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by Peter Moskos

August 6, 2016

Paul O'Neal shot and killed by Chicago police

Last week Paul O'Neal was fleeing from police in a stolen car. He crashed past one police car, and cops shot at him. He then veered head-on into another cop car, bailed, jumped over a fence (being more agile than any of the chasing cops), and was then shot at again. One (or more?) of these shots hit O'Neal in the back and killed him. O'Neal did not have a gun.

I spent a few too many hours editing these videos down to an annotated good parts version. Here's the timeline:
0:00 1st police car passenger's bodycam
0:21 1st police car passenger's bodycam, with comments
1:47 1st police car driver's bodycam
2:01 1st police car driver's bodycam, with comments
2:50 rammed police car's dashcam
3:08 rammed police car's dashcam, with comments

It all does happen so fast. But it's a bad shooting. And that's before O'Neal is killed. The bottom line is that the first cop who shot -- the passenger in the first police car struck -- shot too quickly and unreasonably. His actions directly led to O'Neal's death by creating what is known, in technical police circles, as "a complete clusterfuck."

This cop fucked up in so many different ways, it's hard to count the ways. But I came up with eight, for starters:

1) His gun is unholstered in the car (WTF?) before he even gets out.
2) He shoots without an imminent threat to him or his partner.
3) He shoots one-handed, while moving, without trigger control.
4) He shoots at a moving vehicle (which goes against department policy).
5) He came damn close to shooting his partner!
6) Twice!!!
7) He shoots at a fleeing felon (which goes against Tennessee v. Garner).
8) He shoots downrange toward a light-flashing police car coming in his direction.

And for what? A stolen car?

And after the shootings, his most-vocalized worry was:
Fuck, I'm going to be on the desk for 30 goddamn days now. Fucking desk duty for 30 days now. Motherfucker.
Don't worry. You won't be sitting at a desk for long. You'll be criminally charged with something, as you should be. Probably convicted, too. And I hope you're fired for shooting at other cops. No cop will work next to this trigger-happy shooting-at-his-partners cowboy. The other officers on scene could only be so lucky if it turns out that the fatal bullet did come from his gun. See, despite having fired at at least 10 times, Officer 30-Goddamn-Days can't be convicted of homicide because he probably never hit O'Neal! It would be fitting if they made him pay for the bullet hole in the car.

The officer who fired the fatal shot probably shot O'Neal in the backyard, and there's no video of this. He or she will have a reasonable defense. They had good (albeit incorrect) reasons to believe O'Neal was armed, dangerous, and shooting at cops. O'Neal was a felon who rammed a cop car head-on. The irony is that Cowboy Cop, by shooting, makes the subsequent officers' actions more reasonable.

This could turn out like the police-involved shooting of Amadou Diallo: a tragedy, a bad shooting, and a collective fuck-up, but still not a convictable criminal offense for cops thinking they're under fire. "Reasonable" is the legal standard. (But it doesn't do justice to Diallo to compare these shootings. Diallo's death was worse because Diallo was innocent, compliant, not in a stolen car, and not fleeing from police.) This won't be as open-and-shut obvious acquittal as, say, homicide by failure to seatbelt. But cops don't have to be right; they have to be reasonable. And criminal cases need to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

And yes, it should be said: kids, don't steal cars!

[I first saw the videos on Tanveer Ali's article in DNAinfo. Unedited videos can be found at Vimeo under Log# 1081642.]

[The one "good" shot, in my opinion, comes from the driver of the first police car. He gets out of the way of the car coming at him and takes fire (turns out from his stupid partner, but he didn't know that). What he does know (even though it turns out to be wrong) is that a felon is shooting at cops and driving toward more police officers. You can shoot at a vehicle if you believe that vehicle to be an imminent threat is a form other than the vehicle itself. (The police passenger knew the car thief wasn't shooting, so his shots were not good.) The police driver assumes a good shooting stance, aims, and fires once (or maybe twice), hoping to hit the driver in his back. Given what he knew right there and then, it's a good shooting (even with the cop car downrange, but off-target). This is not the same as saying his shooting was right in hindsight. It wasn't. But shootings can be legally justifiable even when hindsight proves them wrong.]

