There’s a shooting or two nearly every day in Chicago, a city that has seen more than its fair share of gunplay and misery in recent years. Because the only thing cheaper than life in Chicago is the cost of a bullet, there’s no reason that the day after Christmas would be any less violent than usual. Dec. 26 was just another page on a calendar already smeared with blood.
Still, what happened to Bettie Jones and Quintonio LeGrier in the early hours of Saturday morning was extraordinary even by Chicago standards. Their deaths by gunfire did not occur in the usual vacuum of senseless murder that has many in that town casually comparing Chicago’s bullet-driven carnage to the era of Al Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Ms. Jones, a 55-year-old mother of five, and Mr. LeGrier, a 19-year-old engineering student, weren’t shot by gang-bangers enforcing a ruthless code of silence regarding their nefarious deeds in the neighborhood. Their deaths wouldn’t have been all that unusual had they been murdered by someone they passed on the street every day who harbored an irrational grudge against them.
Ms. Jones, a gregarious grandmother and devout church lady, and Mr. LeGrier, a student at Northern Illinois University who was home for Christmas break, but reportedly working through some mental issues, were shot by a yet-to-be-identified police officer answering a domestic disturbance call in their apartment building. Mr. LeGrier had been carrying a baseball bat.
After the shooting stopped, Ms. Jones and Mr. LeGrier spent their last moments looking up from the floor of their building’s foyer, likely wondering what they had done to deserve the carnage that had befallen them. Was bleeding out on a dirty floor the price they had to pay for scaring the police officer who shot them from 30 feet away?
Assuming there was some attempt to figure out what was going on before he pulled the trigger, how did the officer view the situation in the seconds that elapsed before he fired his gun? What was his rationale for snatching the lives of two human beings with a volley of gunfire before even stepping foot in the building? What had they said or done that terrified him so? Whatever his reasons, was it the kind of justification that would hold up in a community that wasn’t regularly visited by city coroners? Would the officer have done the same thing in Hyde Park or another one of the city’s tony neighborhoods?
The Chicago police, already under Justice Department investigation for decades of systematic abuse of the city’s minority population, has already conceded that Ms. Jones was “accidentally struck and tragically killed.” The official statement by the Chicago police is a masterpiece of passive construction: “Upon arrival, officers were confronted by a combative subject resulting in the discharge of the officer’s weapon which fatally injured two individuals.”
Ms. Jones was Mr. LeGrier’s downstairs neighbor in the building. Mr. LeGrier’s father, Antonio, who called 911 for help because his son was acting erratically and wielding an aluminum baseball bat, also called Ms. Jones to ask her to let the police into the building when they arrived. Mr. LeGrier said that when the police arrived, he heard Ms. Jones yell “Whoa” three times before she was “accidentally struck and tragically killed” by gunshots to her chest.
In the weeks and months to come, there will be much-needed discussion about this case throughout the country. Not only do we need to come to a consensus about what constitutes an appropriate police response to people with mental illness wielding baseball bats — whatever happened to Tasers, by the way? — we also need to figure out why so many police officers are so terrified of minorities that they’re willing to appear “trigger happy.” Unlike Mr. LeGrier, Ms. Jones wasn’t carrying a baseball bat, but she still ended up dead in the foyer of her own building. Even the most redneck racist has to agree that there’s something intolerable about that.
When a madman with actual guns was taken alive after having killed three people, including a police officer, at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado last month, that said something about the training and professionalism of those cops. Well-trained police are a force for good in communities lucky enough to have them. The Chicago cop who shot Laquan McDonald 16 times last year and the cop who killed Ms. Jones and Mr. LeGrier the day after Christmas aren’t the kind of officers who make civilians feel safe. In fact, cops who shoot first and ask questions later make most fair-minded people, regardless of race, creed, class or color, feel unsafe.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631; Twitter TonyNormanPG.