An analysis of the police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo
On March, 29th, 2021, at about 2:36 a.m., Chicago police responded to a report of two males firing a gun, the first report of which apparently came from Shotspotter, an AI technology that detects and automatically targets gunshots fired in the city. Two minutes later, Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old boy was dead, shot in the chest by one of the responding officers.
Today, COPA, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, released the BWC (body-worn camera) footage from the unnamed officer who fired the fatal shot.
The thing that is immediately striking about the video, and in fact about the majority of videos of this nature, is how incredibly quick everything happens. There is no audio at the start of the BWC footage, as the officer is responding to the scene. He pulls into an alley at 2:38 a.m., and gets out of his vehicle. You see him immediately begin running, pausing only to apparently shove a civilian out of the way of danger, before pursuing a shadowy fleeing subject whose shape is only barely discernible in the dark alley and heavily bobbing camera of the pursuing officer.
The foot pursuit starts at the timestamp of 1:47 on the video. A few seconds later, the audio kicks in, and the officer can be heard yelling at the fleeing suspect to stop running. At 2:03, the suspect stops near a break in the wooden fence that lines the alley, and at 2:04 the officer yells, “Drop it, drop it!” which is immediately followed by the officer firing a single shot from his weapon at the timestamp of 2:05.
This is the picture that has been widely circulated by the media, grabbed from the BWC footage at the exact moment of the shot:
Now, some analysis:
On the surface, and to much of the population of a world that has grown accustomed to making resolute, immutable judgements with the most minute quantity of data or information, this looks like just another case of a police officer shooting an unarmed minority, and, even worse, a child this time. Because of that collective predication, there will undoubtedly be rioting in the streets of Chicago tonight.
But is it warranted?
I scanned the video closely to determine what it was that made the officer fire the shot. When you run the video in full motion, it looks like Toledo is complying. He stops running, turns, and puts his hands up. What bothers me, and should bother a prudent person, is why the officer yells, “Drop it, drop it!”
Let’s look at a couple of screen grabs I was able to procure from the video.
Here we have the moment that Adam Toledo stops running, timestamp of 2:03 on the BWC footage, 02:38:38 a.m. Adam’s back is to the officer and his hands are hidden from view. The officer moves to Toledo’s left in an obvious attempt to get a better angle and to see his hands.
The very next second, 02:38:39 on the video, timestamp of 2:04 on the BWC recording, the officer is turning his body toward Toledo who has been out of the frame of the video for just under one second as the officer positions himself.
In this screen grab you can see Toledo’s left hand has come up near his face and his right hand is holding what we can safely presume (based on what I’ll show you shortly) to be a firearm. The police officer is employing a strobing flashlight, a tool used to disorient a suspect. As Toledo is intermittently illuminated / darkened in the strobing light, it becomes evident that the alleyway is dark and isolated. At this point, there is clearly no way for the officer to ascertain that Adam Toledo is a child just 13 years of age. Toledo is wearing a black hoodie, carrying a gun, in a dark alley at 2:30 in the morning, matching the description of one of two suspects who has just fired multiple shots at people or vehicles in the area. When you hear hoofbeats around the corner you don’t think you’re about to see zebras, and when you see a running suspect carrying a gun in an alley at 2:30 a.m., you don’t think it might be a 13-year-old.
At 02:38:39 still, and still at 02:04 on the BWC recording timestamp—so less than a second later—Toledo has turned his face toward the officer. His right hand, which the officer knows is holding a firearm, is now concealed from view. Adam has moved his hand in an effort to conceal the firearm from the positioning officer. We can speculate that this is the moment that Toledo has decided to toss the firearm behind the fence, although there is no way for the officer to know that that is what his intention is. The officer yells, “Drop it!”
The very next moment, now 02:38:39 and 02:05 on the timestamp, Toledo tosses the gun in one motion, taking care to use his body to conceal what he’s doing as he turns fully toward the officer and rapidly brings his right hand into view.
