Police Shootings in Suburbs Seldom Scrutinized or Punished

The debate over police actions, tactics and discipline may seem like a big-city problem, but in the Cook County suburbs high-profile cases show a pattern of no discipline or criminal charges for officers.

Justice Roberson, far left, Avontea Boose and Tristan Williams attend a celebration of the legacy of Jemel Roberson and Justice’s first birthday on June 13, 2020. Justice and Tristan are Roberson’s children, and Boose was his girlfriend. Roberson was shot and killed by a Midlothian police officer in 2018 while working in a bar as a security guard.

This story was co-published with Crain's Chicago Business, as part of a Crain's Forum project on police reform.

Police from several south suburbs early one November 2018 morning descended on Manny’s Blue Room Lounge in Robbins responding to shots fired inside. By the time Midlothian officer Ian Covey arrived with his gun drawn, a bar security guard had pinned a suspected shooter to the ground.

Reports from witnesses were not consistent, though some said the guard, Jemel Roberson, a 26-year-old African American, was wearing a hat and sweatshirt that said “Security” and bar patrons shouted to Covey, who is white, not to fire. He did anyway, killing Roberson.

Covey's department put him on paid administrative leave while the state police investigated the shooting for possible criminal violations, and 20 months later that’s exactly where the case remains. Covey is still collecting his pay while his legal and employment fate sit in limbo.

Nationwide, protests over the controversial police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day also have stirred simmering anger over a growing roll call of others who have died violently in recent years at the hands of police: Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and on and on.

At first blush, the debate over police actions, tactics and discipline may seem like a big city problem. It is anything but, however.

“The dangerous places are not the big places,” said Wesley Skogan, professor emeritus at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. “The dangerous places are the mid- to small-sized places. They get into more trouble, relative to the number of people they police.”

Skogan, a preeminent police researcher, said small departments have fewer resources than larger counterparts and therefore have less training, supervision and pay.

Two years ago an investigation by the Better Government Association and WBEZ found that between 2005 and 2017 police in the Cook County suburbs were involved in 113 shootings where victims included criminal suspects, innocent bystanders and sometimes even fellow cops. Nearly two-thirds of the victims were Black, the investigation found, and the vast majority happened in south and southwest suburbs with large minority populations.

In not a single case was an officer disciplined, fired or charged criminally.

Following the series, the state General Assembly passed a law requiring local police, beginning in 2019, to conduct detailed reviews in all police shooting cases to determine whether policies and procedures were violated. That is in addition to the investigations usually conducted by the state police into whether an officer who shoots someone broke the law.

Since the publication of the BGA/WBEZ series, records show, there have been at least 22 additional shootings by police in the Cook suburbs, including six that proved fatal. There have been no charges filed or discipline levied in any of these cases, though 11 of the criminal investigations into officer conduct are still ongoing, according to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.

Using public databases, FiveThirtyEight.com, a website dedicated to statistical analysis of political polling and other issues of public interest, found that while the total number of police shootings nationwide held steady from 2013 through 2019, the number of incidents in large cities fell while numbers grew in suburban and rural areas.

Jemel Roberson
Jemel Roberson (Family photo)

Roberson’s fatal shooting was one that generated broad attention not just locally but across the world. A church organist and Lane Tech College Prep High School graduate with one young child and another on the way at the time, Roberson’s killing while on the job changed many lives.

Police from several south suburban departments, Midlothian included, were called to Manny’s when a fight broke out after last call. Someone pulled a gun and fired around the bar, wounding a bartender, a DJ, and a security guard, reports say.

Before officers arrived, Roberson subdued one suspect outside the bar.

Official records and news reports show disagreements over some basic facts. One witness was quoted as saying Roberson was wearing a hat and a sweatshirt clearly marking his security role, though he acknowledged Covey may not have seen it. Initial reports from the Illinois State Police and the Cook County medical examiner’s office did not note the security markings in reports.

Roberson’s mother and his girlfriend have filed wrongful death lawsuits, which are pending.

The criminal investigation, required by law in all Illinois cases where an officer pulls the trigger, has been open and unresolved for more than a year and half, longer than the typical delay in most such investigations.

The shooting occurred less than two months before the new law would have made it mandatory for Midlothian to conduct an administrative review of Covey’s actions. The village did not do it, according to an official village response to a records request from the BGA.

“The village is not at liberty to comment regarding pending litigation or personnel matters,” the Midlothian statement said through its attorney. “The village is awaiting the completion of the investigation and issuance of findings of the Illinois State Police.” Covey also declined comment through his attorney.

“You don’t know what’s happening if you don’t systematically review your cases,” Skogan said. “You don’t know which cases are inside of the law and outside of policy.”

The BGA/WBEZ series also found questionable circumstances in about one-third of the 113 suburban police shooting cases between 2005 and 2017. Many of the state-mandated investigations into whether laws were broken by police were stymied by officers’ refusal to speak with investigators.

