A Chicago police officer who shot and killed a college student and his downstairs neighbor by mistake will face no charges in the two deaths. The Cook County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the officer on Friday, saying that there was insufficient evidence that he was not acting in self-defense.
On the day after Christmas in 2015, Officer Robert Rialmo shot 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier and his neighbor Bettie Jones, 55, a mother of five, after LeGrier called police in a dispute with his father. LeGrier was shot six times, and Jones, who had been standing behind him, was shot once in the chest.
The Chicago Tribune reports that the shooting occurred about 4:30 a.m. Rialmo and his partner were responding to four 911 calls—three by LeGrier and one by his father. LeGrier, a sophomore at Northern Illinois University, was staying with his dad during winter break. Two 911 operators who hung up on LeGrier twice were suspended without pay.
Jones, a downstairs neighbor, answered the door and pointed the officers to LeGrier’s apartment. Before the officers could act, LeGrier came down the stairs wielding an aluminum baseball bat, according to the DA’s office.
The officers reportedly began to back up onto the front landing, and “as the officers walked backward down the stairs, Rialmo’s partner tapped Rialmo on his back and told him to look out,” the state’s attorney’s office wrote in a four-page legal memorandum supporting its decision.
“Rialmo drew his service weapon and fired eight shots toward LeGrier while backing down the front staircase,” it read.
Yet the families of Jones and LeGrier decried the decision, claiming that a witness saw Rialmo fire his gun when he was on the sidewalk about 14 to 20 feet from where LeGrier was standing with the bat.
The neighbor’s account is supported by physical evidence showing that the shell casings from Rialmo’s handgun landed on the sidewalk, attorney Larry Rogers Jr., who represents Jones’ family, said in a news conference Friday.
“There is absolutely no justification for the use of excessive force in that instance,” said Rogers, with three of Jones’ daughters. “Bettie Jones was at her home. She was in her house. She was doing everything right that day. ... To suggest this is a justifiable shooting is to ignore the objective evidence.”
Rialmo, who had the audacity to sue LeGrier’s estate for “emotional damage,” also posted a statement through his attorney, defending his actions.
“I have always known in my heart that I did not do anything wrong,” Rialmo was quoted as saying in the statement. “I wish that Mr. LeGrier would have been able to get help and treatment for his mental illness, and that the situation did not escalate to the point where I had no choice but to use deadly force.
“Being right does not make it any less of a tragedy that two people are dead and I was the cause of their deaths,” he added. “I will have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
In his statement, Rialmo pointed out that LeGrier was in the throes of a mental-health crisis when he was shot and killed. The Tribune reports that Rialmo also sued the city of Chicago last year, claiming that he shot LeGrier and Jones in part because he was inadequately trained.
Democracy Now! cites a September 2016 study that found that people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter. From Alfred Olango to Anthony Hill, Tanisha Anderson to Deborah Danner, black Americans are consistently killed by police when they are in mental distress. Most police forces are not properly trained to deal with mental-health crises and seem to shoot more readily when a “scary black person” is on the other side of their guns.
A report issued last month from Loretta Lynch’s Department of Justice found that the LeGrier and Jones case “laid bare failures in CPD’s crisis response systems,” from the dispatchers who didn’t recognize that LeGrier might be mentally ill to Rialmo and his partner, who did not use crisis-intervention techniques.
“The officers made tactical errors that resulted in the shooting death of a bystander who had simply opened her door,” the report said.
Interestingly, the new state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, did not make the decision not to prosecute Rialmo. Foxx is an African American who was elected after Cook County prosecutor Anita Alvarez was swept out in large part because of her handling of the Laquan McDonald murder case (yet another teen killed by Chicago police). Foxx recused herself from the investigation because her previous employer represents Jones’ family in its pending lawsuit.
In its review of the Rialmo case, the state’s attorney’s office said that securing a conviction would require proving that the officer did not reasonably believe he or his partner were in imminent danger.
A baseball bat can be considered a deadly weapon, it said. It also noted that under Illinois law, a person acting in self-defense is not criminally liable if a bystander is accidentally killed.
At the families’ joint news conference Friday, LeGrier’s mother, Janet Cooksey, said she couldn’t understand why Rialmo wasn’t charged.
“Quintonio did the right thing. He called for help,” she said softly. “He called for help not one time, not two, but three [times]. He called for help to get shot ... and yet this cop is not going to jail?”
Read more at the Chicago Tribune.