Chicago IDs officer slain in traffic stop shooting; 2nd officer critical

Officer Ella French, 29, was killed and her partner is still 'fighting for his life'

Duty Death: Ella French - [Chicago, Illinois]

End of Service: 08/07/2021


By Jeremy Gorner, Paige Fry and Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — One Chicago police officer was killed and another was critically wounded during an exchange of gunfire with at least one suspect during a traffic stop Saturday night in the West Englewood neighborhood on the South Side.

Police, family and the Cook County medical examiner’s office identified the officer who died as Ella French, a 29-year-old who had worked as a Chicago cop since April 2018. She was the first Chicago police officer to be shot and killed in the line of duty since Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office in 2019.

Officer Ella French
Officer Ella French (Officer Down Memorial Page)

The other officer, with the department since August 2014, is fighting for his life in critical condition at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Andrew French said his younger sister always thought of others before herself.

“My sister’s always been a person of integrity. She’s always done the right thing even when nobody’s looking. She’s always believed in people and believed in doing the right thing. ... She’s always believed in taking care of people that can’t take care of themselves,” he said.

Andrew French, an Iraq War veteran, said that “even before she joined the force,” his sister was a proponent of therapy or social services over more jail time. He said she wanted to see people get the help they needed, more “than throwing people in jail.”

“She was a humanitarian. She believed in human rights. She was one of the officers on the force that thought they needed reform,” he said. “Because she’s seen the front line, just like I have. She’s always been a very caring person ... When I was in Iraq, me and her, we talked. And she has some attributes that you don’t find in this world anymore.”

Many of those personality traits, he said, boil down to being a solid, selfless human being, more concerned with substance than what’s convenient or fashionable: “She was the epitome of a good Samaritan.”

“And she was the best sister. It didn’t matter what I was going through or how hard things were hitting me, she was always there,” he said.

French said his sister loved to travel. And most often, her travel partner was their mother. He said mother and daughter were one another’s best friends. The pair took trips together three or four times a year, he said.

“She was there for my mom. She was reliable. ... She’s my sister, she’s my little sister. And as much as I was there for her when we were growing up, she was there for me. And I was proud of her, I’m still proud of her. Like this is — God took the wrong kid,” he said. “I’ve done some really (expletive) things, because being in the Army you don’t do beautiful things at all ... but my sister was a wonderful person, in all ways.”

The shooting happened just after 9 p.m. Saturday near West 63rd Street and South Bell Avenue when the officers conducted a traffic stop on three people in a vehicle, First Deputy police Superintendent Eric Carter said at a Sunday morning news conference.

During the stop, someone opened fire on the officers and at least one officer returned fire, Carter said. Two officers, including French, and one of the suspects were shot.

The officers were taken to the U. of C. Medical Center while the wounded suspect was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. He and one other male suspect were in custody; a female suspect who was at large after the shooting was arrested later Sunday, police officials said.

Both French and the officer who was critically wounded were members of the community safety team, a citywide unit formed last summer under police Superintendent David Brown to respond to crime hot spots.

On Saturday, Brown was in his hometown of Dallas, where his mother died late last week. He returned to Chicago on Sunday morning, speaking at the news conference about the shooting a short time later. He provided limited information about French, though officials acknowledged she was survived by a mother, brother and other family members. Brown also praised the courage of his 12,000-strong department continuing to work after one of their colleagues was killed.

“They come to work willing to run toward danger, toward gunfire,” said Brown, flanked by Lightfoot and other police officials at police headquarters, where the flags outside the building were at half-staff as a sign of mourning for French’s death. “And they’re willing to sacrifice their lives to save the lives of perfect strangers.

“They went to work today after last night’s tragic, tragic events,” Brown continued. “Others are at work now, right now, continuing this brave, courageous work of protecting the people of Chicago.”

An overnight email from top Chicago police officials urged the department to “keep the families and friends of these officers in your prayers. Please continue to look out for each other on and off duty as we process this heartbreaking tragedy.”

Lightfoot, meanwhile, lamented the pro-law enforcement world’s complaints that society doesn’t do enough for cops, who feel there are roadblocks to doing their jobs effectively. She also lamented critics of the police who have long denounced officers’ treatment of neighborhoods of color.

“Stop. Just stop,” Lightfoot said at the news conference at police headquarters in a stern message to the opposing voices on policing issues. “This constant strife is not what we need in this moment.”

“The police are not our enemies,” she said. “They’re human, just as we are.

“We have a common enemy. It’s the guns and the gangs,” Lightfoot said. “Eradicating both is complex. But we cannot let the size of the challenge deter us. We have to continue striking hard blows every day.”

Brown provided no specifics about the traffic stop, including why the officers stopped the vehicle to begin with. He also said the three suspects collectively don’t have extensive criminal backgrounds. But the alleged shooter, who was believed by police to be a passenger in the vehicle, has a robbery conviction for a case from around 2019. Brown said that case was adjudicated through the court system, and he may have been sentenced to a probationary-type term, but he provided no further details.