Update (January 12, 2018) from the Chicago Tribune:
Two Chicago police officers should be fired for shooting at a moving vehicle without justification during a chase and fatal police shooting in 2016, disciplinary officials ruled in a report obtained Friday by the Tribune.

Officers Michael Coughlin Jr. and Jose Torres endangered the public and the lives of their fellow officers when they shot at 18-year-old Paul O’Neal as he tried to flee police in a stolen Jaguar convertible on a residential street in the South Shore neighborhood, according to the report by the now-defunct Independent Police Review Authority.

The same report concluded that a third officer, Jose Diaz, who ultimately shot and killed O’Neal during an ensuing foot chase, was justified because he reasonably believed that O’Neal had a gun and had already fired shots at the police, even though O’Neal turned out to be unarmed.

It was recommended, however, that Diaz be suspended for six months for kicking O’Neal and yelling “Bitch ass mother------, f------ shooting at us!” while the teen lay mortally wounded in a backyard.

That same profanity-laced statement, which was captured on a police body camera, convinced investigators that Diaz “genuinely believed” at the time that O’Neal had fired at him, according to the report, obtained by the Tribune through an open records request.

Further update, October 2018. Looks like both officers are going to be fired.

Further more update, March 2020. They are being fired. I can't believe it's 4 years later.


David Bratzer said...

Great job with the video comments. Thanks for doing this.

Unknown said...

Can't overstate how great it is to have a place to go for clear, informed analysis which tries to look at these things in detail and without just saying hooray for our side. Not sure anyone who hasn't been in a situation like this can truly appreciate it but all the more reason why you can't have a cop foolishly put a turbocharge onto an already chaotic event.

john mosby said...

Prof, serious criminological question: Has anyone looked at the effect of Garner on crime rates?

Intuitively, one would think that if the cops can't just shoot me, I will be more likely to boost, burgle, larce, etc.

But intuition is often wrong.


David Woycechowsky said...

Did he ram the police car ram the suspect or did the suspect ram the police car?

David Woycechowsky said...

Also, why did the driver get out of his vehicle. More pointedly, did he get out so that he would have an excuse to fire?

Moskos said...

Garner certainly correlated with a huge decrease in violence by and to cops. But this is one case where I would emphasize that correlation does not equal causation. Though in class I do bring it up as one possible contribution to safer policing. If cops don't shot at you, you're less likely to shoot back.

But that is different than crime rate. And I don't know the answer. I would suspect there to be no effect. Deterrence is such bullshit, in my humble opinion. People commit crime when they think they won't get caught. But even saying that, I gotta think people were less likely to run when cops could "stop or I'll shoot." But again, more important to me is that cop deaths went way down in the 1970s and 1980s.

Which leads to why it's hard to study. Garner was 1985, but the decision had little if any effect on most police departments, because they had already long banned what Garner prohibited (shooting at fleeing felons who were not an imminent threat). Garner just made it unconstitutional.

Moskos said...

Oh David, David, David. How do you do it? If you second comment weren't interesting, I'd delete the first. In the dash cam video you can clearly see and hear the police car braking. Did you not see this? Perhaps I should have have commented on it, but it seemed so obvious. It is almost at a complete stop when the Jag swerves into it. (O'Neal was probably trying to hit the cop car hard enough to set off the cops air bags to disorient the cops, which happened.)

As to why the officers got out of the vehicle. I don't know. If you're going to be hit by a car, it's better to be in car. But if your car is going to be hit, it's better to not be in the car. And no matter what you're planning on doing next, you need to be out of the car to do it.

The driver managed to get out and get out of harm's way behind a parked car. Good job. The passenger? I don't know. It looks to me like he got out aiming, with shooting on him mind. But he didn't shoot till the car got to where his partner was standing, which would indicate he was thinking of his partner's life. (Though how shooting at your partner and a car could save that life baffles me.) But I can't read his mind.

David Woycechowsky said...

First question: I'll take your answering on the ramming question. I was asking because I wanted to know what you thought. Your answer sounds good, so I will agree and thank you.

