In the Aftermath of a Police Killing, Justifications Start Immediately

On the last day of his life, Harith Augustus left the barbershop where he worked on the South Side of Chicago and set out to run some errands. It was late afternoon on July 14, 2018. Walking streets he had traversed countless times before, Augustus can be seen on surveillance video moving along the sidewalk with loose-limbed grace. He’s wearing earbuds and appears to be moving to music only he can hear. Carried east by the flow of life on 71st Street, the main commercial artery in the South Shore neighborhood, he displays no unease as he passes three police officers chatting with each other at the corner of 71st and Chappel. A few minutes later, he returns, going west, and passes them again with the same air of nonchalance.

Moments later, his body lay motionless in the middle of 71st Street, having been shot five times by Officer Dillan Halley.

In previous reporting for The Intercept, and in a collaborative project with Forensic Architecture titled “Six Durations of a Split Second,” we used video evidence to show that Augustus’s death was the result of aggressive policing rather than any criminal conduct on his part. The police stopped him because he appeared to be carrying a gun, but in a concealed carry state that alone is not a sufficient basis for an investigative stop. Augustus had committed no crime, and at no point did he remove his gun from its holster. It was actions by the police that produced the “split second” of perceived threat to which they responded with lethal force.

Now, by virtue of unedited body camera footage released in the context of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, it is possible to examine the sequence of police actions immediately after Halley killed Augustus: the moments when the official narrative of what just happened crystallizes. Viewed together with previously released footage, it deepens our understanding of how a demonstrably official false narrative of a police killing takes shape.

Narrative Construction

As officers cordoned off the crime scene with yellow caution tape, onlookers stopped on the sidewalk and sought to engage with the police. Augustus lay unattended on the ground. His gun was holstered, and his wallet with his Firearm Owners Identification card was in his hand. He had been attempting to show the card to Officer Quincy Jones when three other officers encircled him from behind. Without warning, Officer Megan Fleming grabbed his arm. Startled, Augustus reflexively bolted, stumbled into the street, at which point his hand came near his holstered gun: the “split second” that prompted Halley to shoot.

Halley fires his final shot at 5:30:43 p.m. At 5:30:53 p.m., Jones unfastens Augustus’s holster and removes his gun.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, there is a great deal of police activity. At the same time, a crowd of community members — some curious, some outraged — rapidly forms. Footage from body cameras worn by various officers allows us to deconstruct the scene from multiple concurrent perspectives and thereby see more deeply into the reality of what happened.

Officer Dillan Halley [5:30:47 – 5:31:02 p.m.]

In the instant after Halley fires the fifth and final shot into Augustus’s body, the audio on his body camera activates. “Shots fired,” he shouts. “Shots fired at the police.”

When I first heard this, I was stunned by the brazenness with which Halley misrepresents what happened a moment earlier. Having now listened to it many times, it appears he doesn’t know what to say: He doesn’t know how to name what just happened. His voice dissolves into confusion: “Or police officer shoots.” And then, under his breath, a whispered “Fuck.”

Officer James Aimers [5:31:20 – 5:31:54 p.m.]

Having just arrived on the scene as the shooting occurred, James Aimers approaches Augustus laying in the middle of the street. He bends down and handcuffs the immobile Augustus. As he walks away, he takes out a bottle of hand sanitizer and vigorously cleans his hands.

Officer Dillan Halley [5:31:37 – 5:32:17 p.m.]

Megan Fleming seeks out Dillan Halley, who is on the sidewalk

“You OK? You OK?” Fleming asks, then answers for him. “Come here. You’re good, you’re good.”

“It was a gun?” Halley asks.

“Yes,” she replies.

“You get the gun?”

“Yes.”

Halley paces back and forth on the sidewalk. Fleming follows him. While talking, they are in constant, agitated motion.

“Breathe in,” she instructs him. “Through your nose.”

“Why did he have to pull a gun out on us?”

“Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. I feel like I wasn’t there for you,” Fleming says. “I was trying to grab him.”

“I had to. He was going to shoot us.”

“I know you did. He was going to shoot us. He was about to kill us.”

Halley continues to pace back and forth on the sidewalk.

