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Man killed by Chicago police was trying to show officers his gun license when they blindsided him

Harith Augustus had a gun, yes. But Chicago Police Department leaders want you to think that's the end of the story, not the beginning.

Police and protesters faced off through the evening hours on Saturday at the intersection where officers shot and killed Harith Augustus, a local barber. Police quickly released one short snippet of video, but it leaves much unanswered about officers' handling of Augustus, who had a licensed firearm on his hip when officers approached. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Police and protesters faced off through the evening hours on Saturday at the intersection where officers shot and killed Harith Augustus, a local barber. Police quickly released one short snippet of video, but it leaves much unanswered about officers' handling of Augustus, who had a licensed firearm on his hip when officers approached. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

After watching his officers batter members of a large, angry crowd that gathered Saturday night in outrage at the Chicago Police Department’s latest killing of a black man in questionable circumstances, Superintendent Eddie Johnson decided to take an unprecedented step.

Johnson released a brief snippet of body-worn camera (BWC) footage Sunday afternoon, hoping to quell civic unrest sparked by rumors that the officers who killed Harith “Snoop” Augustus hadn’t had any good reason. The video shows Augustus had a pistol holstered on his right hip, and that his hand was resting on it as he tried to skip away from officers who tried to grab him.

“Now why he chose to do what he did, I don’t know,” Johnson said at a Sunday press conference. “I don’t need to narrate that video for you. When you see it, you come to your own conclusions about what happened.”

But if Johnson did try to “narrate that video for you,” he’d end up facing some tough questions anyhow — questions CPD declined to answer in an email to ThinkProgress, citing an ongoing investigation by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA).

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COPA, too, declined to provide answers to the questions Johnson managed to avoid in his 20-minute availability with local Chicago reporters over the weekend. A spokesman said more videos will be released within 60 days but declined to say how many different angles exist or whether any of the officers’ cameras captured audio from the crucial moments Johnson talked around. The relatively new body, formed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) after news broke that his office had been aware of incriminating video from a particularly bad police killing prior to his 2015 re-election but sat on it for months, has not yet earned the trust of the Chicagoans most frequently targeted by police abuse, local activist and mayoral challenger Ja’Mal Green told ThinkProgress.

“We’ve got to have that line of communication and hope that Eddie makes the right decisions, hope that COPA makes the right decisions. But do I have confidence in any of ’em? No. We don’t have any,” Green said. “From what we’ve seen thusfar, everyone is beholden to the mayor and they rarely make decisions that are for the people. And that’s the problem.”

Though Green said he’d urged Johnson to release video evidence that would prove Augustus had a gun, he also derided the idea that the Sunday press conference and 30-second clip somehow leave this an open-and-shut case. It instead resides in a gray area, he said, between the most egregious killings of unarmed black men and the most obviously violent situations like shootouts and standoffs.

“There’s so many unanswered questions. I don’t think that people are satisfied with the video,” Green said.

Chief among the questions Johnson has sidestepped: Why did officers come up behind Augustus and try to grab him suddenly while he was engaged in conversation with another officer? The video shows that Augustus was rummaging through his wallet for something — and had begun to remove some sort of card from it just as the two other officers snatched at him from his blind side.

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Though police officials inserted a freeze-frame into the video snippet released Sunday to ensure that everyone watching could see the dark-colored pistol holstered on Augustus’ right hip, they made no such clarifying enhancement to the moment when the card is partially visible protruding from his wallet. But the card — yellow along one border, predominantly white in color, with a square icon that might be a photograph or some kind of logo — appears to match the format of Illinois’ state-issued Firearm Owner Identification (FOID) cards.

Another question for Johnson, COPA, and the cops who snatched at Augustus’ hands while he interacted with their colleague: What was he discussing with that first officer when the others made a sudden grab for his hands?

Johnson said Sunday that officers had approached Augustus because one thought he’d seen a gun. It’s impossible to say whether or not the first officer was asking Augustus for proof of legal ownership of that gun, at least for now, because the video snippet Johnson hopes will calm Chicagoans down doesn’t have any sound. The BWC in question wasn’t kicked into record mode until after Augustus had been shot. The devices retain 30 seconds of buffer video from prior to when that record function is activated, but do not capture sound from the buffer period.

That does not, however, mean that there is no extant audio evidence of what exactly happened when the cops made their fateful move to grab a man who appeared to have been complying with their colleague’s quest for answers about a gun. Indeed, unless all the officers present violated CPD policy, there should be some significantly longer strip of video and audio that could clarify matters significantly.

Officers must activate their BWCs “at the beginning of an incident and will record the entire incident for all law-enforcement-related activities,” the CPD policy says. The relevant activities include all “investigatory stops,” “interrogations,” “searches, including searches of people,” “requests for consent to search,” and “high-risk situations.”

Johnson said Sunday that officers on a standard foot patrol had decided to approach Augustus after deciding that a bulge on his hip was probably a gun. “They stopped him to question him, and then you’ll see on the video what transpires next,” he said.