Second question: I am not buying your answer. Seems like it was really foolhardy for the drive to exit.

aNanyMouse said...

Please clarify main text passage "You can shoot at a vehicle if you believe that vehicle to be an imminent threat is a form other than the vehicle itself."
Did you mean "in a form...."?

Typo alerts:
comment of 2:11 PM: "If cops don't shot at you,...." Meaning "shoot"?
comment of 2:28 PM: "... with shooting on him mind." Maybe meaning "his mind"?

Moskos said...

Yes to your corrections (I can't edit comments).
As to your question, I was paraphrasing the last part of this NYPD use of firearms guideline (I imagine Chicago's is similar, if not the same): "Police officers shall not discharge their firearms at or from a moving vehicle unless deadly physical force is being used against the police officer or another person present, by means other than a moving vehicle."

So you can't (or shouldn't) shoot at a vehicle coming at you or your partner. But you *can* shoot at a vehicle if the driver is shooting out the window.

Unknown said...

For the officer who was driving the first car and fired the one shot, why do you believe it reasonable for him to assume the shots fired (actually from his partner) were from the suspect vehicle? He cannot have seen a gun in the hand of a suspect since the suspects didn't have one. His partner has a gun out that he might or might not have seen. His partner fires shots after the suspect vehicle is well past them and I'd think he could tell from sound that those last few shots were coming from partner instead of suspect vehicle. I'd accept that he might not know where shots came from, but lack of knowledge does not seem a reasonable basis for the use of deadly force.

Anonymous said...

Hey Pete I work at CPD and I agree not kicking that fence down is beyond me. I don't know anyone I work with that wouldn't of A) kicked it down or B) ran thru it. Good assement of the video. These are young coppers & little inexperience and training is what this entire situation is.

Moskos said...

I spent a lot of time quizzically looking at that fence going, "is lumber stronger in Chicago?" (For the record, a Baltimore fence probably *would* probably be rotting and easier to bust through, but that's not the point.) I mean, there are *gun shots* on the other side of the fence and these geniuses say, "let's go around!" What the fuck?!

It's one step away from, "Somebody's got to go back and get a shit-load of dimes!" (That's a Blazing Saddles reference, for the kids out there.)

[Also I would be a little hesitant myself going *over* the fence. I would not trust myself going over the other side without flipping over and hurting myself.]

Liberaltarian, the legal standard is a reasonable cop, not a reasonable critic of cops. If you're a cop and a criminal is in front of you and your partner is on the other side of the criminal, and gun shots come at you from that direction? I mean, you can see muzzle flash! Of course you assume it's coming from the felon. Every reasonable cop would assume their partner would never be so life-threateningly stupid as to shoot right at you! (Leaving aside the fact that that is *exactly* what happened).

JPP said...

Huh! I thought that a vehicle was considered a deadly weapon of some sort, based on how someone is using it. It looks to me that the assault on an officer occurs when the car almost hits the partner.

Moskos said...

I car can be a deadly weapon. But that doesn't mean you're allowed to shoot at it. The idea is that if a vehicle is a deadly weapon, that last thing you want is it barrelling out of control. That said, if it's coming right at you (which it was not in the this case, with the officers who first shot) and you can't get out of the way, at some point I don't know what else you're supposed to do. And keep in mind that policies, as we learned in Baltimore, are not laws but "guidelines." But if you're going to violate this one, you had better be able explain how shooting at a vehicle somehow made the situation more rather than less safe.

And it's really hard to explain (though I did in this case) how shooting at a vehicle driving away ever makes sense.

Unknown said...

It looked to me like the driver of the police car made two errors: 1) he got out right in front of the oncoming care exposing himself to possible death. Staying in the car with seatbelt fastened would have been far safer. 2) he fires in the direction of of another police vehicle, threatening the lives of his fellow officers.

Unknown said...

Hey Peter,
Really great videos. I have shared them with cop and non-cop frends alike. One thing has been made abundantly clear to my non-cop friends:
1. Shit happens REALLY fast on the street. Faster than is humanly possible to follow.
2. Everybody sees something the second time that they missed the first time.
3. If ten people see something, they will mostly agree on most of the facts; but no one will get everything right, and everyone will get at least one thing wrong.