“Come here.” Fleming says, trying to reel him in. “Look at me. You’re OK, you’re OK.”

“He pulled a gun on us.”

“I know he did,” she confirms. “I know he did. Look at me. You’re OK.”

What we observe here, as the officers contend with their shock and disorientation, is the birth of what will become the official narrative.

What we observe here, as the officers contend with their shock and disorientation, is the birth of what will become the official narrative. It is not initially, as it will soon become, an exercise in institutional damage control. Rather, it is born in a moment of narrative convulsion, as Halley and Fleming seek to manage the existential crisis into which their precipitous actions have plunged them. As if his next breath depends on it, Halley struggles to find the magic words to rationalize the act he has just committed, and Fleming, in a frantic call and response, validates those words.

Sgt. Jeffrey Aldrich [5:31:07 – 5:33:32 p.m.]

Sgt. Jeffrey Aldrich is the first supervisor to appear on the scene. He arrives less than 30 seconds after the shooting and immediately encounters Halley and Fleming.

“You?” he asks Halley.

“He pulled a gun on me,” Halley replies.

“Was it only one? Just you? Who else shot?”

Fleming, breathing rapidly, interjects, “He grabbed me, and he cut me.”

A woman on the sidewalk questions Aldrich about what happened.

“He pulled a gun on a copper,” he responds impatiently. “If you pull a gun on a police officer, he’s got the right to defend himself, and he shoots back, OK?”

The woman then says something to the effect that Augustus may have had a concealed carry permit.

“Yeah,” Aldrich says in the same overbearing tone, “but if he pulls a gun on a police officer, it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t have the right to pull a gun.”

Thus the frantic effort by traumatized officers to rationalize the catastrophic event in which they just participated begins to morph — within little more than a minute of the last shot being fired — into the official narrative.

This process of narrative construction requires deafness to dissonant voices. When an eyewitness — a man in a red shirt with a knapsack who was walking a few strides behind the officers as their encounter with Augustus unfolded — vigorously tries to engage with Aldrich, he shoos the man away.

This process of narrative construction requires deafness to dissonant voices.

Community members stream toward the site of the shooting to find out what happened. Some question or challenge the police. Aldrich and other officers respond harshly, barking out commands. We can hear Fleming’s voice. “Get the hell out of here,” she yells. “Shut the fuck up.”

In response to one woman whose words are inaudible on the body camera footage, Aldrich yells, “Lady, everything you’re saying is on camera. If you want to go to jail, keep it up.”

After nightfall, the standoff between the community and the police will give way to a violent melee in the shopping center parking lot across from the site of the incident, as officers charge into the crowd with their batons raised. Now, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, we can see in officers’ hostile, defensive responses to questions from residents the seeds of the disorder that will later ensue.

Officer Megan Fleming [5:33:01 – 5:33:33 p.m.]

When the audio on Fleming’s body camera activates, she is screaming at bystanders on the railroad tracks. “Get off the tracks! Get off the tracks!”

One of them says, “He didn’t do shit.”

“Really?” responds Fleming. She is standing over Augustus’s body. “That’s why I fucking got scratch marks all over me.” She is addressing not the onlookers but other officers standing nearby. She holds up her right forearm to show a reddish area. “He fucking tried to get away. Fuck. He fucking scratched the shit out of me. The fucker pulled a gun right at us.”

It will be a recurring theme for Fleming that Augustus assaulted her. It’s possible she was scratched as he sought to pull away after she grabbed him from behind. It is also possible the injury occurred when Halley grabbed her arm and pushed it out of the way in order to clear his line of fire. In any case, the detective’s supplemental report notes that the “abrasions” on her arm did not require medical treatment.

Sgt. Jeffrey Aldrich [5:34:07 – 5:35:19 p.m.]

Less than five minutes after the incident, Aldrich responds to the growing crowd of onlookers by taking what appears to be an M4 carbine from the trunk of his vehicle and slinging it over his shoulder.

Officer Dillan Halley [5:33:40 – 5:41:01 p.m.]

Halley is wandering around the crime scene without any obvious purpose, as if disoriented.

