired eight shots, according to the state’s attorney’s report on the investigation, striking LeGrier and Jones — who was standing behind the teen.

Prosecutors said there was no basis for a criminal charge, because they could not prove that the officer was not acting in self-defense. The decision outraged Jones’ and LeGrier’s families, who have sued Rialmo and the city in civil court.

Under Foxx’s proposed law change, that case would have been automatically forwarded to the state appellate prosecutor for a second look.

“These cases are not easy. While I believe wholeheartedly that my administration’s handling of fatal officer-involved shooting cases has demonstrated our ability to act promptly and fairly, I also recognize how important it is to rebuild trust and put structures in place that help ensure the integrity of the process,” Foxx said in a statement about the new measure. “Providing for an independent review by a special prosecutor will help reassure the public that these decisions are being weighed carefully based on the evidence and without any political considerations.”

The bill will be carried in the Illinois House by Rep. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, and in the Senate by Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago. The Senate is expected to discuss the measure in committee next week. Foxx said she plans to push for the measure in Springfield.