Ella French was 8 months old, wearing a “serious and solemn face,” when Elizabeth French, who would take her in first as a foster child and later adopt her, met her.
“I knelt down because she was so small,” the mother said in an interview at her home Friday, six days after her daughter, a Chicago police officer, was shot to death during a traffic stop in West Englewood.
“And I tell people I must have passed a test because, all of a sudden, this huge, gigantic smile appeared on her face. After that, I was in constant prayer that she would be able to stay with me.”
Elizabeth French became the little girl’s foster mom. Then, finally, she was able to adopt her four years later.
Becoming Ella French’s mother, she said, will always be one of the proudest moments of her life.
And, like any parent, she never thought she’d be making arrangements, as she was Friday, to lay her daughter to rest before she even turned 30.
“No parent should ever bury their child,” Elizabeth French said through tears. “But my daughter wanted to make a difference. She believed in her job. It breaks my heart, but she died doing what she was called to do. And now she’s in God’s hands.
“I wake up every morning, and I start crying because my day doesn’t have my daughter anymore. The few times I’ve turned on the TV, it distresses me to see her picture and her name with the word ‘killed.’ It’s just so hard.”
That’s not how she wants people to remember her daughter. She wants them to know who Ella French was, beyond being a cop who got killed. What she was like. What she aspired to do and to be.
She was a bubbly kid. She loved Dr. Seuss books and watching “Barney,” but, even more, she loved everything about Tigger, the character from “Winnie the Pooh.”
“It always made sense to me because, of all of the characters, he was the most bouncy, outgoing and fun, and that is who she is,” said Elizabeth French, a single mother who also has an adopted son Andrew.
Sometimes, all of that bouncing around would end up in a trip to the emergency room, her mom said. She broke one bone or another three times before she started kindergarten.
As she got a little older, Ella French was an altar server for their Catholic parish for a few years. In junior high school, she picked up her love of playing softball and basketball and played the flute.
She started at Downers Grove North High School but soon was sent by her mother, who said she thought she needed more structure, to Wentworth Military Academy and College in Lexington, Missouri. She spent two years at the since-closed military school before transferring back to Downers Grove North, from which she graduated in 2009.
The time at Wentworth was formative, according to Elizabeth French, who said she came home wanting to become a cop.
Though she’d struggled at times with schoolwork, Ella French was dedicated to doing what she needed to do to become a Chicago police officer.
Until she could do that, she worked at a nutrition store and then at a cellphone store, in each job pointing customers only to items she believed in, her mother said.
“She never wanted to sell anything that she didn’t 100% trust in,” Elizabeth French said. “Even in small things like that, it shows how she wanted to only do good for people.”
In 2017, she got the chance to work as a Cook County sheriff’s correctional officer, a job she had for more than a year before joining the Chicago Police Department.
“Cook County was an interesting experience for her, and I think that it taught her that there are a lot that goes into people,” Elizabeth French said. “I think it deepened her empathy. Whatever it was that they did to end up in jail, she saw them first and foremost as people who deserved respect. Ella could put herself in other people’s places, and maybe she felt that way because she thought her life could’ve been different if it weren’t for being adopted.”
Ella French started with the Chicago Police Department in 2018, working in the 10th District on the West Side before moving to the department’s Community Safety Team — a unit designed to forge stronger ties with people on the South Side and the West Side.
Charles McKenzie, who encountered Ella French on the job, said they spoke for nearly two hours then about how his organization, Englewood First Responders, is trying to help keep kids from getting caught up in violence.
“She just kept telling us to keep up the good work,” McKenzie said. “Man, she was just a great officer and someone willing to actually sit and talk and get to know people in the community. We really need people like her in this community. You could tell she really wanted to do good and be a real force for change.”
McKenzie saw French once more — when she was sitting inside an ambulance, trying to help save his 1-month-old niece.
“I was out doing some shopping for this peace event we were holding when I got a phone call that multiple shots rang out in Englewood, and they were telling me it was my niece who was shot,” McKenzie said. “Then, I learned there was this woman officer who was helping save her and helping calm my sister down as they raced to the hospital. It turned out to be Officer French.”
That was July 1. Three people got out of an SUV and started shooting at a group. They ended up wounding seven people, including McKenzie’s baby niece, who was shot in the head and is now recovering.
“She kept telling my sister everything was going to be all right, that she wasn’t going to leave their side until the baby was OK,” McKenzie said. “My sister and our family are so appreciative of what she did. We are saddened we never got the chance to thank her.”
A police spokesman confirmed French aided the family in the aftermath of the shooting.
“She told me about it after it happened,” Elizabeth French said. “It was all about getting that baby to the hospital as quickly as she could, and it broke her heart to see what had just happened.
“Her stepping up and doing what she did did not shock me.”
Leo Vega is someone else who met French only briefly but said he can’t forget her.
“One of my best friends was feeling down, so we went to the West Loop to have a couple drinks,” Vega said. “We were walking down the street, and she was patrolling the community with her partner. When I crossed the street, she just said, ‘I love your sweater.’”
Vega has his own clothing brand, “Chi Loves Me,” and that was the message emblazoned across his sweater that caught French’s eye.
“She was just so enthusiastic,” Vega said. “She kept telling me she loved our city, and it was the main reason she became a police officer — to inspire change.
He said when he heard that French had been killed, he didn’t put it together at first that this was the woman he met two years ago.
“I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I met her before, and I looked through my favorite photos in my phone and saw her,” Vega said. “There we were, with the Morgan Street train stop behind us, and I zoomed in to her name tag. It said French. It was her.
“I keep flashing back to that encounter with her and how passionate she seemed. This city was robbed of a great person.”
Elizabeth French got the call her daughter had been shot sometime after 9 at night. She was home, and it was one of her daughter’s closest friends, a fellow police officer.
“The first words out of her mouth were, ‘Ella has been shot, and she’s in critical condition,’” Elizabeth French said. “I don’t know if I have words for that, how I felt inside. I don’t know if I have words for this feeling.”
A police cruiser came to take her to the hospital.
She remembers she kept asking the officer who picked her up if he’d gotten any update and that he’d tell her the same thing each time: “She’s been shot and in critical condition.”
When she got to the hospital, she said, she couldn’t believe any of this was happening.
Then, a doctor approached.
“After the words, ‘We tried everything we could,’ I don’t remember much,” she said. “I’m sure he said words after that. But after that, there is nothing that can be said.”
Since then, Elizabeth French said she has gotten an amazing outpouring of support from other Chicago police officers and from people all around the country.
“I need to thank them from the bottom of my heart because every single word, every single message, every single text, every single hug, every single whatever it is means more than they will ever, ever know,” she said. “I want them to know that my family is so grateful.”
Earlier, she had made the funeral arrangements. Visitation will be from 3 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at St. Rita of Cascia Church, 7740 S. Western Ave., with a service there at 10 a.m. Thursday.
There’s a photo she has of her daughter, in uniform, holding a dog she rescued and ended up taking home and keeping. In the photo, Ella French looks completely happy.
It’s her mother’s favorite photo of her, “this kind, outgoing, effervescent spirit who was called to serve because she wanted to make whatever part of the world better if she could.”
Contributing: Madeline Kenney