A moment earlier, the man in the red shirt wearing a knapsack had vigorously pointed at him and Fleming and then at his own eyes as if to say, I saw what you did.

Fleming approaches Halley.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” he says.

“I know you do,” she responds. “Come here.”

They rush over to a supervisor who has just arrived on the scene, Lt. Davina Ward.

“Lieutenant,” Fleming says, “my partner needs to get out of here now.”

“I’m a target,” says Halley.

“We’ve got to go,” Fleming insists. “He’s got to go.”

As if pursued, the two officers and the lieutenant run to Ward’s vehicle on the other side of the red tape.

“Get in the car,” Fleming instructs Halley, then says to Ward, “I’m going with him.”

As she drives away, Ward explains, “I can’t take you completely away, but I’ll take you away from here.”

“He pointed a gun at us,” Halley blurts out. “I had to.”

One of the officers — it is not clear who — releases a shudder of distress.

“Calm down, OK?” says Ward.

Having been unable to reach her commander on the radio, Ward uses her cellphone. “I’ve got the officers who did the shooting,” she reports. “I had to get away from the scene. They were coming after him.”

The panic of Halley and Fleming in the aftermath of the shooting has now entered the police narrative as something akin to a mob “coming after” the two officers.

Ward is unsure how far away from the scene she should go — neither Halley nor Fleming gave official statements about the shooting before fleeing the scene — so she pulls to a stop about half a mile away on a quiet residential street. There is a large vacant lot nearby. No one is visible on the sidewalk.

In a reassuring tone such as one might use with frightened children, Ward seeks to soothe the two officers in the backseat.

“It’s OK,” she says. “Listen. Listen. Listen. It’s OK. It’s OK. OK? I just need you to relax. You OK? …  Listen. Listen. Listen. You are OK. You are OK. You did nothing wrong. OK? I want to make sure you know that.”

They get out of the car. Fleming and Halley put their arms around each other’s shoulders. He is largely silent, while she resumes her breathless monologue.

“You’re OK, you’re OK, you’re OK,” Fleming says. “Dude, he had a fucking gun. He was gonna kill us. I thought I was gonna die. You did the right thing. You’re OK. I’m here, I’m not leaving you. You’re OK. You did the right thing. I thought I was gonna die. I thought I was not going home to my kids. I’m fucking pissed that I didn’t — Look at this.” She holds out her forearm. “I should have fucking had him. I fucking should have had him.”

At this point, Halley’s body camera catches Fleming’s anguished face. She can’t stop talking.

“You’re OK. Dude, he fucking — Look at this,” she says, showing him a reddish spot on her right forearm again. “Dude, I went behind that car and I thought I was gonna — You did the fucking — You saved everyone. You saved my fucking life. You know that, right? You did the right thing. I’m telling you right now, I thought we were going to die. Soon as Jones asked him if he had concealed carry —”

The story Fleming is frantically piecing together has several telling details, all of them false:

  • Augustus took flight because Jones asked him whether he had a concealed carry permit, not because Fleming grabbed him from behind without warning.
  • In his effort to escape, Augustus assaulted Fleming.
  • When several of the officers dropped to the ground and took cover behind a police vehicle, they were responding to Augustus drawing his gun and preparing to shoot at them, not to the sound of gunfire from Halley’s weapon.

In the video footage from Halley’s body camera, none of these things actually happened. Yet on the basis of Halley and Fleming’s initial utterances, the Chicago Police Department released a statement later that day under Superintendent Eddie Johnson’s letterhead that described the incident as “an armed confrontation.”

Ward instructs Halley and Fleming to get back inside the car. Halley suggests that maybe they should relocate to “an alley or something. This is a lot of traffic right here.”

“The thing is,” Ward reassures him, “they don’t know you’re in this car.”

The officers’ fear is palpable. It’s as if they are in a war zone where they could at any moment and from any direction come under attack. How much did this fearful mindset, so vividly apparent after the shooting, contribute to the sequence of actions leading up to it?

Now back inside the vehicle, Halley says, “I couldn’t let him shoot around here.”

“Right, right,” replies Ward. “I’ve got you.”

As she pulls away from the curb, she asks, “He just walked up on you guys?”

