WAUKEGAN, Ill. (AP) — A prosecutor said Thursday that he won't charge a white northeastern Illinois police officer in the fatal shooting of a black 17-year-old, saying the fleeing teen was holding a loaded handgun and that the officer feared for his life and a fellow officer's.
Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim told reporters an investigation that included the FBI found Zion police Officer Eric Hill was justified in shooting Justus Howell, of Waukegan, on April 4, despite concerns of racial bias that arose after a coroner reported Howell had been shot in the back twice.
Howell had met a man to buy a handgun but tried to steal it, authorities said. At some point, he scuffled with the seller and the gun went off. Hill arrived minutes later, chased Howell through yards and repeatedly yelled, "Stop and drop your gun," Nerheim said. The officer shot Howell when the teen turned toward him with the gun in his right hand, Nerheim said.
Zion is a community of about 24,000 people along Lake Michigan about 45 miles north of Chicago, near the Illinois-Wisconsin state line
Hill, a nine-year police veteran, feared for his own safety and believed that a fellow officer was just around the corner and that Howell was headed straight for him, Nerheim said.
"Officer Hill was justified in his decision to use deadly force ... Howell was armed and dangerous," Nerheim said. He added that Hill's understanding that shots had been fired earlier and concern for the other officer factored into his calculation to shoot.
After the announcement by Nerheim at the county courthouse in Waukegan, several community activists gathered to express their anger. Several wore buttons that read, "Fire Nerheim."
"People have never had faith in the system and with this, the last faith is out the door," said Kasey Burton, a 41-year-old Zion resident. "I think people are going to be upset."
But hours later, the Zion neighborhood where the shooting occurred was quiet. A bouquet of flowers marked the spot where Howell fell, fatally wounded. Included in a makeshift memorial for him on a nearby corner was a rock with the word "peace" scrawled on it.
Standing outside a grocery store nearby, resident Darion Nash, 22, said distrust of police runs deep.
"I don't like the police either, and I don't do anything to get in trouble," she said. "But they keep getting away with things."
Prosecutors on Thursday also released a poor quality video of the shooting from a business security camera in which Hill can be seen running about 15 feet behind the teen, when shots are fired and Howell falls forward. Nerheim conceded Howell turned ever so slightly, but he said it was enough for Hill to see Howell's eye and the silver semi-automatic pistol.
Outside of the news conference, Howell's family disputed the decision not to charge the officer.
"There is no video or pictures of him actually holding a gun," Alice Howell, the teen's grandmother, told the Chicago Sun-Times. She previously compared the incident to another police shooting in South Carolina, in which a white officer was charged with murder after a video showed him repeatedly shooting a black man in the back.
Howell's mother, LaToya Howell, said she was upset that authorities said video showed her son turning toward Hill.
"I have seen that video," Howell said, according the Chicago Tribune. "There is nothing that suggests they should execute my son."
Nerheim told reporters that multiple witnesses verified Howell had a gun. Just one, he said, thought Howell may have thrown it to the ground before shots rang out.
"That is clearly not supported from the other witnesses or the video," he said.
Zion police Chief Stephen Dumyahn said he expects Hill to return to duty soon.
Zion's police force is currently disproportionately white, with just three black officers and half a dozen Latinos out of a nearly 50 officers in all, according to Dumyahn.
"Our goal," he said, "is to do a better job of recruitment."