When a police officer fatally shoots a person, there are usually reasons offered: The officer was afraid for his life. The victim was reaching for his waistband or refused to show his hands. A glint looked like a gun.
But when Robert Rialmo, a Chicago police officer, killed Bettie R. Jones, 55, there were no reasons to give. Officials acknowledged that Ms. Jones had not only been innocent, but had died while trying to help the police.
Ms. Jones was not the only person killed that evening in December 2015 by Officer Rialmo. During the same incident, he fatally shot Quintonio LeGrier, a 19-year-old college student.
Although a city review board found that Officer Rialmo’s actions in both shootings were unjustified, Chicago could hardly have treated the two deaths more differently.
Ms. Jones’s family stands to receive one of the largest settlements ever in a fatal police shooting — $16 million, pending City Council approval.
But Mr. LeGrier’s family did not receive a settlement — in fact, the city briefly tried to sue his estate before backing off. The family sued, and on Wednesday a jury awarded them $1 million, but the judge reversed the decision, awarding nothing.
The difference, say lawyers who have represented families of shooting victims, is that in Ms. Jones’s case the facts are unusually clear cut, while in Mr. LeGrier’s, they are more in line with typical police shootings: murky, complex and disputed.
In such cases, much depends on the word of the officer, who is usually given the benefit of the doubt. Much depends on whether the officer is deemed to have been reasonably afraid, whether or not there was an actual threat.
The police say Mr. LeGrier had been charging at them with an aluminum baseball bat. His family says he may have been in the midst of a mental health crisis. Officers were responding to a 911 call from Mr. LeGrier’s father, who said he feared his son was going to harm him. Ms. Jones opened her door to direct the police to the LeGriers’ apartment upstairs. Accounts suggest that the police retreated, Mr. LeGrier came down the stairs, and he was near Ms. Jones’s apartment door when Officer Rialmo began to fire.
Although the review board said the LeGrier shooting violated department policy, Eddie Johnson, Chicago’s police superintendent, determined it to be within use-of-force guidelines.
On Wednesday night, the jury found that Officer Rialmo had reasonably feared for his life when he killed Mr. LeGrier, but still awarded $1 million before the judge voided it. Officer Rialmo remains on desk duty while a police panel determines his future.
The LeGrier lawsuit followed a pattern: The vast majority of families who lose someone in a questionable police shooting get nothing — many cases are dismissed before trial. In one recent case, a Florida jury awarded $4 to the family of a man who was killed when the police fired through his closed garage door after a dispute in which they said he was holding a gun.
In the LeGrier case, the city opted to take its chances at trial. Settlement offers, like the one in the Jones case, come when those chances are not good for a variety of reasons, including the culpability of the officer, the degree of sympathy for the victim, the amount of publicity surrounding the death and whether the episode was captured on video.
But there was another possible factor: the fact that the shooting took place in Chicago, said Robert Bennett, a civil rights lawyer who has represented the families in police shootings. In more conservative areas of the nation, where support for the police is typically robust, jury members can be loath to approve large government payouts to victims, Mr. Bennett said.
But in diverse, liberal Chicago, police-community tensions remain high after a series of questionable police shootings. And jury awards in Chicago can be large — last year a man was awarded $44.7 million after his friend, a Chicago police officer, shot him in the head after drinking heavily.
Below is a list of settlement amounts in other high-profile police shootings. In all of these cases, the person who died was black.
LaTanya Haggerty, Chicago, 1999
Ms. Haggerty, a 26-year-old computer analyst, was a passenger in a car that fled a police traffic stop and was chased for 31 blocks. Her family received what is still believed to be the highest settlement in a fatal police shooting.
The officer who fired the fatal shot, Serena Daniels, said she mistook a cellphone Ms. Haggerty was holding for a gun. Officer Daniels and two other officers involved were fired after officials said they had ignored orders and fired without justification, but they were not prosecuted.
Sean Bell, New York, 2006
Sean Bell, 23, was fatally shot by the police on what would have been his wedding day. Five police officers fired a total of 50 shots into the car Mr. Bell was driving. The police said they believed, wrongly, that someone in the car had a gun because they had heard Mr. Bell’s acquaintances discussing a firearm while leaving his bachelor party, which took place at a club that was under investigation. The total settlement was $7.15 million; about $3.9 million went to two passengers who were wounded. Three of the officers were acquitted of manslaughter; the other two did not face criminal charges.
Walter L. Scott, North Charleston, S.C., 2015
Mr. Scott was stopped for a broken taillight and fled on foot, possibly because he feared arrest for failure to pay child support. A video appeared to show the officer, Michael T. Slager, shooting Mr. Scott in the back as he was running away. Mr. Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Tamir Rice, Cleveland, 2014
Tamir Rice, 12, was carrying a replica handgun in a public park when an onlooker reported him to 911. Within two seconds of his arrival in a police cruiser, Officer Timothy Loehmann had shot the boy, later saying he feared for his life. The pellet gun was missing the orange safety tip that indicated it was a toy. The 911 caller had said the gun was “probably fake,” but that information was not relayed to the officers. A grand jury declined to indict Officer Loehmann, who was later fired for lying on his police application.
Laquan McDonald, Chicago, 2014
Laquan McDonald, 17, was killed by a Chicago police officer as he was walking away from officers. He was armed with a knife that he had refused to drop. The officer, Jason Van Dyke, shot Mr. McDonald 16 times. Officer Van Dyke is facing charges of murder and aggravated battery.
Philando Castile, Falcon Heights, Minn., 2016
During a traffic stop for a broken taillight, Mr. Castile told the officer, Jeronimo Yanez of the St. Anthony Police Department, that he had a gun in the car (he was licensed to carry it). The officer told him not to reach for it, but then fired, later saying he thought that Mr. Castile was disobeying his order. The aftermath of the shooting was streamed live on Facebook by a passenger, Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, whose young daughter was in the back seat. Officer Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter charges but left the police department.
Amadou Diallo, New York, 1999
Mr. Diallo, a 22-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was killed by four plainclothes officers who fired a total of 41 bullets, 19 of which struck Mr. Diallo. Officers said they believed Mr. Diallo had a gun. He was unarmed.
The officers, who were on patrol, said Mr. Diallo fit the description of a serial rapist. They said they mistook a wallet Mr. Diallo was holding for a gun. The officers were tried for second-degree murder and acquitted.
Oscar Grant, Oakland, Calif., 2009
Officers of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department were responding to reports of a fight when they ordered Mr. Grant, 22, to lie down on a subway platform. It is not clear whether he was involved in the fight. Though he complied with the order, one of the officers, Johannes Mehserle, shot Mr. Grant — who was unarmed — in the back. The officer said he thought Mr. Grant was reaching for a gun. Officer Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in jail. The shooting was the basis for a film, “Fruitvale Station.”
Michael Brown, Ferguson, Mo., 2014
Mr. Brown, 18, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a police officer who confronted him for walking in the street. The officer said Mr. Brown attacked him. The authorities found Mr. Brown’s DNA inside the driver’s door of the police vehicle, and on Officer Wilson’s clothes and weapon. The shooting sparked protests across the country and unrest in Ferguson, but several investigations ended with no charges filed against Officer Wilson, who resigned.
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