“He walked right past us,” Fleming replies. “I said, ‘He’s got a gun.’ And then Jones, he tried to stop him. … That’s when he scratched the shit out of me. I had him but fucking didn’t get him.”

“That’s OK, that’s OK.”

Halley sobs.

“You all didn’t do anything wrong,” says Ward. “I want you all to know that.”

Officer James Aimers [5:32:10 – 5:47:31 p.m.]

Back at the site of the shooting, Aimers, having handcuffed Augustus and thoroughly cleaned his hands, is engaged in securing the crime scene with red tape. This operation is complicated by the fact that community members have gathered within the area he and other officers are trying to cordon off.

“He didn’t do shit,” says a man standing in the railroad tracks directly across from the crime scene. “He’s the fucking barber. He don’t gangbang. He don’t do nothing.”

Aimers and other officers are intent on herding community members behind the cordon they are in the process of establishing. As they install the tape, they yell at onlookers for being on the wrong side of it. They make no effort to identify civilian witnesses. The man in the red shirt with a knapsack again tries to engage with the police and again is shooed away.

By the time Aimers has finished securing the area with tape, the medics are on the scene. They are standing around Augustus’s body. From other camera perspectives, it’s apparent they arrived five minutes earlier, checked Augustus’ pulse, did some tests, and determined he had died.

“Shit,” Aimers says to Jones, who is standing nearby holding Augustus’s gun. “Who got him?”

Jones gestures toward his chest and says, “Camera running.”

“That’s right,” Aimers acknowledges. “No talking.”

Commander Gloria Hanna, the senior police official on the scene, approaches them. She is not in uniform. She asks Jones and Aimers what their beat numbers are. She is trying to figure out who to assign as the “paper car,” the reporting officers tasked with filling out the initial incident report. The paper car cannot have been involved in or witnessed the incident.

Aimers cautions her not to step on evidence scattered on the ground. This includes a pistol magazine and shell casings. Officers walk back and forth heedlessly through the area.

Jones stands beside the magazine laying on the ground. He has been told to stay there until someone relieves him of Augustus’s gun.

“Hey, do you have any hand sanitizer?” Aimers asks Jones. He has lost track of his own bottle. Jones does not.

Aimers offers Jones a bag to put the gun in. It’s not an evidence bag but a plastic bag in which he had some papers. Jones puts the gun in the bag and places it on the ground beside the magazine.

Discovering a new piece of evidence on the ground, Aimers observes, “There’s a credit card over here.” Then he immediately refocuses, “Oh, here it is.” He has found his hand sanitizer. He shares it with Jones. His search continues, though. “I don’t know where my gloves went. That’s what I was looking for.”

Aimers resumes vigorously cleaning his hands with sanitizer.

A supervisor is giving instructions to the officer who “has the paper.” Aimers joins the conversation.

“The handcuffs,” he interjects, “are mine.”

He and the reporting officer have a confused, increasingly testy exchange. Fully 15 minutes after the shooting, the reporting officer asks, “We shot him or we got shot?”

“I don’t think he got a round off,” replies Aimers.

“But I’m just saying,” the officer persists, “did we shoot him? Did the police shoot him?”

“Yeah, we were right here. Everybody was lined up right there. They went to stop him, and he went through the car.”

“Just calm down. I’ll ask your partner,” says the reporting officer, referring to Jones.

“I’m all right,” says Aimers sharply. “That’s not my partner.”

“I’m just trying to say, ’cause we got the paper: Which officer shot?”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t know either,” says Aimers, adding, “We’re on camera, by the way.”

Sgt. Jeffrey Aldrich [5:41:15 – 5:41:38 p.m.]

As Aldrich is helping rearrange the red tape so the ambulance can back in to remove Augustus’s body, a man from the barber shop approaches him.

“He works with me,” the man says.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Aldrich. “You’re beyond the red tape.”

“The sergeant told me to come talk with you.”

“OK, but you can’t come through the red crime scene tape. You can come talk to me, but you can’t come through the red tape. You gotta stay in the red tape.”

Aldrich then walks away without talking to the man.

Officer James Aimers [5:47:58 – 6:00:22 p.m.]

