The Civilian Office of Police Accountability has announced it intends to release video evidence of this week’s shooting by Chicago Police of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, deviating from a long-standing policy to withhold video of fatal police shootings of minors.
COPA, which investigates all shootings by cops, has long relied on the state Juvenile Court Act to withhold such videos — and the agency said it planned to in this case as recently as Thursday.
Legal experts have challenged that interpretation of the law, however. Within hours of Chicago police announcing Thursday that an on-duty officer had shot and killed a 13-year-old boy, there were demands, including from Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown, for the release of the video evidence as soon as possible.
Late Thursday, COPA officials announced they would review the law to see if they were able to release video, and on Friday afternoon, officials said they would release it.
“COPA has determined that certain provisions of state law intended to protect the confidentiality of juvenile records do not prohibit the agency’s release of material related to its investigation of a Chicago Police Officer’s fatal shooting of 13-year old Adam Toledo,” the Friday statement read. " ... COPA will therefore follow established City policy, which requires public posting of material at the earliest point possible but no later than 60 days after the incident.”
COPA also said the family would be allowed to view the video first.
“Again our condolences are with the Toledo family during this challenging time,” the statement read.
On Friday, just a few hours before COPA’s announcement, Adam’s family called on city officials to be more forthcoming about the circumstances that led to the teen’s death.
During a news conference outside her west suburban law office, family attorney Adeena Weiss Ortiz said what happened to Adam is still a mystery to his family.
“The mother wants to know the truth of all facts surrounding the death of her son,” said Weiss Ortiz. “And we hope at this time that she’ll be able to get it.”
A spokesman for COPA did not immediately comment on what changed or why the law was being interpreted in a different way Friday. Nor would the agency comment on whether the decision marks a change in the overall policy not to release videos that capture the fatal police shootings of minors.
Shootings by police officers, especially those that are fatal, are always high-profile events that raise critical questions for the public about tactics and use of force, because of the tragic loss of life and the millions of dollars they have cost taxpayers in lawsuits. Those concerns have only become louder and more immediate in the past year during a national reckoning over controversial uses of force by police in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Timely release of video of controversial police shootings is considered by policing experts to be one important way to restore public trust that has eroded over the decades. In Chicago, videos and other evidence are supposed to be released within 60 days, barring a request from a court officer to delay a release.
Matt Topic, an attorney who specializes in Illinois’ public records law, told the Tribune this week that the courts have repeatedly rejected the argument that the state’s Juvenile Court Act applies to records or videos of minors who are shot and killed by the police, which would have supported COPA’s initial plan to withhold the video of Adam’s shooting.
Adam was fatally shot at about 2:30 a.m. Monday morning in a Little Village neighborhood alley by an on-duty officer responding to a call of shots fired in the area. The department released some details of the encounter initially, including that the person shot by police was believed to have had a gun. On Friday, Weiss Ortiz said that detail surprises Toledo’s family.
“At this time, the family doesn’t have all the information,” Weiss Ortiz told reporters along 31st Street in La Grange Park. “And they are encouraging the full cooperation of COPA and the Chicago Police Department, and transparency in obtaining the video as soon as possible as mentioned by our mayor, Mayor Lori Lightfoot.”
“All we know at this time is a 13-year-old boy died,” Weiss Ortiz also said. “He went to Gary Elementary School. He shared time with his four siblings, and all we know is that he was shot.”
She also told reporters that Adam’s mother has been getting “messages from the community” about her being judged in the aftermath of the shooting.
“She wants to let you know that she was a full-time mom and a homemaker to five children, ages 11 to 24,” Weiss Ortiz said of the teen’s mother.
“I just want to know what really happened to my baby,” the boy’s mother, Elizabeth Toledo, said through tears.
Answering Tribune questions Friday, Chicago police clarified the reason it took three days to announce a child had been shot.
After the teen was killed, officials had no way to immediately identify him because he was not carrying either an ID or a cell phone, department spokesman Don Terry said. Detectives worked for about two days to identify Adam, Terry said, including by searching through recent missing-persons reports and even cancelled ones to see if a description matched to the person who had been shot.
Adam’s mother had in fact reported him missing late last week but the alert was canceled a day later when she told detectives he had returned home, said Terry, who added that he was not reported missing a second time.
After detectives found that report, they saw the description matched and notified his mother at 1 p.m. Wednesday of the possibility that her son had been shot and asked her to view the body at the Cook County medical examiner’s office. She did that at 3:30 p.m., identifying her son, Terry said.
Terry would not comment on the department’s decision to release the age to the public, a day later.