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Video of Police Shooting Cedrick Chatman A New 'Bomb About To Drop': Lawyer

By Alex Nitkin | January 4, 2016 5:35am
 Cedrick Chatman died after being shot four times by police on Jan. 9, 2013.
Cedrick Chatman died after being shot four times by police on Jan. 9, 2013.
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Linda Chatman

CHICAGO — After the release of a video showing the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald sent the city into a frenzy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered a public apology for the city's slow response, promising in a Dec. 9 speech to the City Council "nothing less than complete and total reform of the system."

While Emanuel spoke, five blocks away at the Dirksen federal building, city attorneys were persuading a judge to keep videos of another police shooting under wraps.

Cedrick Chatman, 17, was shot dead by police while he ran, unarmed, in the opposite direction of officers, lawyers for the slain teen's family said — and they say videos prove it. 

Nearly three years after the shooting, the officer who pulled the trigger hasn't been disciplined, and Chatman's family is battling the city with a wrongful death lawsuit.

The tense, back-and-forth legal saga surrounding Chatman's death reached a new chapter Dec. 23, when city-appointed attorneys representing the officer filed yet another motion to delay the video's release. After admitting that the video is bound to be released eventually, city officials sought to keep it away from the public for now "to avoid any prejudice of the jury pool," according to the motion.

At the Dec. 9 hearing, presiding Judge Robert Gettlemen suggested he'd likely call for the video's release in January, saying "there really is no reason to wait," according to the Chicago Tribune.

An investigation into the shooting by the Independent Police Review Authority, meanwhile, concluded in September that Officer Kevin Fry was justified in killing Chatman. But since then, the case — and others like it — have kicked up a swarm of controversy over IPRA's integrity.

It took more than two years for many details surrounding the shooting to trickle out; it was months before most outlets even managed to spell Chatman's name right, after getting mixed information from authorities.

The case traces back to Jan. 7, 2013, when two plain-clothes officers made a traffic stop after spotting a stolen car in South Shore.

The Shooting

It started, prosecutors said, with a cellphone deal gone wrong.

Around 1:30 p.m. Jan. 7, Chatman and two other men — Akeem Clarke, 22, and Martel Odom, 23 — climbed into a man's silver Dodge Charger with the intention of buying cellphone service from him, prosecutors related days later.

An argument broke out and Clarke pulled the dealer into the back seat and the three prospective buyers began to beat him, according to court documents. After robbing him of $400 in cash, Chatman made off with the car while Clarke and Odum stayed behind.

About 15 minutes later, Fry and his partner, Officer Lou Toth, noticed the stolen car near the intersection of 75th Street and Jeffrey Avenue, next to South Shore High School, according to prosecutors. They pulled their unmarked police cruiser in front of the Charger, got out and walked up to it with their guns drawn.

What happened during the next few seconds has been the source of legal debate for nearly three years.

According to a police statement released a day later, Chatman grabbed something from the car before jumping out and running off. The officers chased Chatman, who turned toward them and pointed a "black object" he was holding, according to Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden.

Fry raised his gun and shot Chatman four times. Hours later, the teen was dead.

"Believing the dark object to be a firearm and being in fear for [his] life, the officer fired at the offender, wounding him," Camden said.

Camden has since been criticized for inaccurate comments he's made following police-involved shootings, including after McDonald's death. He has not made public comments in any cases since the video went public. 

Brian Coffman, the attorney representing Chatman's family, said three surveillance videos tells a story much different than Camden's.

"You see him running away from the officers as fast as he possibly could — he never even begins to turn," Coffman said. "Fry never says anything. He just gets out of the car, watches him run with his gun trained on him, and fires."

'A Giant Scam'

Satisfied with the police union's version of events, leaders within the department opted not to punish Fry.

Instead, Clarke and Odum — Chatman's accomplices in the carjacking — were each charged with first-degree murder. In the written charges, prosecutors alleged that the men "set in motion a chain of events that caused the death of Cedrick Chatman," despite being nowhere near the teen when he was killed.

The murder charges were eventually dropped, but the men were each sentenced to 10 years in prison for robbery and unlawful vehicular invasion, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Chatman's family, meanwhile, decided to pursue a lawsuit against the city.

When Coffman was brought on to represent them, he said, he wasn't enthused about the case. An official account of the events had suggested not only that Chatman was armed, but that he pointed a gun at an officer before being brought down.

But when Coffman reached out to witnesses and filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the surveillance videos, he said, he became convinced that police hadn't been honest in their handling of the shooting's aftermath.

"The more I saw, the more I realized, 'Oh my God, this is a giant scam,'" Coffman said. "It was unbelievable. They were fighting tooth and nail to cover this up from the very beginning."

Moreover, after Coffman looked into Fry's history, he found a litany of misconduct.

Coffman's wrongful death lawsuit, filed in June 2013 on the Chatman family's behalf, was the fifth civil rights lawsuit since 2006 in which Fry had been named as a defendant, according to court records. The other four suits, alleging violations including excessive force, false arrest and illegal searches, all ended in settlements.

According to the non-profit Invisible Institute, which tracks police misconduct, Fry has been the target of 30 complaints throughout his career (the Institute currently has data from 2001 to 2008 and 2011 to 2015, so there may be more complaints that have not been released to the public). All were marked as "unsubstantiated." He has faced no discipline, according to the site.

IPRA Steps In

Coffman would spend the next two years wrestling with IPRA investigators to get their findings into public record so he could move forward with his wrongful death lawsuit.

It was September 2015, two years and eight months after Chatman's death, when the investigators finally released their final report on the shooting. Fry's actions, they concluded, were legally justified.

Two months before that, IPRA investigator Lorenzo Davis was fired for what he claimed was a refusal to change his findings in six investigations of police shootings. Chatmans' case was one of them.

"Cedrick [Chatman] was just running as the shots were fired," Davis later told the Tribune. "You're taught that deadly force is a last resort and that you should do everything in your power to apprehend the person before you use deadly force. I did not see where deadly force was called for at that time."

With Davis gone, IPRA went on to conclude that allegations of excessive force against Fry had been "unfounded."

The final report included a review of the three videos showing the shooting. Unlike the official police account of events, which had Chatman turning to face the officers before he was shot, the IPRA report said that in at least one video, "It appears that one of [Chatman's] arms extends towards [Toth, Fry's partner] as he runs."

'A Bomb That's About to Drop'

As the lawsuit inches toward a trial, Coffman said he's confident he'll force the city's hand in releasing the videos of the shooting. As for the city's claim that releasing the video would prejudice a potential jury against the police, he said, "the cat's already pretty much out of the bag at this point," thanks to the continuing fallout from the McDonald video.

Coffman has no qualms about using the city's current climate of outrage to draw attention to his case, he said.

"The symmetry between our case and the McDonald case is pretty obvious," Coffman said. "In both you've got crooked cops protected by crooked investigators. This is a bomb that's about to drop in the city of Chicago, where everyone suddenly realizes the system is broken."

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