In a quarter of all cases, the person shot by police was unarmed. At least 15% of cases involved a shooting victim with mental illness or in some other sort of crisis. The investigation also found officers involved in multiple shootings often had a history of warning signs in their past that were ignored as they moved from department to department.

Eight months before the Robbins events, a shooting by Elgin police on Interstate 90 raised flags for different reasons.

An Elgin police officer noticed Decynthia Clements, 34, after seeing her car parked on a dead-end street, reports say. Clements pulled away, and the officer stopped following her. However, after hearing a call on the police radio about the same car being stopped on the side of the highway, the officer pulled up and told her she was under arrest.

Lt. Chris Jensen was warned on his police radio of a history of suicidal episodes involving Clements. An officer who had encountered Clements earlier in the night reported a steak knife on the passenger seat, and he suspected she was under the influence of drugs, reports say. Clements, who was blocked in by officers, lit her car on fire.

Investigative reports said officers tried to pull Clements from the burning car but she lunged at them with a knife. That’s when Jensen shot and killed her.

Decynthia Clements
Decynthia Clements

Approaching individuals in a mental-health crisis is a key topic in law enforcement policy and training. The criminal investigation found no fault with Jensen, who was placed on administrative leave following the incident and then when returned to duty not allowed to interact with the public. Clements, who was Black, had a history of bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia, records say.

“Officers most of the time try to stay safe by domination,” Skogan said, cautioning that this approach can backfire when a person in crisis doesn’t respond to commands.

An internal review of Jensen’s actions faulted him for not calling an ambulance to deal with somebody he knew to be in a mental-health crisis and not immediately giving medical aid to a person he shot three times. Jensen, who is white, was not disciplined.

Police should consider de-escalating a pursuit or employing other options before using force, Skogan said.

Elgin Police Chief Ana Lalley said the review of the shooting recommended the department emphasize de-escalation techniques and assign a crisis-intervention officer for events like this. It also recommended a civilian review process for police shooting cases beyond the internal review, though that to date has not been put in place. Lalley added the department updates its policies and practices regularly.

While the shootings in 2018 did not require administrative reviews, all cases since the start of 2019 do, including a shooting by a Des Plaines officer that killed bank robbery suspect Christopher Willis and wounded Lane Tech student Rylan Wilder, an intern at a music school where the shooting took place.

Investigative reports say the 32-year-old Willis was part of a team that robbed a Des Plaines Bank of America branch. He then carjacked a vehicle as he fled police.

After a 14-minute pursuit ending in Chicago, a Des Plaines officer struck Willis’ car. According to official reports and an interview with Des Plaines Police Chief William Kushner, Willis shot and wounded a Chicago officer before running into a music school nearby filled with children.

“The overarching decision point is does the risk outweigh the purpose? In this case, we have an armed offender who robs a bank at gunpoint,” Kushner said. “And then he carjacks a woman at gunpoint. He threatens her husband with a weapon with a laser-sight on it, and then he takes off with their car. You’ve got to figure this guy is a threat to everybody.”

After following Willis into the music school, Officer Jimmy Armstrong ordered Willis to drop his weapon, according to official reports. Wilder attempted to flee after seeing Willis run inside but Wilder got in the way and was wounded when Armstrong fired with a .223-caliber rifle, according to the policy review. Willis was killed and Wilder wounded.

“When (Willis) turned on the officer, the time for negotiation had passed,” Kushner said.

The criminal investigation of Armstrong is being conducted by Chicago Police, according to Kushner. The administrative review was performed by a security firm’s lead investigator with past experience with Illinois State Police and Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Armstrong was put on paid administrative leave for six weeks and referred to a counselor following the shooting. He returned to regular duty January 2 following the internal investigation and successfully completed counseling, Kushner said.

Des Plaines’ policy on use of force declares officers are asked to consider the “immediacy and severity of the threat to officers or others,” in addition to “the availability of other options and their possible effectiveness.”

Following his reinstatement, Armstrong was suspended for one day for use of derogatory language in the process of an arrest that preceded the shooting.

Police training centers on officers taking responsibility for every round they fire. “If there are other people down range, maybe you don’t shoot because you’re not that good of a shot,” Skogan said.

Cases like these often lead to lawsuits. Suburban taxpayers paid more than $12 million to settle lawsuits in at least 25 separate police shootings between 2005 and 2017, records show.

Beyond the toll of death for the victims and suffering for family and friends, police misconduct — including shooting cases — cost municipalities $131 million in settlements, judgments and outside legal bills in nearly 1,000 cases between 2008 and 2018, according to records maintained by the BGA. These costs, much like the shootings, cluster in south and southwest suburbs, including Harvey, Calumet City, Dolton, Cicero, Chicago Heights and Markham.