A week after the shocking video of a Chicago police officer shooting teen Laquan McDonald went viral, city officials appear to be wavering in their fight to keep secret another dash-cam video depicting a police shooting that lawyers for the victim say went down in strikingly similar fashion.
In response to questions from the Tribune, the city’s Law Department said Tuesday afternoon that the city was “currently re-examining” when the video of Ronald Johnson III’s shooting should be released even though the incident was still under investigation by the Independent Police Review Authority, which looks into allegations of police misconduct.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez revealed for the first time Tuesday that the office is investigating possible criminal charges against the veteran officer who fatally shot Johnson in the back during a foot chase just eight days before McDonald’s killing.
At a news conference Tuesday, lawyers for Johnson’s family said his shooting was eerily similar to McDonald’s. The video shows an officer opening fire within seconds of arriving at the scene as Johnson was moving away from police, they said. And as with the video in the McDonald case, the audio that is supposed to accompany the footage is missing.
“This is a horrible thing. They continue to keep these things quiet,” attorney Michael Oppenheimer said of the video that he has seen as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit against the city filed by Johnson’s mother. “And how can anybody have confidence in the system when they keep happening this way?”
One major distinction between the two cases is a dispute in Johnson’s shooting over whether he was armed. Police, who described Johnson as a known gang member, said they recovered a gun at the scene, but Oppenheimer contended police planted the weapon after shooting an unarmed Johnson.
Reached by phone Tuesday night, Oppenheimer said he was surprised to learn from the Tribune that Alvarez’s office disclosed the criminal probe of Johnson’s shooting. He said as far as he knew none of the civilian or police witnesses in the case had been contacted by prosecutors.
In addition, George Hernandez, who was identified in the lawsuit as the officer who shot Johnson, freely answered questions at a sworn deposition just last week without a criminal defense attorney present, according to Oppenheimer.
“Every indication that I have is that Alvarez has done absolutely nothing so far, so as usual she’s late to the party,” Oppenheimer said.
The details about Johnson’s killing have emerged amid continued fallout over the handling of the McDonald case. After the dash-cam video of McDonald being shot 16 times was made public last week, daily protests have captured national attention and put increasing political pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to make wholesale changes to the Police Department.
As Oppenheimer was discussing his case with reporters Tuesday morning, news broke that police Superintendent Garry McCarthy had been fired by Emanuel. Later in the day, Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked the U.S. Justice Department to launch a civil rights investigation of Chicago police tactics.
Just as it had in McDonald’s shooting, the city fought tooth and nail for more than a year to keep the video in the Johnson lawsuit from being made public, arguing in court filings as recently as Oct. 30 that releasing it could inflame the public and jeopardize the officer’s right to a fair trial if he was charged later, court records show.
The video was first turned over as part of a wrongful death lawsuit filed a few weeks after the shooting by Johnson’s mother, Dorothy Holmes. With that case pending, U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang granted a request by the city for a protective order barring the release of the footage and other sensitive information, records show.
Meanwhile, in a separate lawsuit, Holmes’ attorneys have asked a Cook County judge to order the dash-cam video released under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Oppenheimer said he hoped that the recent ruling by Chancery Judge Franklin Valderrama ordering the release of the McDonald video — also over the city’s objections — would weigh in his favor.
In its statement, the Law Department said that in light of Valderrama’s ruling, the city is “currently re-examining when (the Johnson) video should be released.” The department also noted that there were “stark differences from the Laquan McDonald case, including a recovered gun.”
Alvarez is not opposing the release of the dash-cam video in Johnson’s case, spokeswoman Sally Daly said.
On the night he was killed in October 2014, Johnson, 25, was riding in a car with friends when it was pulled over by police at 53rd Street and King Drive. Johnson tried to run and was pursued by officers on foot, none of whom opened fire, Oppenheimer said.
During the chase, Hernandez, at the time a tactical officer in the Wentworth police district, pulled up in an unmarked squad car and jumped out with his gun drawn. Within two seconds, he fired five times at Johnson as he was still running away, striking him in the back of the knee and again in the back shoulder, Oppenheimer said.
Autopsy results obtained by the Tribune on Tuesday show the fatal shot traveled through Johnson’s shoulder, severed his jugular vein and exited his eye socket.
Oppenheimer said the squad car that recorded the video began to move shortly after Johnson collapsed in the parkway, so the officers’ actions in the immediate aftermath were not recorded. He said evidence he has uncovered through the lawsuit shows that at some point soon after the shooting, detectives investigating at the scene began communicating with dispatchers on their private cellphones in violation of department protocol.
Chicago police have said that Johnson fit the description of an offender from an earlier call of shots fired and resisted arrest when police tried to detain him. After pulling away from one officer, Johnson pointed a gun at police who were in pursuit, leading Hernandez to open fire, police said.
At the scene that night, Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden said Hernandez fired in fear for his life and that of his fellow officers. A gun was recovered from Johnson’s right hand, according to police.
But Oppenheimer said the dash-cam footage from another squad car clearly showed Johnson running with nothing in his hands. The video also proves he never turned around before the shots knocked him down, Oppenheimer said.
“The Police Department planted that gun because there was no way that anything would have stayed in Ronald Johnson’s hand after he was shot,” Oppenheimer said.
Hernandez, who joined the department in March 2006, has been on paid desk duty since the incident, records show.
Holmes, Johnson’s mother, told reporters Tuesday that she wants the video of her son’s shooting released because she believes it will clear his name and show that the police “lied on TV” when they said he had a gun. Her son, affectionately known as “Ronnieman” in his South Side neighborhood, had no serious criminal record and left behind five children, she said.
“Even on your saddest days, he’d put a smile on your face,” Holmes said with tears in her eyes. “He didn’t deserve to be murdered.”
Cook County court records show Johnson had several run-ins with police over the years but no felony convictions on his record. In 2008, he was charged with assaulting a police officer, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count and received court supervision. In 2011 he was arrested after he allegedly threatened to shoot his girlfriend. Records show he later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery.
Oppenheimer said he didn’t know why Johnson would have run from the police on Oct. 12, 2014.
“What I do know is that young black men sometimes run from the police because they are afraid,” he said. “And in this case, it turned out to be a prophecy because the police killed him.”
Jason Meisner and Matthew Walberg, December 2, 2015, Chicago Tribune, “City wavering on keeping video secret in another fatal Chicago police shooting”, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-ronald-johnson-chicago-police-shooting-met-20151201-story.html