Craig Futterman on UCPD Shooting

 /  April 8, 2018, 10:53 p.m.


Craig Futterman is a clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago. Prior to teaching at the University, he worked as a trial lawyer specializing in civil rights cases. In Chicago, he is best known as being instrumental in the release of the infamous Laquan McDonald dashcam video.

The Gate: As far as you know, did the officer act according to UCPD protocol?

Craig Futterman: To my knowledge, this is the first time any UCPD officer has shot someone, certainly shot a student. This is far from an everyday crime. I don’t know all the facts, and I don’t want to pretend to know all the facts. Even having seen the bodycam video, that does not give me all the facts. There’s also a difference in if you’re judging the frame right at the moment of the shot, or if you’re going to take some steps back and broaden that frame, which is appropriate. There are questions about policies and practices and also the decisions that wind up in a situation like that. From what I understand from the video, it was clear that the officers had identified the person as being someone who was in emotional crisis or mental crisis. And there are a series of national best practices with respect to policies and training for crisis intervention, which can involve who responds, and who else responds along with first responders. To my knowledge, UCPD members have had a significant amount of training on responding to individuals who are undergoing a crisis. The bigger questions I have are about the decisions, practices, and policies to engage the way the officers engaged. And I can’t say definitively that they are right or wrong.

The kinds of questions I’d have would be: 1) What resources do the officers have to bring in other folks who are specially trained to work with people who are mentally ill or in crisis so that the police are not the first folks to drop in? 2) Generally, officers should be trained to assess the situation when arriving, and be in a position where they’re close enough to act if someone is in danger (and assess whether there is anyone in immediate danger), but also not closer than they need to be which may potentially create the need for a use of force that wouldn’t otherwise have to happen. It’s usually things like space, time, distance, tactics, and training about how you engage. I don’t want to pretend to be a psychologist or mental health expert, but among the things I do know is something that’s generally seen to be unproductive when someone is in crisis is barking out orders and commands. There can be many other ways to engage from a simple “Are you OK?” or “Do you need help?”

When you narrow the frame to the moment in which the person was shot—and there are still ambiguities in terms of perspectives of the video—on the one hand the moment looks like and certainly is portrayed as though the student was charging an officer with a pipe. If you’re just focusing on the law alone, it’s generally going to allow the use of deadly force in that situation.

There’s also a lot of actors. What I couldn’t tell from the video was that there are officers on all sides of him. He could’ve easily been running away against the side of the building as opposed to running towards an officer and charging him. But I don’t know. I can’t tell that.

The Gate: Should the other officers have been more involved?

Craig Futterman: There’s a number of things that are interesting and remarkable. If I’m charging towards you and there’s other officers over here, you’re the person who’s most immediately in danger. And it wouldn’t be crazy or necessarily unreasonable to say that you would be in the best position to make an assessment and seek to protect yourself. At the same time, it’s interesting (and it could say something too) that the other officers didn’t shoot from where they were positioned. They didn’t necessarily feel the need to shoot or didn’t feel that they were in a position to do something. It’s also interesting—and this is different from most police shootings—that there was only one shot. In an odd way, and this is going to sound odd for me to say, this felt like a more restrained use of force when this type of force is used. Particularly when it comes to semi-automatics (which I don’t think this is necessarily good training), most police officers are actually trained not to shoot just once but continue shooting until it's absolutely clear that that person can no longer be a threat. It doesn’t take a lot to get off a lot of shots on a semi-automatic firearm. In an ironic way, it shows more restraint than I’ve typically seen in recent deadly force situations. Look at what happened this week in Brooklyn. Look at what happened in Sacramento. It’s just multiple, multiple, multiple shots whether it be one officer or multiple officers.

At the end of the day, I’m left with a number of questions. And the questions are more about University response to people who are in mental health crisis, which is not just policing but also the adequacy of Mental Health Services for students and others in crises. That’s not making a comment one way or the other on the incident, but it raises fundamental questions about what practices and policies are in place.

Another thing that this raises—and it’s something that the University did well in this instance but really needs to be a matter of policy—is a commitment to transparency. The University gets some credit for releasing the bodycam videos very quickly and broadly thereafter as well as taking some care to consult with the family of student. And that extends to the stuff that was blocked out in the video even though the identity of the student is now well-known and well-publicized. But while I’ll provide that praise, that shouldn’t be a matter of discretion. When a University police officer has the power to arrest, the powers of the state, the power to use force, and does so—just like if it were the Chicago Police Department or the Skokie Police Department—it ought to be public information and not a matter of discretion.

