The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., scholars and the lawyer who represented Rekia Boyd’s family in a civil suit expressed surprise this week that a white off-duty Chicago police officer has been charged in the shooting death of the unarmed black woman.
“The fact that the officer in this case was charged is an exception to the rule,” Jackson told The Root.
No one expected charges in Boyd’s case, given the city’s history of police misconduct, Melvin L. Brooks, the family’s attorney, also told The Root.
“I did not think it would happen because there was a concerted effort to direct attention away from this officer and put the focus on Antonio Cross, who was with Rekia Boyd,” Brooks said. “Cross was charged with aggravated assault as a result of this incident, and the charges were later dropped after a lengthy investigation in which the officer charged with Rekia Boyd’s shooting was the complainant.”
Indeed, nearly a year and a half after Boyd’s shooting and after a settlement payment, Chicago Police Officer Dante Servin on Monday was charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless discharge of a firearm and reckless misconduct in the March 21, 2012, shooting death of Boyd on the city’s West Side, the Chicago Tribune reports.
The accused officer had told investigators that he saw Cross remove a gun from his waistband and point it at him as he approached Servin's car, the Tribune reports. At that point, Servin reportedly grabbed his own gun and fired five rounds over his left shoulder out the window. Three people with Cross, including Boyd, had their backs to Servin, prosecutors said. It turns out that Cross was not holding a gun; he was holding a cellphone.
“It's a sad day when charges are warranted against a police officer, but we feel very strongly that in this particular case Ms. Rekia Boyd lost her life for no reason,” State's Attorney Anita Alvarez told reporters after the bond hearing, according to the Tribune. “[Boyd] was doing nothing and was shot in the back of the head. And in evaluating all the facts that I saw, I felt that his actions were not appropriate, not justified and were reckless.”
The case is important on the local and national landscape because it could help instill trust in the justice system in largely minority communities, where law enforcement needs assistance to tackle outsize crime.
“While it’s a small step, we hope that more people will begin to trust the police to help put a dent in solving crime,” said the Rev. Jackson.
Chicago, which last year surpassed New York City as the nation’s murder capital, has spent millions defending police misconduct, leading residents in largely minority communities to distrust law enforcement officers to their own detriment, Jackson said. To his point, in March the city approved a $4.5 million settlement with Boyd’s family in her death. The case had sparked outrage across the city.
Despite the settlement, Boyd’s family continued to push for justice in the form of criminal charges. Their efforts came in the aftermath of the 2011 shooting death of the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was acquitted, prompting calls for justice, an overhaul of “Stand your ground” laws and stiffer gun-control measures.
Trayvon’s shooting helped shine the media spotlight on the shooting deaths of unarmed African Americans. Besides Boyd, other recent high-profile victims include Renisha McBride, who was shot by a suburban Detroit homeowner after leaving her car in search of help after a car accident on Nov. 2, and Jonathan A. Ferrell, 24, a former Florida A&M football player, who was shot in September by a North Carolina police officer, also after leaving his vehicle in search of assistance following an accident. In both of these cases, the shooters have been charged.
The last time a Chicago police officer was charged in a fatal shooting was in 1995, when off-duty officer Gregory Becker killed a homeless man during a struggle in the River North neighborhood. His weapon apparently went off as he pistol-whipped the victim, prosecutors said. In 1997, Becker received a 15-year prison sentence after a jury convicted him on charges of armed violence, involuntary manslaughter and official misconduct.
Chicago has a long history of police abuse, stemming back to the era of disgraced ex-Cmder. Jon Burge. During Burge’s tenure on the South Side during the 1970s and 1980s, he reportedly oversaw the torture of scores of African-American men, who were forced into making false confessions for murders and rapes. In September, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an apology for this era in the Chicago Police Department, calling it a “dark chapter” in the city’s history. The scandal helped rid Illinois of the death penalty and will cost taxpayers more than $100 million when lawsuits against the city are settled, the Chicago Tribune reports.
But attorneys like Brooks, civil rights leaders, elected officials and residents argue that a pattern of police misconduct still exists, which is why the charges against Servin resonated.
“I applaud the state’s attorney for investigating the matter,” Brooks said. “On the other hand, they had no choice. There was overwhelming evidence that he was improper. I don’t know if you can be more reckless in terms of shooting from his vehicle. No matter how they tried to massage it, there was no shooting or shots fired by anyone other than a Chicago police officer. In the grand scheme of things, yes, it’s a small step to help build trust in the community, but it means the world for the family. Whether it will have impact beyond just symbolism in Chicago, that’s hard to say.”
James Wolfinger, a history professor and expert in 20th-century urban history at Chicago’s DePaul University, echoed Brooks’ sentiments.
“When I think about this case and Trayvon Martin, this case doesn’t inspire much optimism that things are going to change,” Wolfinger told The Root. “How do you trust police in the community if you see these outcomes too often? I’m not convinced that the guy gets put on trial is going to lead to change. It has to be more systemic.”
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.