If I were king dictator for a day, I would show these videos to every jury just to demonstrate how/why the "facts" of any case can get muddied.

Moskos said...

Arguably, yes. But I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. He got out of the way pretty well, safely behind a parked car. Hard to fault a guy for making a decision when it does turn out to be the correct decision.

And while he does fire in the direction of other vehicle, it's not is his direct line of fire. He aims very carefully and fires a controlled round. I think he made that shot without putting the other police at risk. Now I may be wrong (and I would concede this point to a firearm's expert), but it doesn't look that crazy to me. (It's also worth mentioning that his angle was not as risky with regards to the cop car than the angle of Officer Desk Duty, who was squeezing off a magazine crazy style, almost directly at the other car.)

Unknown said...

That fence: Curious, was it locked or merely latched? Based on "Desk Duty's" state of mind, why didn't he just shoot his way through it? I also saw another version where someone pulls up a green plastic bucket to step on, and "Desk Duty" still couldn't make it.

Thirty days on a desk ain't so bad in the end. I had it once and caught up on all my Netflix. Also got in some good workouts at the gym. Did cut into my overtime though.

Unknown said...

I feel this poem is appropriate:


I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn't
And she scared me
And I smashed her

I don't think
I'm allowed

To kill something

Because I am

(Nikki Giovanni)

cap vandal said...

Great article. " The bottom line is that the first cop who shot -- the passenger in the first police car struck -- shot too quickly and unreasonably. His actions directly led to O'Neal's death " That was my take on it also, but the press is pretty much stuck with the competing narratives.

A couple of comments. This is a black middle class neighborhood and the residents were mostly pissed off about the number of shots fired, as well as the vigil held at 11 PM.

The cops were clueless about being on body cam, for the most part. They won't be in the future. "Look out, he's got a gun".

There is some video of O'neal and his buddies at a Suburban gas station. They had two different stolen cars, and O'neal paid with a stolen credit card. "The Jaguar he was driving was reported stolen in suburban Bolingbrook, and officials there said video tied O'Neal and other men to a spree of car thefts."


I want to know if people are just leaving their keys in an unlocked car. It is hard to steal a late model vehicle with anti theft devices. Old Hondas and Toyotas are on the top of the lists of most frequently stolen vehicles. Sounds like they steal rental cars and use tow trucks, but its beyond the typical street gang. And people aren't using cash. Your millennials can go through their day without carrying any cash.

JPP said...

"you had better be able explain how shooting at a vehicle somehow made the situation more rather than less safe"
Got it, thanks.

Plus blasting away like that in a residential neighborhood is nuts.

Unknown said...

"Liberaltarian, the legal standard is a reasonable cop, not a reasonable critic of cops."

What is a "reasonable cop" though if what society deems a reasonable cop, not what cops deem a reasonable cop.

Moskos said...

Then we'd be living in an alternative universe, for better or for worse. I'm just going with what the Supreme Court has ruled: The "reasonableness" of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

Unknown said...

Anyone who thinks it reasonable for an arbiter of reasonableness regarding a profession, field, trade or hobby to lack any training or experience in said endeavor is exhibiting the pinnacle of hubris.

Noumenon said...

Even after reading the post, the video was explanatory. Great subtitles, cuts, and particularly that freeze frame with the cartridge and second officer. You said he could have been hit, but I never realized he was out of the car till you drew that arrow.

I hope the system has people in it somewhere who are doing this in all the important cases with cam footage.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the Chicago PD would ask of its officers- by policy- if someone decided to drive a truck through crowds of citizens like in Nice.

Unknown said...

"The "reasonableness" of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight."

I agree with that completely and it's not at all inconsistent with what I have said. The point I'm making is that it is society that determines what is a "reasonable officer on the scene" and what is not. It is not cops who make that decision. Their experience is certainly informative as to what is or is not reasonable. But, in the end, that is a societal determination of how we want our police to act.