Illinois prosecutors announced Thursday they would not be filing charges against a police officer who shot a fleeing man in the back in an incident caught on video.
The video is eerily similar to the Walter Scott shooting that resulted in a South Carolina cop charged with first degree murder.
But unlike Scott, Justus Howell was armed as he ran from Zion police officer Eric Hill, according to Lake County State Attorney Mike Nerhiem.
Nerheim also said Howell, 17, was turning towards the officer right before he was shot but that is not evident in the video, which is posted below.
The incident took place on April 4 when Howell had arranged to meet a man and buy a pistol for $600, but Howell tried to steal the gun instead, taking off running, Nerheim said in a press conference.
That was when Zion police officers began chasing him through yards, eventually killing him.
The Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the announcement offers insight into why the state would not press charges and just how stacked the system is against those who suffer justified police violence.
Prosecutors have authority over whether to charge an officer, though Illinois, like other states, shields police from prosecution under many circumstances. A police shooting can be legal regardless of whether it was necessary, and officers can be legally justified in shooting people in the back.
These laws make it nearly impossible to charge an officer because the state would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer didn’t think the shooting was necessary and wasn’t afraid for anyone’s life. Essentially if the officer says the shooting was justified because he was scared, then legally it was justified, even if the officer’s fear was unreasonable.
These overly broad protections are troubling in light of the Walter Scott murder where an independent video debunked the official police story. Similarly to Howell, Scott was shot and killed while fleeing an officer. The video appears to show that in the wake of Scott’s murder police officers attempted to manufacture a justifiable reason by dropping a Taser near Scott’s body.
But Scott had been pulled over for a broken taillight and ran away because he had a warrant for failing to pay child support.
Howell was accused of stealing a gun, ripping it from a man’s hands, causing it to discharge before he fled.
Illinois law allows an officer to shoot a fleeing person if the officer reasonably believes the shooting is needed to prevent the escape of a person who either has committed or attempted a felony involving serious bodily harm, is using a deadly weapon to try to escape or would endanger human life unless immediately stopped.
The released video shows only the very end of the incident when Hill shoots Howell, so it’s impossible to verify all of the official story. There was a question as to whether Howell had dropped the gun prior to the shooting, but Nerheim pointed out that the firearm was found near the body.
It’s not possible to tell from the video if Howell had the gun or not when he was shot, and as we saw in the video wake of Walter Scott’s murder police can move weapons around to try to cover their crimes. The released video is inconclusive, but the police officer’s story should be met with a level of skepticism because the department and the officers involved have an interest in the shooting be found to be justified.
The most obviously questionable claim made by Nerheim was that he was certain Howell turned toward the officer before the shooting. Nothing in the video corroborates this.
Despite these issues, it makes sense that there would be no charges. The system is designed to protect its agents, particularly police, and given the impossible task of proving beyond a doubt what an officer was thinking and feeling during a shooting it was obvious from the start that no charges could or would be brought. Officer Hill will be back on duty shortly.