The Gate: There was an Illinois law that stalled in the House that would have extended transparency laws to private police forces.  

Craig Futterman: Right. In particular, UCPD is not just a simple private security force on campus, but it’s a force that has been specially imbued by CPD in a local ordinance with the powers of the state, the power to make full arrest, and the power to use force. It’s not just simply to protect University property. Its jurisdiction extends well beyond University property. In short, that law that didn’t pass is sound. As a matter of policy and principle, a university police force that has those powers ought to have the same responsibility and accountability for sharing information about the uses of that power; what is, ultimately, the use of state power as a public force. Again, the University deserves credit. It did an excellent job in this certain situation. But it raises a fundamental question of “What if it didn’t? What if it chose not to share this information?” You’re talking about the shooting of another human being authorized by state use of force. Just the thought that a private decision decides whether we’re going to share it or not, as a matter of policy, is not good policy.

The Gate: Do you think they only shared it because it exonerated the officer?

Craig Futterman: I can’t answer that. And that’s a point about why it also shouldn’t be a private decision is that then the incentives and motivation would be: We’ll release information when it supports our case or is in our interest, and maybe not when it’s not. I’m not attributing those motives at all to the University and to those who made the decision in releasing it, my point is that it should not be a decision, it should be a matter of policy on information release. And they deserve credit, that’s what they did in this situation in terms of transparency thus far has been consistent with best practices.

The Gate: As far as you know, does UCPD have higher standards for training than CPD does?

Craig Futterman: I don’t know the answer to that.

The Gate: Do you know what training they receive?

Craig Futterman: I have no idea. It’s something that UCPD has been thoughtful about. They want to impose fairly rigorous requirements with respect to training, and some years back did a lot of work to revamp their training and make sure that their policies are consistent with national best practices. But I don’t have present information on what exactly their training does and does not entail. Their officers are subject to numerous hours of training, and they’ve also achieved accreditation from CALEA [Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies], which involves minimum standards for training for both new and seasoned officers.

The Gate: There was a mention of a taser at one point in the video, do you think that that would’ve been a more appropriate response?

Craig Futterman: It depends at what time. This is an open question: If, indeed, the person was almost immediately charging upon that officer with something that could cause serious bodily harm, and there was reason to believe that person intended to use that weapon, I don’t know that a taser would stop him at that close. But at another point in time, if the officers had made different decision so that they wouldn’t be subjected to that kind of proximity, a taser could’ve been one of a number of options. That’s where my open questions are: There’s a number of options depending on if the situation was approached differently from the very beginning in terms of what the response was, how close officers got, whether there was a need to get out of the car, how many officers should get out of their cars, where they were when they got out of the car, what they communicated, the tone in which they communicated it, and whether they should seek to engage at all vs. watching at a safe distance to try to get others who may be better situated to talk the person down safely. I also don’t know what else they saw in terms of proximity of that person to other people. Basically, how close you might need to get to ensure that he isn’t a threat. It’s not just proximity, but also being able to make an assessment of the real danger to human life. That’s really the fundamental operating principle: the sanctity of life. And that includes the life of the person with the pipe.

The Gate: Is it general police procedure to be running backwards and then fire?

Craig Futterman: Interestingly, moving backwards is consistent with trying to disengage and not escalate the conflict. As a general matter, moving backwards could be seen as a good thing. The question is why he was so close in the first place.

The Gate: Where do you think he was aiming when he shot?

Craig Futterman: Generally, if officers are shooting, you’re shooting to kill, you’re shooting to neutralize, you’re shooting to stop. So, you’re trying to shoot for general body mass and that’s how all officers are trained. I doubt he was aiming for his shoulder. He was probably aiming for his chest. If you’re shooting, you think someone’s life is in imminent danger. And that’s why weapons like tasers can be a great and appropriate alternative because sometimes you can use something less than lethal force to eliminate a threat. I don’t know if that was a reasonable or viable option in that situation. Or, at least, whether it was a reasonable or viable option at the very end of this situation.

This interview has been edited for clarity. The featured image is licensed under the Creative Commons; the original can be found here.

Brett Barbin

Brett Barbin is a fourth-year Public Policy and Political Science double-major, interested in American history, geography, and political rhetoric. This summer, he worked in the investigative division of the Public Defender Service for DC and previously served as the Deputy Political Director for Senator Mark Kirk’s re-election campaign. On campus, Brett is the president of College Republicans, the vice president of the Political Union, and a College Council representative. He enjoys walking Chicago, collecting books, and reading way too much into public opinion polls.


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