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Why Black Chicagoans Distrust and Fear the Police

Two weeks ago a pair of black teenagers were killed by Chicago cops in separate incidents, and residents have taken to the streets to protest, resulting in yet more clashes between a police department and a community that don't trust each other.

Justin Glawe

Chicagoans chant, "No justice, no peace!" and "Get out of our community!" at police at Roshad McIntosh's funeral. Photo via Ze Garcia-Puga

The story is a familiar one on the streets of Chicago. A black man runs from the cops. At some point he displays a handgun—or an object that looks like a handgun—and police, fearing for their lives, fire their own weapons, leaving him dead in the street. On August 24, the lives of two men ended in such fashion, according to authorities. But the official version of events surrounding the deaths of Roshad McIntosh, 19, and DeSean Pittman, 17, are now being questioned.

In the wake of high-profile killings of citizens by cops in New York, Missouri, and Louisiana, the two teens’ deaths have attracted more attention than such shootings might ordinarily, sparking vigils that in one case led to some of the attendees being arrested. In the process, an already strained relationship between police and the black community in which the teens lived got even more frayed.

“It’s a devastating feeling to bury your child,” said Reggie Pittman, DeSean’s father, when I spoke with him on Monday. “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”

At the vigil for Pittman, some of the mourners turned their grief to anger: One rammed a car into a police officer, and Pittman’s mother, Natasha Haul, was arrested for assaulting a cop. (She made bail the day before her son’s funeral thanks to $7,500 raised by activists and community members.) But participants say that the police were also responsible for their share of aggression. Max Suchan, an attorney representing Haul, said police “aggravated” the vigil attendees, and Pittman’s father, Reggie, told me that an officer disrespected the deceased and provoked the crowd.

“He walked to my son’s candles,” Reggie said of the cop. “He kicked my son’s candles and tore posters down and said, ‘Oh, that’s too fucking bad he’s dead.’”

Police—both in Chicago and all over the country—rarely apologize for shootings, and it’s even rarer that one results in an officer being disciplined. Since November of 2007, 176 people have been shot by Chicago police. All of those incidents were reviewed by Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), the agency charged with investigating police misconduct—but the cops’ use of potentially lethal force was only found to be unjustified three times, the Chicago Tribune reported last month. (IPRA is now looking into the deaths of McIntosh and Pittman.)

“I find it ridiculous that in just three out of 176 you find something wrong,” said Quovabis Green, a community activist in McIntosh’s Lawndale West Chicago neighborhood.

The dismay and distrust felt by Green and Reggie Pittman are likely representative of the frustration felt by scores of Chicagoans who’ve lost loved ones gunned down by cops over the past few years. It’s not just the deaths, which are tragic enough, it’s that official police accounts don’t add up to what neighbors and witnesses say went down. Adding insult to injury, the families and the community at large haven’t been getting much of a response from the police department.

Reggie Pittman wants answers, but right now he’s getting answering machines. And that’s the way it’s likely to remain for at least the next year, IPRA spokesman Larry Merritt told me.

“Generally speaking, shooting investigations take 12 to 18 months at best,” Merritt said.

The night Pittman’s son died, two rookie officers said they heard shots and rounded a corner to find the teen standing over 22-year-old Amelio Johnson. DeSean was holding a gun that he had just used to shoot Johnson—who later died from his injuries—police said. The officers opened fire when Pittman refused to drop his weapon. In an official statement, the Chicago Police Department said one officer carried out the shooting. Reggie Pittman said his son took at least eight bullets to his chest that night. But the number of shots fired has not been released by police, and all media inquiries about Pittman’s and McIntosh’s deaths have been directed to IPRA, which has declined to comment.

The family couldn’t afford an independent autopsy, and following the young man’s burial had yet to secure a lawyer. Money is tight after DeSean’s funeral, but his father remains hopeful that a thorough investigation will reach the same conclusion he has.

“I feel they executed my son,” he said. 

Anti-police protesters at Roshad McIntosh's funeral. Photo via Ze Garcia-Puga

As for McIntosh, police have said the teen was being chased by officers when he stopped and pointed a gun at cops while in an “elevated position” and refused to drop it. But Green, the community activist, disagrees with that account. He and others, including a Lawndale resident who witnessed McIntosh’s death, said the Chicago Police Department’s familiar narrative of a weapon-wielding runner doesn’t add up.

Green says that McIntosh was actually hiding behind a dresser on a porch as police looked for him following a traffic stop. The cops fired some warning shots into the dresser, and McIntosh came out of hiding. The witness told Green that he pleaded with the cops not to shoot and that he could get McIntosh to come down, but they fired anyway, and the young men fell dead.

Residents of Lawndale have an especially contentious relationship with police, community activist Jose “Ze” Garcia-Puga told me. “People in the community describe it as an open-air prison,” he said. There have been notorious and shocking incidents of police brutality in the area, like the time in 2013 Glenn Evans, a veteran commander who oversees patrol operations there, allegedly stuck a gun in a suspect’s mouth. (He was recently relieved of duty and is being charged with aggravated battery.)

Three days after McIntosh’s death, about 1,000 protesters marched to the local CPD headquarters where Evans works demanding answers about the shooting and the Evans case. Garcia-Puga told me that in the course of the demonstration the cops pointed weapons in his face and asked he was there to start a riot. (He later complied a Storify about the shootings and the protest.)

Whatever happened to the two teens on the night of August 24 will likely remain a point of contention for months, if not years. Rumors that federal investigators were looking into the deaths of McIntosh and Pittman have since been rebuked. Attorney General Eric Holder, who visited Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, probably won’t be coming to Lawndale anytime soon. And odds are that IPRA will find that the shootings of McIntosh and Pittman were justified, just as the agency usually does.

Meanwhile, the people in Chicago’s predominantly poor and black neighborhoods will probably continue to view the police not as public servants dedicated to keeping them safe, but as a hostile occupying army.

“You can’t back a person into a corner. That’s when they’re the most dangerous because they’re scared,” Green said. “The community at this point feels pressured by the police, and they feel like they’re against a wall. Like there’s nowhere to go from here.”

Justin Glawe is a freelance journalist based in Peoria, Illinois. He writes about crime there, and recently launched a reporting project that will address issues of child welfare on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.