On March 31, Chicago police officer Evan Solano shot and killed twenty-two-year-old Anthony Alvarez in the back during a foot chase. Alvarez was the third person killed by a CPD officer in as many weeks, including thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo, who was also killed after police chased him. Despite repeated attempts to reform the practice, CPD officers continue to kill people who run away, often shooting them in the back with no consequence.
In the wake of the killings, Mayor Lori Lightfoot called for a review and changes to the Chicago Police Department’s foot pursuit policy. Lightfoot’s administration has apparently been considering such reforms at least since last summer. Emails reviewed by the Weekly that were published online by Lucy Parsons Labs as part of the Jones Day hack show the mayor’s office and CPD have been discussing foot pursuits since at least July 2020. On Wednesday, Superintendent David Brown announced a new policy that would retain foot pursuits in all cases except “minor traffic offenses” and “offenses less than a Class A misdemeanor.” The new policy will be implemented June 11 and completed by September following a public comment period, which will be open until July 15 and include a live webinar on June 1.
Over the last four decades, multiple policy changes have failed to halt an unbroken pattern of CPD officers killing people during pursuits. Since 1985, CPD officers have killed no fewer than seventy-one people while or immediately after chasing them.
In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that it was unconstitutional to shoot a fleeing person who poses no immediate threat. The decision changed the longstanding practice that allowed police to kill people solely to prevent them from escaping the suspected commission of certain felonies.
Since Garner, CPD has repeatedly adjusted its policies related to the use of deadly force. The policy in place when Solano killed Alvarez, revised as recently as December 2020, stated that CPD officers “will not use deadly force… on a fleeing person unless the person poses an imminent threat,” meaning that the person is “immediately likely to cause death or great bodily harm to [the cop] or others unless action is taken.”
Neither constitutional law nor CPD policies, however, are designed to prevent police from extrajudicially executing people. The only legal remedy for a person whose constitutional rights have been violated is a lawsuit for damages. As Lightfoot’s staff privately acknowledged last year, the City has spent over $500 million in the last decade on lawsuits stemming from police misconduct. Similarly, a violation of a CPD policy—which is an internal directive, not a law—often results in little to no consequence to the officer.
Although none of the policy changes the Weekly reviewed have been explicitly designed to stop police from killing people as they ran away, we sought to determine whether the department did stop or reduce such behavior after Tennessee v. Garner. By searching newspaper articles on newspapers.com and other digital outlets, we found thirty-one instances between 1985 and 2010 of Chicago cops killing people while they ran or shortly after a chase ended. The Fatal Encounters database, which tracks people killed during interactions with police nationwide, lists forty more that occurred between 2011 and 2020.
These seventy-one instances are not exhaustive; it is possible that some such killings went unreported or that we did not find the news articles written about them in our research.
We were able to identify the race of the person killed by police in forty-one cases. Thirty-six of those people, or eighty-eight percent, were Black. One was a white person. Cops most frequently killed people in chases in Auburn Gresham and Englewood, killing six people in each of those neighborhoods.
In forty-one cases, we found information about where on their body the person was shot; more than three quarters of these people were shot in the back or in the back of the head.
In nine cases, the cops claimed that the person they killed fired a gun at them.
In thirty-seven cases, the cops claimed that the person pointed a gun at them, but didn’t fire. Of those forty-six people alleged to have pointed or shot a gun at police, the majority were shot in the back.
In fourteen cases, the police killed a person simply because they possessed a gun—a justification specifically rendered illegal by numerous courts, including the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Weinmann v. McClone in 2015. Of those fourteen instances, we could only confirm one case where a person was not shot in the back.
In nearly half of cases, witnesses disputed police narratives of the shooting, and in no fewer than thirty cases the person’s family filed a lawsuit. Those lawsuits resulted in at least $28 million in payments, at least ten of which were over $1 million. Some lawsuits are still pending in court.
There are at least forty-five police officers involved in these seventy-one shootings who are still on the force today.
In more than eighty percent of the cases we reviewed, nobody had been injured at all until the police became involved. According to previous analyses the Weekly has done, that is typical in police-involved killings.
The notion that police often make situations more dangerous and violent is one central to the message of Damon Williams, a movement-builder and organizer with the Let Us Breathe Collective and #DefundCPD.
“Policing is inherently violent, policing is violence. It is rooted in torture and slavery and perpetuates murder,” Williams said. “As long as police exist, they are going to kill Black people. So, in a world where we want this to not happen, we need to not have policing as we know it exists.”
Williams says that when he sees police, “I see one hundred other jobs smashed into one thing with a gun. We believe we need to transition away from policing and prisons under the framework of abolition…through a divest/invest strategy, where we take the resources we invest in police and invest those into life-affirming institutions that actually promote health and wellness.”
The families of those killed by police are often systematically overlooked by law enforcement and the media, and are left with few answers about what happened to their loved one and fewer promises of any positive response from the city.
Arewa Karen Winters’ sixteen-year-old nephew Pierre Loury was running away from CPD officer Sean Hitz in 2016 when Hitz shot and killed him. Winters is now the co-chair of a use of force working group that is trying to help the City and CPD change their policies. She also helps support other families of people killed by police through Black Lives Matter Chicago’s Justice For Families group. Regarding Lightfoot, Winters said, “the only reason I voted for her was because she said she wanted police reform. And I feel so very deceived because she has not shown that at all.”
Winters, who doesn’t identify as a police abolitionist, works with a broad coalition of groups that has proposed numerous changes to improve CPD policies and procedures, many of which have been mandated by the federal consent decree the City entered in January 2019. “We keep telling [the city and CPD], we’re coming in and trying to help y’all,” she said. “We are just getting a lot of resistance.”
Winters feels compelled to stand up for Loury and other loved ones killed by the police, because few other people will. “The first thing that happens 99.9 percent of the time is the media begins to immediately villainize whomever is killed by police,” she said. And even now, in a burgeoning movement to defund the police and create new systems to keep people safe, Winters sees that “there are so many names [of people the police have killed], they cannot lift up every single name.”
Williams is one of the people working to uplift those names. Some of the basic demands that Williams is advocating for go beyond any possible remedy in a civil rights lawsuit. “It could be firing officers, or removing them from the area where they’ve committed harm. But at a deeper level, I think it is to invest in the healing and the sustainability of the families and communities impacted.”
The primary response to an unjustified police killing is to file a civil rights lawsuit. Winters, like Williams, doesn’t see attorneys or lawsuits as the primary tools of change in the face of a system that resists reform at every step. “There are small things happening in the end that can only be attributed to the people,” she says. “It’s not because of attorneys, it’s not because of any of those things. It’s because of the activists and the organizers and the family members that have been getting involved in this work that even these minor, miniscule changes are happening.”
The police killing of Anthony Alvarez underscores the failure of prior reforms to stop police from shooting people in the back as they run away. “The word justice means ‘to make right,’ and there is no making that right,” Williams said. “I think the closest we can get to that is it not happening again.”
A version of this article appears in the May 27 print issue. It has been updated online to include Brown’s announcement of changes to CPD’s foot-pursuit policy.
Alex Stein is a lawyer and researcher who lives in Chicago. Jilana Thomas has lived in Chicago for sixteen years and studies the impacts of harm. This is her first story for the Weekly. Ed Vogel lives in Back of the Yards. Stein and Vogel last wrote about media descriptions of children killed by police.