Even though she was brandishing a steak knife, when Decynthia Clements emerged from her SUV and walked toward Elgin, Ill., law enforcement officers, it seemed as if the cops had everything under control. Clements’ truck was immobilized and surrounded by at least seven officers. A K-9 unit was on the scene. The officer in charge even informed the other police officers on the scene to use rubber bullets first, and then a Taser.
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Instead, they shot her in the head.
On Friday, Elgin police released more than 30 unedited hours of footage showing the March 12 standoff that ended with the death of a 34-year-old black woman with mental health problems. The bodycam and dashcam footage, reviewed by The Root, shows police officers trying to coerce Clements out of her truck on the shoulder of an Illinois interstate. Police officers can be heard discussing tactics as to how they planned to handle her once she exited the vehicle.
Then, seconds after Clements steps out of her car, three shots ring out, killing her at the scene.
According to the Elgin Courier-News, the saga began when Elgin police discovered Clements parked on a dead-end street early on the morning of March 12. When police approached Clements’ car, she took off, driving through a stop light and entering Interstate 90, about 40 miles outside of Chicago.
Clements eventually stopped on the center shoulder of the highway after losing two tires, and police used two SUVs to block in her automobile. Authorities asked her to step out of the car, and the audio from the dashcams reveals police officers talking about a steak knife and small screwdriver, which were in the car with Clements.
In the video, Clements at times seems aggressive and incoherent. Officers indicate that they suspect that she is under the influence of cocaine, but the Courier-News reports that cops were informed during the standoff that Clements had been seeing a therapist and had previously revealed suicidal thoughts and hallucinations.
The police spent an hour trying to persuade Clements to exit her vehicle, and she informed them that she would get out after she smoked one more cigarette. In the meantime, officers discussed how they would handle her once she stepped out of the car.
“If she does exit out of the vehicle, we’ll try to order her back,” Lt. Christian Jensen, the man who shot Clements, can be heard explaining in the footage. Jensen, who indicates he is “the boss” at the scene, tells the other officers: “If she does end up brandishing the knife, we’ll go with the 40, OK?” “40” is the police nickname for less-than-lethal rubber bullets.
“And, if it ends up being closer, if she’s coming towards us, we’ll try to tase her then,” Jensen says. “Then we’ll take other options.”
But Clements apparently surprises the lawmen by setting something on fire in her car. As smoke fills the vehicle, Clements can be seen opening the door, gagging for air. Officers yell, “Put the knife down!” as she puts one foot on the ground. She takes one final step and multiple gunshots ring out.
In multiple viewings of the footage, The Root estimates that somewhere between .44 and .66 seconds passed between Clements’ exiting the vehicle and the first shot. She did not take more than two steps.
Jensen’s body camera shows him calling over another officer in the aftermath: “OK, I shot. After this is done, we’re going to have to talk here.” As a female officer approaches, Jensen explains: “Yeah, I shot her. … She had a couple knives in her hands, approached us with the knives, yelling and screaming.
“Oh, I’m good. I mean, I don’t know what else we were going to do there,” Jensen tells another cop who asks him how he is doing. “I’m not happy. It absolutely sucks, but ... I was stuck, you know?”
The Elgin Police Department initially gave the media an edited version of the footage compiled from the recordings. But when family members and activists accused the department of editing the video to fit the city’s narrative, the department released more than 30 hours of footage from dashboard cameras and bodycams from officers on the scene.
“We are trying to lead the way in what a transparent police department looks like,” Elgin Police Chief Jeff Swoboda told reporters during the announcement of the unedited video. “And what a transparent police department looks like is that you get in front of the cameras and you talk with the people before you have all the answers.”
Antonio Romanucci, the Clements family attorney, told CNN that police handled the situation incorrectly, stating that the city had had more than enough time to have a crisis-intervention team at the scene.
“Since they did not deal with this as a medical situation, they dealt with this as a militarized police situation,” said Romanucci. “Because one officer perceived her as [a] deadly threat, despite the plan not to kill her, with all those officers there, it was predetermined that she would die.”
“There was no evidence that police were in fear of their own bodily harm,” Romanucci added. He noted that police officers knew that the victim was emotionally disturbed.
Said Chief Swoboda: “It’s cases like this, though, that also force some tough conversations. And I want the community to know that the Elgin Police Department is ready to have those tough conversations.”
He added that the Cook County State’s Attorney Office, the Illinois State Police and Elgin Police Department’s internal-investigations unit will review the case.
Swoboda noted that this was the first officer-involved death in Elgin since 1999.
The family of Decynthia Clements did not respond by noting that this was her first time dying.