The hand that a fraction of a second earlier was holding a firearm. The motion is quick, smooth, and it’s far too late for Adam Toledo because the officer has almost certainly already made the decision to shoot, the electrical impulse from the officer’s brain is on its way to his trigger finger, and in this fraction of a second that Toledo’s hand comes into view having just tossed the firearm behind the fence, it is too late to recall the order from the brain. This kid is swinging his weapon up to fire it, and the officer has no way of knowing that he’s thrown the gun away with this motion. As the officer yells, “Drop it!” a second time, he pulls the trigger, firing one shot that strikes Toledo in the chest and will turn out to be fatal. In the still shot above, that trigger is already being pulled.
From the moment that Toledo stops running to the moment the officer shoots him, two seconds elapse. From the moment the officer sees the gun in his hand and yells, “Drop it!” to the moment he fires the shot, one second elapses. From the moment Toledo conceals the gun from the officer’s view, to the moment he swings around and raises his hands, less than a second has elapsed.
In a dark alleyway, as the suspect is alternately illuminated and darkened in the strobing flashlight. An officer all by himself. His heart racing as he confronts an armed individual who he knows has already fired this weapon at others. An armed individual who has just intentionally concealed the firearm in his right hand from view and is now spinning rapidly toward the officer.
Less than one second.
Could you do better? Could you avoid pulling the trigger as his hands come into view? Unless you’ve been in this situation, I hope you aren’t even going to consider giving a definitive answer. Or judging the decision made by this officer.
After firing the shot, the officer immediately runs up to Toledo, calling for an ambulance over his radio and assessing Toledo’s injury. You can tell at this point that the officer has realized that Toledo is a kid, and the distress in his voice and his actions comes across clearly. Within ten seconds he is stretching Toledo out on the ground and lifting his hoodie up, searching for the gunshot wound, and yelling for Toledo to stay with him. Other officers arrive and the officer who fired the shot yells for someone to bring a medical kit for a sucking chest wound. His anguish and panic is heartbreaking, as is the look of shock on the face of the child who is dying. The officer begins chest compressions and doesn’t stop until the 5:00 timestamp where he asks another officer to take over. He stumbles away, in shock over the knowledge that not only has he killed someone, but that it was clearly a child. A child who never should have been in a dark alley at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, carrying a firearm that he never should have had access to.
At timestamp 5:33, the officer who fired the shot and another officer step behind the wall and the officer turns on his light, illuminating the gun that Toledo has tossed behind the wall in a vain and hopeless effort to not be caught in the middle of the crime spree that he’s just been on with 21-year-old convicted felon Ruben Roman who was arrested shortly after this.
At the 8:00 mark of the video, the officer sits with his back to the wall, his hands hanging over his knees, shaking. He seems unable to speak, undoubtedly in shock, his whole life now changed. This is a tragedy for everyone involved, there is no question of that. A 13-year-old boy is dead. A police officer and his family have some incredibly difficult times coming up, and, as I said earlier, the officer will be judged by nearly everyone who watches the video. Judged, tried, and convicted in the court of public opinion, undoubtedly found guilty in that courtroom, though it’s highly unlikely there will be any actual criminal charges filed against him for this incident. What will almost certainly happen though, is that an officer’s career will be ruined. It has to be very difficult to return to duty after an incident like this, and very difficult to live with yourself knowing that although you made the correct choice, you still killed a child. An impossible situation. Two lives utterly ruined in a split second.
Here is the full video if you’d like to see it. Just a warning: it’s graphic and heartbreaking to watch.
***Adam Toledo’s right hand later tested positive for gunshot residue, indicating he likely fired this weapon at some point that night, along with the other suspect, Ruben Roman, who has been charged in this case.
The seven shell casings recovered from the shooting scene were matched to the firearm that Toledo tossed behind the fence.
Adam Toledo’s mother said that she thought he was home in bed. She said he had been missing for several days but that she thought she’d heard him come home some time earlier that day and didn’t realize he’d left again. She apparently didn’t bother to check on her son that was missing for several days. She’s currently soliciting donations through GoFundMe.
The officer involved is on paid administrative leave. Here’s hoping he makes it through this difficult time.