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That narrative would qualify under each of the above circumstances where CPD requires its officers to click record immediately. The policy includes exceptions, of course, “if circumstances prevent activating the BWC at the beginning of an incident.” But with multiple officers approaching a pedestrian to interrogate his apparent possession of a firearm, it stands to reason no circumstance was preventing any of them from tapping a button on their chest-mounted cameras in accordance with the policy about “high-risk situations” and other pedestrian interviews and searches.

Perhaps one of the other officers did comply with the BWC policy and start recording early enough to capture their conversation with Augustus. Johnson opted to release only the one video, but said numerous others have been handed over to COPA.

Whatever ultimately does or does not come out, the sheer speed with which Augustus goes from a man agitated at police lunging for his limbs to another dead body on a Chicago street is stunning. Seven seconds after the start of the video, the three officers arriving fan out behind him as he begins to get something out of his wallet. Though both of his hands are on the wallet, at approximately chest height, one of the three officers behind him lunges forward to grab for his right wrist. Seeming to sense the aggression behind him, Augustus twists his body to evade the female officer’s initial grab. The three officers close in tight around him, as the fourth — the one he’d seemingly been talking to seconds earlier — is no longer visible on camera. Augustus wriggles away, stepping down off of the curb onto the street, his right hand dropping to his gun — perhaps to draw it, or perhaps to keep it from flying off of his belt as he hops away from the surprise grab.

Eighteen seconds into the video, and nine seconds after the first time a cop grabs for Augustus’ body from behind him, the video shows him double over seemingly shot. Within moments he was dead, and the beginnings of the crowd that would later spar with baton-wielding cops late into the evening had begun to form.

Johnson’s department had never before published video of a police shooting within 24 hours like this, he said Sunday, even in the roughly two-and-a-half years since Chicago was forced to release videos that proved police had lied to cover up the truth of Officer Jason Van Dyke’s killing of teenaged Laquan McDonald. Van Dyke’s murder trial has yet to begin. Multiple fellow officers are facing separate felony charges for conspiring to hide videos that show he had fired the first of 16 shots at McDonald less than 30 seconds after arriving, and as McDonald was moving away from him and other officers.

Johnson opted for the unusually swift — and decidedly partial — video disclosure this weekend because “we can’t have another night like” Saturday, when cameras caught police advancing their perimeter into a crowd of hundreds of people, occasionally beating some with batons and occasionally watching bottles thrown from the crowd land close to their comrades.

“We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re not trying to fluff anything,” Johnson said.

The insinuation of Johnson’s see-for-yourself moment is that Augustus had obviously left his cops no choice. Put your hand on your gun, and CPD will lay you down for good. That brutally simple portrayal shouldn’t be acceptable given the officers’ apparent role in escalating the situation, said Green, a prominent young face among black Chicago’s legion of police accountability activists who has known Johnson for years.

Green acknowledged Johnson is in a “tough spot” as both Emanuel’s police chief and an African-American man himself. But the department he presides over has a systemic problem with how its officers interact with black Chicagoans, he said.

“A lot of times in these communities, police officers tend to be the provokers. They get a reaction that they don’t expect, and it always ends bad,” said Green. “These are questions that need to be asked. Even though we can say this guy possibly acted wrong by reaching for his waist, having a gun, etc. We need police officers to better handle the situation so it does not end in such a gruesome way as it did.”

The officer seen talking with Augustus before the others lunge at him appeared to have been taking a more reasonable tack in a situation that was peaceful but which included a deadly weapon, he said.

But once they put that call out on the radio, and other officers started to arrive, I think they were interested in taking him down and trying to get the gun off of him instead of talking to him,” Green said. “They didn’t know how far the first officer got with that conversation, because they didn’t ask. They came right up, saw the gun, and are like well we just want to grab him and take the gun off of him. That was their first mindset, when it should’ve been, ‘let’s just go up and figure out what’s going on and help him out.'”

The notion that Augustus — who neighborhood residents described as a well-liked barber in the area and a familiar face to many — was looking for trouble seems bizarre to Green.

“It was a bunch of guys,” Green said. “I don’t think he was gonna just pull out and start a shootout. But once he was grabbed, those things started happening.”

Green said it shouldn’t be hard for officers to get more deeply rooted in the social fabric of the neighborhoods they patrol and to build connections with people like “Snoop” Augustus that would help encounters like this one go in a different direction. His mayoral platform calls for requiring new police recruits to perform many hours of community service with organizations in the communities where they are about to be assigned — an obvious enough idea — but also for cops to carry individual employment insurance policies, as a way of rooting out “bad apples” whose patterns of misconduct with the public would render them uninsurable.

“CPD is more of an oppressive force in our communities, and we need to change that. The police department needs to learn how to talk to people [with respect],” Green said, instead of hostility. “We have to build that type of relationship, instead of the police only coming to arrest or kill.”