“Hey, Sarge,” Aimers calls out to Aldrich. He wants to know whether he should interview people in the stores on 71st Street near the site of the shooting. “We don’t want any of these people leaving, right?”

Aldrich, having just driven away an eyewitness to the shooting and a colleague of Augustus’s without taking statements or getting their contact information, appears uninterested.

Standing with the M4 across his chest, he asks Aimers, “Did you see it? I saw you come out of the spot.”

“I pulled up because I was gonna get ahead of him. Then he ran behind the car, and that’s when everything went off.”

Looking down at his own body camera, Aldrich asks, “Are you still on?”

“Yeah, I’m still on. I have to be on right now, right?”

Aldrich says he couldn’t see what happened from where he was parked. “I was wondering what you saw, because you pulled off.”

“I saw a bulge on the side, and then I saw them say, ‘Hey,” and I thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to try to stop him,’ and so I went ahead. He dipped out and started freaking out. Then he dipped away, and then I saw him drop, with the gun in his hand.” He then says something to the effect that he thought Augustus had fired his gun, “but he didn’t. Luckily.”

Aimers then briefly enters three stores on 71st Street. Unlike the witnesses on the sidewalk who were shooed away by the police, it’s highly unlikely anyone inside the shops saw anything, but it’s not impossible. Someone might have been looking out the window or stepping out the door at the moment of the shooting.

In each store, Aimers asks whether anyone saw anything, whether there is surveillance video that might have captured the incident, and he collects people’s names. His questioning is perfunctory. At one point, he sums up the point of the exercise, “I have to get everybody’s name down to tell the detectives you didn’t see anything.”

One of the shopkeepers asks, “Did he make it?” Although Aimers was present when the medics indicated Augustus had died, he replies curtly, “I don’t know, I’m not a doctor.”

Talking with several men in a sandwich shop, he appears to assume they are reluctant to speak with him, as if it were a gang shooting rather than a police shooting and they fear retribution.

“So, none of you guys saw anything?” he says. “Want to talk to me in the back individually? I know nobody wants to, you know, narc on anybody. I got that.”

No one takes him up on his offer.

Among those present is Darren Coleman, a security guard who was standing beside Jones as the incident unfolded and later gave me a detailed description of how Augustus’s civil interaction with Jones was disrupted when Fleming grabbed him from behind without warning. He also described Halley as having been, in his view, “pumped, ready. It seemed like he had a point to prove.”

On the tape, Coleman begins to describe to Aimers what he witnessed. Aimers has only one question for him: Did he “see anything” in Augustus’s hands? No, says Coleman, his view was obscured by a car. Aimers shows no interest in anything else Coleman might be able to tell him about what happened.

Sgt. Jeffrey Aldrich [5:44:40 – 5:44:50 p.m.]

Just before Aldrich turns off his body camera — some 14 minutes after the incident, and more than 10 minutes after Halley and Fleming fled the scene — he has an exchange with the two most senior police officials on the scene, Commander Hanna and a lieutenant.

“I guess Halley’s the only one who shot,” says Aldrich, “but he drew a gun out on Halley.”

“The guy did?” the commander asks.

“The guy drew the gun what?” asks the lieutenant.

“He drew a gun out on Halley. That’s what they’re saying.”

“On who?” the lieutenant asks.

While body camera footage makes it possible to isolate various police interactions, some of them occurring simultaneously, another perspective is required to fully comprehend what is happening in the wake of the shooting. It is provided by a stationary CPD surveillance camera on 71st Street that serves to reconstitute the full incident within a single frame.

From that perspective, what arrests the eye is a fixed point amid all the movement. While Halley and Fleming rehearse their shared narrative in a traumatized duet; while Aimers repeatedly cleans his hands after handcuffing Augustus; while Aldrich responds to community grief and anger by reaching for an assault rifle; and while officers confound the crime scene and drive away civilian witnesses: Augustus lies motionless on the ground.

Four minutes pass before an ambulance arrives. During that interval, no officer is moved to assess Augustus’s condition, to offer a comforting word, or to minister to him in any way. Is he dead or alive? It appears not to matter to the officers flooding the area. To observe the terrible isolation of the human being lying in the middle of the street, while the police are wholly preoccupied with their own welfare, is to confront the question that reverberates through our times and is yet to be answered by meaningful reform: Do Black lives matter?

