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No Criminal Charges For Cop Who Fatally Shot Ronald Johnson: Alvarez

By Rachel Cromidas in News on Dec 7, 2015 8:43PM

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 07: Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez discusses the shooting of Ronald Johnson by Chicago police officer George Hernandez on December 7, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. Alvarez announced charges would not be pressed against Hernandez. Alvarez has been under fire for not taking quicker action to press charges against Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On the heels of charging an active-duty police officer with first-degree murder last month in the high-profile, fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez says she will not charge a different officer with a crime over a separate fatal shooting.

Ronald Johnson III, a 25-year-old black man, was fatally shot by officer George Hernandez on Oct. 12, 2014 as he fled police on foot, shortly after a drive-by shooting took place outside of a party near the intersection of 53rd Street and King Drive.

Johnson had a gun, was running towards several police officers in Washington Park and made Hernandez believe he and the other cops were in danger, according to authorities, leading Hernandez to fire his gun five times, hitting Johnson once in the leg and once in the back.

Johnson's family has staunchly disputed these claims, saying Johnson was not carrying a weapon and that police may have planted the gun on him after he was fatally wounded.

Alvarez announced in a lengthy press conference Monday morning that prosecutors had found Hernandez was acting reasonably and should not face criminal charges. Prosecutors displayed a dashcam video, pieced-together police radio recordings, interactive graphic depicting what happened and a photo of the gun recovered at the scene to show reporters that there was not enough cause to charge Hernandez.

"I think I have the hardest job in this county," she told reporters. "I am making the decision which I believe is the appropriate decision here."

Alvarez also said FBI officials viewed the evidence, including the dashcam video, and decided not to pursue a criminal investigation into the case.

The city at first denied requests to make the video public, for similar reasons to the request denials that kept the video showing the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald under wraps until last month. The city reversed course and said it would in fact release the video from Johnson's shooting after all last week.

There are several complicating factors to the case; among them, there is only dashcam footage from one police vehicle, though several were present at the scene. The video has no audio and it's extremely grainy; a zoomed in screenshot appears to show Johnson holding something in his hand that could be a pistol, but it's far from obvious. The gun recovered at the scene had Johnson's DNA on it and was covered with a clump of grass that could have gotten lodged in it as Johnson fell to the ground at the edge of Washington Park, but critics of the county's decision say it could have been planted on him by a cop after the fact.

"Based on an objective review, we determined the prosecution could not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Hernandez's actions were not reasonable," at the time, Assistant State's Attorney Lynn McCarthy said.

She noted that, even if Johnson was not in fact carrying a gun, prosecutors would still have found that Hernandez acted "reasonably"—because he believed Johnson had a gun at the time based on information from police radio dispatches.

His use of force is justifiable, McCarthy said, "when a person's belief is reasonable, even when it is mistaken. It must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than 20/20 hindsight."

To demonstrate how Hernandez may have believed Johnson was a threat, prosecutors played a video of an unrelated shooting from 2011 in which a man running away from a police officer abruptly turned around and shot the officer.

Alvarez, who has called for a Department of Justice investigation into the Chicago Police Department, said critics of state's investigation process should turn their scrutiny on the police department's practices instead.

"These dascham videos are not Hollywood-quality videos. They're grainy, dark, blurry, it all happens so fast," she said. While she wouldn't say it is 100 percent clear that Johnson has a gun, she pointed out that it's also extremely difficult, if not impossible to make out Hernandez's gun. The video also lacks audio.

Responding to multiple journalists who asked "why is there no audio," Alvarez told them to ask the police department.

"That is frustrating. That's a problem for CPD, and I think they need to answer to that. I don't know why there is no audio. There should be audio. That's something I believe the police department will have to address, and they're going to have to fix it, because we would prefer to have the audio."

Alvarez also criticized the city's Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police shootings, for taking eight months to find two witnesses to interview for the case. Mayor Rahm Emanuel just replaced IPRA's head Sunday in response to growing questions over the authority's efficacy.

The Chicago Police Department posted the video, with a warning about its graphic nature, on YouTube: