In late March, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was fatally shot by Chicago police officers at the end of a foot chase. Police said body camera footage shows Toledo holding a gun in his right hand, but it vanishes from sight as he turns toward the officer and begins to raise his hands as he’s shot. A gun was later found behind a fence a few feet from where Toledo was killed.
Two days later, Anthony Alvarez, 22, was fatally shot by an officer – 10 miles from where Toledo was killed – after he ran from police. Chicago police say he was armed during the case, and surveillance footage shows him dropping what appeared to be a gun onto the grass nearby as he was shot by an officer.
The killings of the two young people by officers in Chicago at the end of a foot chase has pushed the city’s mayor to call on the police department to implement a new foot pursuit policy. But some experts say a policy might not have changed the outcome of the incidents since both individuals were seen holding guns and running from cops before they were shot.
High-stakes foot pursuits by police, which often involve officers chasing suspects without back-up officers, have become a controversial issue across the nation in recent years.
Civic leaders and criminal justice professionals argue that the adrenaline-induced pursuits often end in excessive, sometimes deadly uses of force by police, and clear policies can help lower the number of police shootings. But banning foot pursuits entirely is not realistic, according to policing leaders and experts, especially when the fleeing suspect is armed with a gun and poses a risk to public safety.
The heart of the question is whether anyone has the right to flee police when approached by an officer to be questioned, detained or arrested – and whether police should stop attempting to detain or arrest people who run.
“To say that officers should never engage in a foot pursuit is too extreme,” said Charles Ramsey, former DC police chief and a CNN law enforcement analyst. “There are going to be incidents where it’s in the best interest of public safety that police try to take this person into custody. When you have a situation where a person has been involved in a shooting or some other type of crime, do you really want to tell officers to never chase?”
Cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Portland, have implemented their own foot pursuit policies, with each one varying from agency to agency. The policies offer specific guidance as to when an officer should or should not pursue someone on foot and provide options to cops other than chasing and arresting a suspect.
Before the two shootings of Toledo and Alvarez in Chicago, a Justice Department probe of the police department determined in 2017 that foot chases are “inherently dangerous” to the fleeing person, police officers and the public – a warning that has echoed in agencies that put such policies in place.
In the case of Toledo, Chicago police responded to a ShotSpotter notification, a gunshot detection system that alerts officers to gunfire almost immediately. The responding officers were informed that eight shots had been fired, according to police radio traffic released by authorities, and encountered Toledo fleeing in an alley before chasing him on foot.
The city is currently gripped by a federal consent decree that took effect in March 2019, just a month before Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office, mandating sustainable reform of the agency.
The two recent deadly shootings sparked outrage and protests in Chicago, with community members demanding changes to the Chicago Police Department’s practices and policies, and prompted Lightfoot to announce last month the city’s police department must implement a foot pursuit policy by the summer.
In 2000, the Supreme Court determined in the Illinois v. Wardlow case, which resulted from an incident in Chicago, that if a person runs unprovoked from police in a “high crime area,” officers are justified in stopping them. The question in the case was whether officers violated the Constitution by chasing and stopping a man who fled from police in an area known for “heavy narcotics trafficking.”
Officers often use the foot pursuit tactic to make a Terry Stop, an investigatory street stop laid out in a 1968 US Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio, requiring there be “specific and articulable facts” that an individual is armed and engaged in a crime.
“What that has done is it has encouraged officers to hope for, perhaps even provoke, flight because then they would have the authority to stop someone, even if they would not have had authority to stop if the person had just stood there looking at them,” said Christy Lopez, a Georgetown University law professor who led the Justice Department’s investigation of the Chicago Police Department.
The problem is that using this tactic to stop someone requires a foot pursuit, which is an inherently dangerous method, according to Lopez.
“We found in Chicago that cops were driving up on groups of people, hoping to provoke flight so they would have an excuse to chase and entertain,” she said. “The problem is that people who are doing absolutely nothing wrong flee from police all the time.”
Chicago has ‘long known’ about the need for a foot pursuit policy, expert says
In 2015, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation into the Chicago Police Department after the police killing of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager.
The department released its findings just over a year later, revealing that the agency fostered a “pattern of unlawful conduct” and a “systemic inability to proactively identify areas for improvement,” according to the report.
The probe found many incidents in which Chicago cops chased people and shot who posed “no immediate threat to officers or the public,” violating their constitutional rights. Investigators determined that the agency’s practice of unreasonable force includes officers pursuing people on foot without having any verifiable belief that they had committed a crime.
“In these cases, the act of fleeing alone was sufficient to trigger a pursuit ending in gunfire, sometimes fatal,” the report states. It also calls foot pursuits inherently dangerous because officers “may experience fatigue or an adrenaline rush that compromises their ability to control a suspect they capture, to fire their weapons accurately, and even to make sound judgments.”
Community members and civil leaders have called for a foot pursuit policy in Chicago for several years, which only accelerated since the DOJ report and the consent decree took effect. Lightfoot, however, has not taken up the issue in a significant manner until the two fatal shootings of Alvarez and Toledo incited public outrage.
A spokesperson for the mayor told CNN that the issue has been put off because the consent decree required that the independent monitor review the Chicago police department’s foot pursuit data and make a recommendation on whether or not the agency should adopt a policy, which was put forward on March 5.
“That said, the Mayor’s intention was only to convey how many other items which fall under the consent decree have been undergoing significant and meaningful reforms during her tenure, including but not limited to officer training, community policing, and officer wellness,” the spokesperson said.
“I cannot imagine a monitor prohibiting someone from adopting a foot pursuit policy,” Lopez, the Georgetown law professor, said. “Especially here, given the known issues Chicago PD has had with foot pursuits.”
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who has studied the city’s police department, said it’s “inexcusable” that the agency doesn’t have a foot pursuit policy. “It’s a lack of will,” he said. “There’s nothing politically, legally or anything else to stop the administration or police department from implementing a policy.”
According to Futterman, the city has “long known about the need” for a policy and is only now working to put one in place due to the killings of Toledo and Alvarez.
Policy will ‘set parameters’ on when and how cops pursue, mayor’s office says
Chicago’s process for drafting a foot pursuit policy will involve internal focus groups that will provide feedback from officers and a plan to get input from the community and public. The policy will be sent to the independent monitor that oversees the consent decree and once it’s finalized, the agency will start training officers on the policy, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said during a late April news conference.
“All of that is happening concurrently because this is actually very timely, given the current circumstances of two police involved shooting as a result of foot pursuits,” Brown said. “We are obviously proceeding with a sense of urgency as it relates to foot pursuit policies. And to highlight, obviously, the dangers not only to officers – the general public, and offenders fleeing.”