Video: 2 Chicago officers fired for shooting at moving car

The police board found the two officers violated department policy for opening fire on a vehicle driven by an unarmed teenager in 2016

Jeremy Gorner
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Two Chicago police officers were dismissed late Thursday for opening fire on a stolen car during a 2016 incident that ended when the vehicle’s unarmed teen driver was shot in the back and killed by another cop after a foot chase.

In an 8 to 0 decision, the Chicago Police Board found that Officers Michael Coughlin Jr. and his partner, Jose Torres, violated Chicago Police Department rules for shooting at the car driven by 18-year-old Paul O’Neal in July 2016.

The officers will have the right to appeal their firings to the Cook County Circuit Court.

The now-defunct Independent Police Review Authority, which investigated the shooting, recommended in September 2017 that Coughlin and Torres be fired, saying in a report that they risked the lives of their fellow officers as well as any innocent bystanders who happened to be on the street when they opened fire on the stolen Jaguar. Their explanations to IPRA that they were trying to stop the vehicle didn’t hold up, according to the report.

During his police board hearing last summer, Coughlin testified that he fired off nine shots at O’Neal because he wrongly believed the car had run over Torres.

“He’s got to be stopped,” Coughlin said he recalled thinking. “I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was shocking, it was horrifying. He had to be stopped before someone else was injured or killed.”

In his testimony before the board last summer, Torres, who fired a single shot, also tried to justify his actions by saying that at the time he thought the Jaguar was trying to run over him, and that it posed a threat to neighbors and other officers.

“That’s why I decided he needs to be stopped," he said.

Department rules generally prohibit officers from shooting at a moving car if the vehicle is the only weapon being used against them. The disciplinary charges brought against Coughlin and Torres contended their gunfire put the lives of O’Neal, his passenger and other responding officers in danger.

O’Neal was not struck by Coughlin’s and Diaz’s gunfire. But after O’Neal ditched the Jaguar and took off running through backyards in the South Shore neighborhood, he was shot and killed by another officer, Jose Diaz, who has told investigators he believed O’Neal had a gun and shot at him.

In moving to fire Coughlin, the city also alleged that he brought discredit to the department when, as shown on body camera footage, he profanely lamented having to go on 30 days of desk duty as O’Neal lay wounded “and required immediate medical attention.” Desk duty is mandatory for officers involved in shootings.

O’Neal was shot around 7:30 p.m. on July 28, 2016, after officers tried to stop him near 74th Street and Merrill Avenue as he drove a car reported stolen in southwest suburban Bolingbrook.

As officers pursued him, O’Neal hit two Chicago police SUVs with the Jaguar. Coughlin then fired at the car as it moved away from him and toward Torres, according to city records and body camera footage. The Jaguar passed Torres and he fired a shot as the car sped down the block and crashed head-on with a squad car occupied by Diaz.

O’Neal ran from the Jaguar as Diaz chased him through the backyards of several homes in the 7300 block of South Merrill. Diaz fired five times at O’Neal, apparently taking the last shot while aiming his pistol over a backyard fence that O’Neal had scaled, according to city records.

O’Neal died after he was hit once in the middle of the back and collapsed near a back porch. As three officers stood over O’Neal, who was lying facedown on the ground, Diaz was captured on a body camera video kicking him, records show.

Asked by IPRA why he kicked the teen, Diaz answered, “Anger, rage, frustration,” according to the agency. IPRA recommended a six-month suspension for Diaz, concluding he “genuinely believed” O’Neal had a gun but citing him for kicking the teen and yelling profanities at him.

Diaz has fought the suspension.

O’Neal’s killing came at a time when the Chicago Police Department was going through a U.S. Department of Justice probe of the city’s policing practices — an investigation that stemmed from the court-ordered release in 2015 of police dashboard camera video showing the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke.

The McDonald shooting led to widespread criticism of the city’s policy to withhold videos and other evidence involving police-involved shootings from the public. The city changed the policy in the spring of 2016, shortly before the O’Neal shooting.

IPRA released body camera and dashcam videos of the incident in early August 2016, a week after the shooting occurred.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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