WATCH: IPRA Clears Chicago Cop in Fatal Shooting of Man in Back as he Fled

Dec 17 2016

The Independent Police Review Authority has determined that a Chicago police officer was justified in fatally shooting 25-year-old Ronald Johnson III in the back in October 2014.

In a ruling released Friday evening, the agency that investigates shootings by police stated that Officer George Hernandez was justified in shooting the African-American man as he ran from police because evidence supports officers’ contention that he had a gun.

Attorneys for Johnson’s family have alleged that officers planted the gun and conspired to cover up the truth about Johnson’s shooting on the South Side.

IPRA ruled that the preponderance of the evidence indicated that Johnson was armed and Hernandez reasonably believed he was a threat. Witnesses gave conflicting statements, IPRA wrote, but investigators recovered a Browning 9 mm pistol with grass and Johnson’s blood on it beneath his hand. The IPRA report states that agency officials do not believe that all shootings of people fleeing with guns would be justified.

“In this case, there are specific and numerous circumstances that make such use of force reasonable,” the report said.

“It’s the same old incompetent IPRA. Nothing has changed,” said attorney Michael Oppenheimer, who represents Johnson’s mother in her wrongful death lawsuit in federal court. “Their investigation was jaded and didn’t take into account much of the evidence against Hernandez. Their ruling is a sham.”

Johnson’s shooting generated controversy as grainy video of the shooting was released late last year just after the city was forced to release footage of Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times. The McDonald video led to sustained protests fueled by long-standing grievances about police conduct, particularly among African-Americans, and the U.S. Justice Department is continuing to investigate whether Chicago police have systematically violated citizens’ rights. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, meanwhile, has tried to stay ahead of federal authorities by announcing a series of reforms.

Protests broke out in December 2015 in response to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s announcement that she would not charge a Chicago police officer in the 2014 shooting of Ronald Johnson III.
Before the McDonald video was released, IPRA had almost never ruled a shooting by police unjustified, and Tribune investigations have shown the agency to be slow and prone to clearing police, even when evidence suggested misconduct. After the scandal erupted, however, Emanuel replaced the agency’s leader with former federal prosecutor Sharon Fairley, who has acknowledged shortcomings in IPRA’s past work and ruled several shootings unjustified.

Fairley will be the first head of the Civilian Office on Police Accountability, the agency that city officials are building to replace the beleaguered IPRA.

In the McDonald case, Van Dyke is charged with murder, but Cook County prosecutors declined to press charges in Johnson’s shooting.

According to prosecutors, early on Oct. 12, 2014, Johnson and others left a party near 53rd Street and King Drive before a gunman shot out the rear window of their vehicle. Later, police responding to calls of shots fired saw Johnson running east on 53rd with a gun in his right hand, and officers pursued him, prosecutors said. He was confronted by an officer who tried to arrest him, but a scuffle ensued, and Johnson broke free as the officer fell to the ground, according to prosecutors.

Then Hernandez arrived, and video showed he opened fire about two seconds after exiting his car as Johnson ran toward a park with his back to officers.

Two of the five shots struck Johnson, one in the back of his shoulder and the other in the back of the leg, autopsy reports show.