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Watchdog: Chicago cop unjustified in fatal OIS of bat-wielding suspect, bystander

The agency concluded that a “reasonable officer” would not have believed he was in danger of death or serious injury

By Dan Hinkel
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Chicago police disciplinary officials have ruled that an officer was unjustified in the fatal 2015 shooting of a baseball-bat clutching 19-year-old and an innocent bystander.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability determined that Officer Robert Rialmo unjustifiably shot Quintonio LeGrier and 55-year-old Bettie Jones while responding to a domestic disturbance on the West Side on the day after Christmas two years ago, according to documents obtained by the Tribune through an open records request. After LeGrier approached officers with an aluminum baseball bat, Rialmo shot the teen and accidentally hit Jones, a neighbor standing nearby.

The ruling, dated Dec. 22, casts doubt on Rialmo’s account of events and turns in part on investigators’ determination that the evidence indicated that LeGrier did not swing the bat at Rialmo, as the officer has said. Investigators also found that the evidence — including shell casings, witness statements and forensic analysis — also suggested Rialmo was farther away from LeGrier when he fired than the officer has said. LeGrier fell in the vestibule of an apartment building, and Rialmo said he opened fire from the building’s front porch, but investigators determined it was more likely the officer was between the bottom of the porch and the sidewalk out front.

The agency concluded that a “reasonable officer” would not have believed he was in danger of death or serious injury.

Disciplinary authorities do not immediately disclose the recommendations for punishment they make to the Police Department, but COPA typically calls for firing officers in unjustified shootings. Superintendent Eddie Johnson has up to three months after receiving a recommendation for punishment to decide what discipline, if any, he’ll seek. The Chicago Police Board rules on serious discipline for officers, though the board’s decisions can be appealed through the courts.

A Chicago police spokesman declined to comment on the details of the recommendation before the department has completed its review of the case.

Rialmo’s attorney, Joel Brodsky, said the agency’s findings cast the evidence in a misleading light. He noted that LeGrier appeared to be suffering a crisis and came down the stairs with a baseball bat in the early morning following a domestic incident.

“I challenge anybody not to feel that their life was in danger in such a situation,” he said. “This is a political decision, not one based on the evidence. ... this has got nothing to do with facts.”

Brodsky said he would look forward to challenging any potential attempt to fire his client.

LeGrier’s mother, Janet Cooksey, said she was thrilled that the ruling confirmed her belief that her son did not provoke the shooting.

“Each time they mention Quintonio and Bettie (Jones), they would always make it like my baby caused her death. And I know he didn’t. I knew he was just as much a victim as she was. He was innocent too,” she said.

The disciplinary ruling could set up another battle in the aftermath of a shooting that has led to numerous lawsuits and multiple embarrassing missteps for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

Two weeks ago, lawyers for the city of Chicago introduced and then hours later withdrew a lawsuit that sought to shift blame and some financial liability for Jones’ death from the city onto LeGrier’s estate. After the Tribune reported on the lawsuit, the city’s lawyers dropped it and Emanuel apologized, saying he did not know of the litigation beforehand but found it “callous.”

Observers have suggested that the city’s now-scuttled lawsuit blaming LeGrier for the shooting could complicate any potential effort to discipline Rialmo.

The shooting has attracted wide attention because of the bystander’s death and because it was the first fatal police shooting after the court-mandated release of video of an officer shooting African-American teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. Upon its emergence in November 2015, the video unleashed a torrent of outrage among Chicagoans, many of them black, who aired decades-worth of objections about their treatment by police. Efforts to overhaul the department and curb unnecessary uses of force continue more than two years later.

About 4:30 a.m. on the day after Christmas 2015, Rialmo and his partner responded to 911 calls about a domestic disturbance at the apartment in the 4700 block of West Erie Street where LeGrier was staying with his father.

LeGrier had behaved strangely as a student at Northern Illinois University and had altercations with other students as well as run-ins with police, records show. LeGrier’s mental health has been a key issue in the litigation that followed his death, and the city’s aborted lawsuit said he failed to take medication to control an unspecified mental illness.

Jones, who lived downstairs, answered the door and pointed police to the second-floor. LeGrier then came down the stairs with a baseball bat, according to an analysis released in February by Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx's office, which declined to bring criminal charges against Rialmo.

The officers started to move backward onto the front landing as LeGrier came at them with the bat, prosecutors wrote. As Rialmo backed down the stairs, he fired eight times, hitting LeGrier six times, according to prosecutors. Jones, who stood behind the teen during the incident, was shot once in the chest, prosecutors wrote.

Rialmo has stipulated in court that he knew Jones was standing close by when he fired, though Brodsky has said his client was nonetheless justified in firing in self-defense.

COPA’s investigation casts doubt on Rialmo’s version of events.

No one, including the other officer at the scene, corroborated Rialmo’s account of LeGrier swinging the bat, investigators wrote. In fact, Rialmo did not say LeGrier swung the bat in his first statement to a detective, according to COPA, first making that contention two days later. Rialmo also gave differing accounts of where he was in comparison with LeGrier when the teen allegedly swung the bat, investigators wrote.

Brodsky said COPA was focusing on “totally insignificant” discrepancies.

Crucially, investigators determined Rialmo was farther from LeGrier when he fired the shots than the officer contended.

Investigators wrote that he gave differing statements but placed himself on the porch steps when he started firing. COPA, however, cited a witness who stated that Rialmo was near the sidewalk when he fired, at least ten feet from the bottom of the stairs. Just after the shooting, LeGrier’s father, Antonio, saw the officer standing 20 to 30 feet from the doorway, he told investigators, according to the report.

Further, the shell casings were found in various areas between the porch and the sidewalk, COPA found.

COPA found that a reasonable officer in Rialmo’s position would not have believed he was in imminent danger of death or serious harm. Even if LeGrier did swing the bat and advance on police, and Rialmo fired his first shots from the porch stairs, COPA wrote, the last shots he fired would nonetheless violate policy, because he would still have been a significant distance from the teenager, COPA wrote.

Additionally, Rialmo was not carrying a Taser the night of the incident, and COPA ruled that he violated department policy by not maintaining his certification to use the weapon.

Lawyers for the LeGrier and Jones families lauded the ruling.

“It’s what we’ve been saying since the beginning — this was an unjustified shooting of Bettie Jones and now, COPA acknowledges, even Quintonio LeGrier,” said Larry Rogers Jr., an attorney for the Jones family.

Beyond the disciplinary case, the shooting has led to a crossfire of lawsuits between the various parties. The survivors of both LeGrier and Jones sued Rialmo and the city. Rialmo, meanwhile, took the unconventional step of suing the city, alleging in part that he was inadequately trained. Rialmo is also suing LeGrier’s estate, blaming him for the shooting and contending it emotionally traumatized the officer. And the city, for less than 24 hours, was suing the LeGrier estate.

The Police Department’s handling of the shooting’s aftermath was marked by error. Rialmo was supposed to be on indefinite desk duty following the shooting but the department redeployed him to the street during a particularly violent summer of 2016. Four months later, department officials returned Rialmo to desk duty, blamed an administrative oversight and reprimanded a district commander. Rialmo’s brief return to the street was particularly noteworthy given his lawsuit alleging he was poorly trained.

The case also had consequences at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which suspended two 911 call-takers for failing to send police after the first two of LeGrier’s three calls. One was suspended without pay for three days, and the other for two days.

©2017 the Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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