In 2016 then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that by 2017 all Chicago police officers would be equipped with body cameras. Body cameras have become the number-one tool for police departments across the nation to remain accountable. By providing video footage of encounters with the public, they are intended to keep both citizens and officers safe from false narratives. Though their efficacy remains a matter of debate, one thing is clear: they only work if they are worn and activated.
On Sunday, August 9, at around 2:30 pm, in Englewood, CPD officers shot and wounded a man who allegedly shot at them while fleeing. But no video exists of the incident, as none of the officers involved were wearing body cameras. Misinformation that circulated about the shooting, combined with an aggressive police presence in the area following the incident, are believed to have led to widespread civil unrest and property damage in downtown Chicago and the near North Side later that night.
The man shot, twenty-year-old Latrell Allen, has been charged with two counts of attempted murder and one count of unlawful possession of a weapon. He allegedly fired two shots at officers before they returned fire, hitting Allen. He was eventually transported to the University of Chicago Medical Center.
The man’s brother, Earl Allen, told the Sun-Times that he had been with Latrell and several others at Moran Park, at 57th and Racine, and that someone in the group made a comment to officers in a police vehicle, which led to a pursuit.
“My brother ain’t fired at no police,” he told the Sun-Times.
On Monday, the Weekly spoke with Englewood resident Keith Smith, forty-nine, who said he was hanging out near Moran Park, close to where the shooting happened.
Smith said a police vehicle came up on Allen in an intimidating manner, with great speed and jumping a curb as it approached him. “They didn’t have to roll up on him like that even if they thought he had a gun,” he said. “I think it caused him to panic.”
Smith said he saw Allen turn a corner and then heard gunshots, but did not see the shooting.
The facts of the case are widely disputed between the police officers who were involved and Allen’s defense. The state says that officers recovered a gun with shell casing after following a trail of blood to Allen’s home. Allen’s public defender said on Tuesday that Allen was shot in the cheek and back; the proffer says he was shot in the cheek and in “the side area.”
The Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) told the Weekly that there was no video evidence of the shooting from officer body cameras or surveillance POD cameras.
“Preliminary investigative efforts have determined the involved Chicago Police Officers assigned to the newly created Community Safety Team did not have body worn cameras,” said a spokesperson for COPA in a statement.
In July CPD Superintendent David Brown announced a newly created “Community Safety Team” that would comprise almost 300 officers on the South and West Sides. “Let me be clear, this is not a roving strike force like CPD has had in the past,” Brown said in July.
Brown said the team would receive special training in crisis intervention and community policing and 1st and 4th Amendment rights. He said the team would focus on initiatives like peace marches, prayer circles, and food drives. “This team will be community policing based and community policing at its finest,” he said during the press conference.
In an op-ed, the Weekly wrote last month, “Some of the most corrupt and abusive CPD officers came from this very kind of unit.”
On Sunday, officers from the Community Safety Team began a foot pursuit of Allen that would end in an alleged shootout. They were deployed without any body cameras.
The Weekly asked CPD if it is standard procedure for officers on the Community Safety Team not to be equipped with body cameras. CPD said they have been “actively working” to equip the Community Safety Team with body cameras and that they “have prioritized all officers who are a part of these teams to receive body-worn cameras under the 2021 budget if they don’t already have one.”
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According to CPD’s body camera policy, “The decision to electronically record a law-enforcement related encounter is mandatory, not discretionary.”
A source within CPD told the Weekly that part of the problem was that the policing contract under the previous administration is restrictive, and prohibits the sharing of body cameras by officers who are on different shifts.
But University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman disagreed with CPD’s assessment. Futterman focuses on civil rights and police accountability and was one of the lead attorneys on the community-based lawsuit that ultimately led to the current consent decree.
Futterman said that not equipping the Community Safety Team with body cameras “has to be an intentional decision” by CPD leadership.
He said that the issue of which units in CPD are equipped with body cameras is “an issue that hasn’t gotten enough public attention.”
“CPD officers are not assigned and or required to wear body cameras, it’s ridiculous,” he said.
Futterman said while CPD isn’t breaking the law by not providing officers on the Community Safety Team with body cameras, they are “violating the spirit of the consent decree,” which is designed to ensure that officers who engage with the public the most are held accountable, through the use of body cameras and other tactics.
He said the issue is widespread within the department. Special units such as the Community Safety Team, SWAT, narcotics units, gang units, and units regularly conducting dangerous raids are often not assigned body cameras.
Futterman said he believes CPD is avoiding transparency and accountability. “The units that have been the most abusive and are engaging in these encounters everyday are ironically the very units that CPD refuses to issue body cameras,” he said.
Futterman has been critical of mistaken CPD raids where officers were found to not have their body cameras turned on.
“This is a matter of CPD policy,” he said. “They have decided that these teams most in need of monitoring are the very units they are exempting and ensuring that no video evidence of these encounters will ever exist. It has to be an intentional decision.”
Furthermore, officers who do have body cameras are often not turning them on—as required by CPD policy—and they are not held accountable when they do not, he said.
Alderman Matt Martin (47th) has been very hands on when it comes to enforcing the consent decree and enforcing its directives. On Tuesday’s meeting of the Committee on Public Safety, Martin asked why officers responding on Sunday did not have body cameras.
Martin told the Weekly that CPD’s response that they were actively working to equip officers with body cameras was “not an acceptable answer.”
“When you respond to calls for service, you should have a body camera that you can activate if you end up interacting with a member of the public,” he said.
Martin said he can appreciate the difficult position Superintendent Brown is in, inheriting a department that still has a long way to go for true reform. “There are a lot of moving parts,” he said.
Martin said the city missed a major opportunity to prove the city and its police department are making strides in implementing the consent decree. “It was a mistake not to have [body cameras] in this situation,” he said. “I hope we make body cameras available to all officers as quickly as possible.”
The footage reviewed by COPA from the POD camera on the corner of 57th & Racine does show the individual who, according to CPD, “matched the description of the person sought to be in possession of a firearm,” but the camera did not capture any evidence beyond that, said a COPA spokesperson.
On Tuesday, Judge Susana Ortiz gave Allen a $1 million bail.
The bond proffer confirms that the officers responding did not have body cameras and that their squad car was not equipped with dashboard cameras because the “Community Policing Unit is a newly formed Unit.”
Ballistics and DNA evidence are still with the Illinois State Police and has not yet been processed.
Ultimately, the case against Allen is likely to hinge on the sworn testimony of the same officers who shot him. Without body camera, dashboard camera, or POD camera evidence, Chicago may never know what truly happened that Sunday in Englewood.
Jonathan Ballew is a Chicago-based freelancer who lives in Uptown. His work has appeared in Block Club Chicago, Chicago Magazine, The Chicago Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times, among others. He last wrote about the Tiger Woods golf course for the Weekly.