Last Thursday, a Chicago police officer shot unarmed 18-year-old Paul O’Neal in the back, killing him. O’Neal reportedly crashed a stolen car into a police vehicle during a chase and then fled on foot. Two officers then fired at O’Neal. This is the kind of incident where body camera footage would be very helpful to investigators. The officer who shot O’Neal was outfitted with a body camera. Unfortunately, the camera wasn’t on during the shooting, raising difficult questions about the rules governing non-compliance with body camera policy. While there is undoubtedly a learning curve associated with body cameras officers who fail to have them on during use-of-force incidents should face harsh consequences.
Body camera footage of O’Neal’s shooting would make the legality of the killing easier to determine. The Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner (1985) that a police officer cannot use lethal force on a fleeing suspect unless “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” The Chicago Police Department’s own use-of-force guidelines allow officers to use a range of tools (pepper spray, canines, Tasers) to deal with unarmed fleeing suspects under some circumstances, but the firearm is not one of them.
O’Neal’s shooting would be legal if the officer who shot him had probable cause to believe that he posed a threat of death or serious injury to members of the public or police officers. Given the information available, perhaps most significantly the fact that O’Neal was unarmed, it looks likely that O’Neal’s died as a result of unjustified use of lethal force.
So far, the Chicago Police Department has stripped three officers involved in the chase and shooting of police powers, with Superintendent Eddie Johnson saying that the officers violated department policy. O’Neal’s mother has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging that her son was killed “without legal justification.”