A third suspect wanted in the case was arrested Sunday morning, Brown said. She and the two other suspects — one of whom is believed to have shot the officers and was struck by an officer’s gunfire in return — were being questioned by investigators.

One of the suspects was caught by police with the help of neighbors, who were having a barbecue when the shooting took place.

One of those neighbors told his wife and two kids to get into their home when they heard gunshots, according to a relative of that neighbor who was acting as his Spanish-language interpreter. They told the Tribune they did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the investigation.

Moments later, one of the suspects scaled that neighbor’s fence not far from the site of the shooting in an apparent effort to get away from the police.

That’s when the neighbor and two of his other relatives confronted the suspect in the backyard near a swing set, the neighbor’s relative said, translating for him. The suspect struck one of the three people trying to stop him, and the trio forced the suspect to the ground shortly before police arrived and took over, the neighbor said through his relative.

“He wants to protect the family,” the neighbor’s relative said.

“I’m happy because they (the police) were quickly here,” the neighbor said through his relative.

The shooting happened around the north end of 63rd Street and Bell Avenue, right near a small industrial area that sits along a viaduct. On the 6300 block of South Bell, the industrial park is on the east side of the street and a row of single-family homes are across the street to the west. Neighbors described the block as normally pretty quiet. The area is home to Black and Latino families.

One neighbor, Diana Luna, said it’s “really safe” and “really quiet.”

“You don’t see these things always, every time,” Luna said of shootings on or immediately around her block.

But gang activity and other criminal activity is known to take place just a few blocks west by Western Avenue and about three blocks east, by Damen Avenue, she said.

Luna said she was watching TV on Saturday night when she heard about four gunshots. Two of her four children were in the home at the time, including her 7-year-old son who was startled by the police activity, she said. Luna said she was trying to assure him that “everything was fine.”

A surveillance video camera from her front porch captured squad cars pulling up on her block. Several officers could be seen on foot, including one who ran toward one of Luna’s neighbor’s fences with a flashlight.

Luna said she got the camera because she was worried that people were stealing things from her backyard, particularly from her garden.

On Saturday night around the crime scene, numerous marked and unmarked police vehicles, with their lights flashing, blocked off traffic along West 63rd Street for four blocks between Damen and Western avenues, as well as on side streets all around the site of the shooting. Cook County sheriff’s police also were along 63rd Street helping with traffic control.

Outside the ambulance entrance to U. of C. on Cottage Grove Avenue, dozens of Chicago police officers and Cook County sheriff’s personnel stood outside. Both 57th Street and Cottage Grove near the hospital were lined with squad cars.

Officers there exchanged hugs with each other. Some women walked up to the entrance in tears as an officer escorted them.

A Jeep pulled up to the intersection and a passenger rolled down his window and yelled out to a woman on the sidewalk, “What happened over here?”

“Two officers were shot,” she replied.

“Oh, wow,” he said as he shook his head and rolled up the window.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the city’s largest police union, tweeted: “Lord, please look over these two Officers, keep them and every Officer out in the 8th District safe tonight. This career of service we all chose is one of sacrifice, but please Lord, not tonight. Not tonight.”

Early Sunday on the Near West Side, dozens of police officers stood along Harrison and Leavitt streets outside the Cook County medical examiner’s office as French’s body was slowly escorted into its dimly lit parking lot by a musical group playing the bagpipes — a tradition for Chicago police officers who die in the line of duty.

With the roaring of a parked firetruck in the background, scores of officers saluted Chicago Fire Department Ambulance 36 as it moved slowly with its emergency lights flashing.

In 2020, the Police Department deemed the deaths of four Chicago cops who succumbed to COVID-19 as in the line-of-duty deaths. Before Saturday night, though, the last line-of-duty deaths of Chicago cops who were killed while pursuing a suspect were in December 2018, when Officers Eduardo Marmolejo and Conrad Gary were fatally struck by a train as they looked for a man wanted for illegally possessing a gun. That suspect, Edward Brown, was sentenced this past April to a year in prison for a felony weapon violation in the case.

Also before Saturday, the last female Chicago police officer to die in the line of duty was Alane Stoffregen, who drowned in June 2000 during a training exercise in Lake Michigan while working in the Police Department’s marine unit. And the last female Chicago cop to be shot and killed in the line of duty was Irma Ruiz, who died in September 1988, when she was shot inside an elementary school on the Near West Side.

Andrew French said his sister always embodied the definition of selflessness and wasn’t one to get bogged down or “caught up in the dumb stuff of life.”

“She had an actual head on her shoulders. She was a bright, beautiful person,” he said.

(Chicago Tribune reporter Annie Sweeney contributed to this report.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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