People partake in a rally and march organized by The Chicago Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, in the South Shore neighborhood near the site where Harith Augustus was shot and killed by Chicago police, Monday, July 16, 2018. (James Foster/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

People partake in a rally organized by the Chicago Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, in the South Shore neighborhood — near the site where Harith Augustus was shot and killed by Chicago police — on July 16, 2018.

Photo: James Foster/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

Official Oversight

The 2021 report on the incident by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the oversight agency tasked with investigating police shootings, does not provide a fully satisfactory answer to that question. As was widely expected, COPA found “Halley’s use of deadly force was consistent with Chicago Police Department policy.” Although Augustus’s movements were ambiguous and could plausibly be interpreted in different ways (Was he perhaps trying to stabilize his holster while he ran?), COPA concluded that it was reasonable for Halley to have perceived an imminent threat.

We are thus left with the official finding that this gratuitous killing of a Black man by the police, at once tragic and absurd, was lawful and within policy. Given the prevailing paradigm embodied in the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous 1989 ruling in Graham v. Connor that great deference must be shown to an officer’s perceptions of risk and judgments within the temporal frame of the “split second,” that dispiriting conclusion was perhaps inevitable. It should not, however, be allowed to obscure the several ways in which the COPA report enlarges the analytic frame beyond the narrow focus on the split second.

The agency found that the officers had no legal basis to stop Augustus in the first place. And it found that Fleming had no reason to seek to physically restrain Augustus, who was being cooperative. It recommended that she receive a 60-day suspension.

Of equal importance is its analysis of police actions following the shooting. In order to prevent officers from colluding to construct a common narrative, CPD policy dictates that, following the discharge of a firearm, the officers involved are to refrain from discussing details of the incident with one another, and supervisors are to ensure that involved officers remain separated and do not communicate with one another.

COPA found that Ward, the senior supervisor at the scene in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, failed to separate Halley and Fleming and to restrict their communication with each other. It recommended a 30-day suspension.

By assessing police actions leading up to and following the moment of deadly force, the COPA report begins to shift the paradigm. It demonstrates, in effect, that the Supreme Court’s split-second logic in Graham v. Connor need not dictate the outcome of administrative disciplinary processes.

The report also does something else. The breadth and quality of the COPA investigation makes clear the need to overhaul the video release policy adopted at the height of the political maelstrom provoked by the police murder of Laquan McDonald. In that case, the city withheld video footage of the incident for 13 months, until forced to release it by a judicial order and a surging mass movement.

Among the first reforms adopted in the wake of the McDonald debacle, the current policy — touted at the time as the most progressive in the country — provides that “all video and audio recordings relating to” an incident in which use of force by a police officer results in death or great bodily harm shall be made public no more than 60 days after the incident.

In most instances, COPA implements the policy by posting videos and other materials deemed relevant on its website. Yet much of the video footage described above is, to this day, not available to the public on the COPA site, raising questions about the basis on which the agency is making editorial judgments as to relevance.

The time has now come, in light of experience, to overhaul the policy in two fundamental respects.

First, the 60-day timeline should be shortened to no more than a week, absent a compelling showing of why it is necessary to extend it. Second, COPA should not make editorial decisions as to “relevance.” Rather, all body camera footage of all officers at the scene (not only the officers directly involved in the incident), as well as all video from other sources, should be released in its entirety. As the COPA investigation of the Augustus killing shows, once analysis is no longer limited to a narrow focus on the split second, it is not possible to determine relevance until the full investigation is completed, a process that routinely takes a year and often longer.

At the most fundamental level, the principle — with respect to categories of information acknowledged to be public — should be to release it all, and let the public determine what is in the public interest.

Such an expansion of transparency would operationalize a central insight of the era after Laquan McDonald’s killing: In cases such as these, we are not dealing with discreet “cover-ups.” That is the wrong frame for understanding the phenomenon. What we are dealing with is standard operating procedure.

Conspiracy requires agreement, but there is no need to agree when everyone knows what they are expected to do.

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