EXPLAINER: What Chicago boy’s death says about foot pursuits

AP National News

This image from Chicago Police Department body cam video shows the moment before Chicago Police officer Eric Stillman fatally shot Adam Toledo, 13, on March 29, 2021, in Chicago. (Chicago Police Department via AP)

CHICAGO (AP) — After a police officer chased a 13-year-old boy into an alley and shot him to death, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot demanded a new policy that would protect officers, suspects and bystanders in what she called one of the most dangerous actions an officer can take: a foot pursuit.

The mayor’s demand was fueled by the release of a video showing officer Eric Stillman shooting Adam Toledoin the chest following a foot chase that lasted a mere 19 seconds. Now a host of questions loom about what, if anything, can be done to reduce the risk of such a deadly encounter.

WHY SHOULD ANYTHING PREVENT A POLICE OFFICER FROM CHASING A FLEEING SUSPECT?

The first answer is this: Pursuing suspects, whether in a vehicle or on foot, can be incredibly dangerous. In Chicago, five years before Adam Toledo was killed, a Chicago Tribune analysis found that a third of police shootings in the city included foot chases. There have been scores of similar stories in other cities, including Dallas, where a shooting death led David Brown, the police chief at the time who now heads Chicago’s force, to establish a policy that limited foot pursuits.

DOES THE CHICAGO POLICE DEPARTMENT HAVE A FOOT PURSUIT POLICY?

Sort of. The department does not have a formal foot pursuit policy, but says it is drafting one. It does have a training bulletin that covers when suspects should not be pursued and when deadly force is not justified.

The bigger question is why the city has been so slow to enact a policy. The department already has a strict vehicle pursuit policy that dramatically limits when officers can engage in a car chase. A few years ago, the city entered into an agreement with the state of Illinois that, among other things, called for the department to track the number of foot pursuits. The agreement also called for a training bulletin that reflected the “best practices” of other law enforcement agencies.

CAN ANYTHING BE DONE TO LIMIT FOOT PURSUITS?

Yes. Other law enforcement agencies have spelled out what officers should do when suspects take off on foot. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, for example, directs deputies chasing suspects alone to stop the chase if the suspect runs into a building, the woods or any “otherwise isolated area.” In Portland, Oregon, the general rule is that officers should try to keep suspects in sight “until sufficient cover is available to take him/her into custody.”

More than one department makes a point of addressing the concern in the macho world of police work that an officer who simply stops running will be labeled a coward. “No sworn member shall be criticized for deciding against initiating, discontinuing his/her involvement in or terminating a foot pursuit,” reads Portland’s policy.

COULD OR SHOULD ANYTHING HAVE BEEN DONE TO KEEP THE OFFICER FROM SHOOTING ADAM TOLEDO?

That’s a question prosecutors will have to grapple with. But it’s important to understand that the chase began moments after the sound of eight quick gunshots pierced the air. The officer knew someone had a gun and was willing to fire it in a residential neighborhood in the middle of the night.

Then there is the fact that things happened so fast: It was less than a second between the time the boy had a gun in his hand and the time the officer shot him as he turned toward him without it.

Almost as soon as the Chicago chase started, it ended with an officer facing a suspect in an alley with nothing between them. “The officer had no place to take cover or concealment,” his attorney, Tim Grace, said in a statement.

While some departments have language in their policies directing officers to weigh the benefits of chasing suspects against the risks to the public, there was every reason for the Chicago officer to believe the 13-year-old was armed seconds after somebody fired a gun.

“It would be a hard sell to say a cop ought to do nothing if someone’s got a gun,” said Jonathan Smith, a former section chief of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division who served as a consultant on the agreement between Illinois and the city of Chicago. “I don’t know of any police department in the country where if there is a discharge of a gun, you’re not going to pursue that suspect.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Donate Today