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Uneasiness has permeated the area of Church Street just west of Dodge Avenue since Evanston police officers shot and killed Desrick York, 32, after being called to the scene by several 911 reports of a man wielding a knife.
On May 19, Evanston police officials told representatives of the local media that the State Police Integrity Task Force had completed its independent investigation of the incident and found the shooting by all three police officers involved was “legally justified.”
Aware that the finding could escalate tensions between some residents and the police, City and police officials have already begun looking for ways to help abate some of the wariness, even distrust, that in some areas have existed for years and have been exacerbated by the shooting. (See story on page 3.)
“We want to make the events as clear as we can,” Police Chief Richard Eddington told the media representatives, “so people can understand the dynamics of close, violent personal encounters.”
By presenting as many of the facts as possible to the public, police say they hope they can begin the process of healing the community and unifying residents against antisocial behaviors – gangs, guns and illegal drugs – that they say plague portions of the neighborhood.
Police Conclude Self-Defense
Commander Tom Guenther, public information officer for the Evanston Police Department, said police received numerous 911 calls at about 4:23 p.m. on April 26 reporting that a man with a knife was chasing another man at 1810 Church St. Callers also said the pursuer was highly agitated and was confrontational with others at the site, he said.
The man with the knife, later identified as Mr. York, had a dispute over money with his landlord, said Chief Eddington. Mr. York had allegedly asked for his security deposit back, even though he had not vacated his apartment, and asked for compensation for doing work on some radiators. He chased the landlord and then the landlord’s assistant, who was the building’s handyman, with the knife, said the Chief.
Cmdr. Guenther said three officers arrived on the scene and were told by people there that one man was being assaulted by another; they were directed to the basement.
Police officers drew their service weapons and went down the stairs to the basement, descending one-by-one because the stairs were narrow, said Cmdr. Guenther. The first two officers saw Mr. York with a four-inch-blade pocket knife standing over another man, who was on the ground with his hands and feet up in a defensive posture, Cmdr Guenther added. When Mr. York saw the officers, he turned and advanced toward them, said Cmdr. Guenther.
The officers told Mr. York to drop the knife, but he ignored the commands and proceeded toward the officers, said the Commander. The officers backed up against the basement wall. “Their backs were literally to the wall. They gave up as much distance as they could,” said the Chief. The officers gave additional commands to drop the knife, but Mr. York continued to advance toward the officers with the knife. He was close enough that one of the officers could reach out and touch him, Cmdr. Guenther said.
“Fearing for their lives and in defense of others, the officers exercised a right of self-defense and began to fire,” said Cmdr. Guenther.
Chief Eddington said witnesses reported that Mr. York had been drinking heavily the day before as well as that morning, and he was in a “state of rage.” A toxicology report is still not available to indicate whether or not Mr. York was under the influence of any other substances. Mr. York’s actions were “out of bounds of what we would normally expect,” said the Chief.
Police fired a total of 11 shots, all of which hit Mr. York, said the Chief. One officer fired five shots, one fired four, and the third officer, coming down the stairs, fired two. After Mr. York went down, officers began to restrain him as necessary, and called for medical assistance. Medical personnel pronounced Mr. York dead on the scene, said Chief Eddington.
One of the bullets that struck Mr. York also struck one of the officer’s fingers. The officer underwent surgery and lost his finger, said the Chief. The Chief explained the officer had his hand outstretched to hold Mr. York at bay, and the bullet hit his finger before striking Mr. York. The Chief could not say how close the knife came to striking an officer.
Police Say Other Options Not Feasible
Chief Eddington and Cmdr. Guenther said the police acted properly in drawing and firing their service weapons and that 11 shots were not unreasonable in light of Mr. York’s actions.
Cmdr. Guenther said drawing service weapons before going to the basement was appropriate because there were reports Mr. York had a knife and was assaulting someone. “When police get information that a person is aggressive and out of control and has possession of a knife, police would be in proper use of force to withdraw their weapons to respond to that threat.” He added, “The time in which it would take to draw a weapon could be life and death.”
The Chief said using pepper spray or batons was not a viable option. “From the information I have, I don’t believe [batons or pepper spray] could have been deployed quickly enough or been effective in this situation.”
“There’s no absolute guarantee that pepper spray’s going to work every time,” the Chief said. “When you’re in that close proximity, you don’t have the time or distance to hope that it works.”
He said, “Baton vs. knife – Frankly in this situation, it’s an unreasonable risk for the officers to take.” He said if an officer tried to defend himself with a baton under these circumstances, the officer would “get cut nine times out of ten times.” He added, “The police officer has no duty to receive a knife wound because the person won’t follow directions.”
Chief Eddington also said officers are not expected to try to shoot a weapon out of someone’s hand or to shoot to disable someone. The most skilled shooters, such as Navy S.E.A.L. teams, “don’t even train to shoot to disable; they don’t shoot to wound. Officers are employing force to stop the threat. They are trained to stop the threat. They are trained to shoot to hit center mass.”
As to the number of shots fired, the Chief said, “I don’t expect people to be happy about this.” The Chief added, “I know it [11 shots] is off-putting. I know it’s disturbing. But if you look at national standards, it’s not outside the norm. ” He added that Mr. York was in a continuing state of rage and kept advancing on the officers, “even after the shooting started.” He said, “Those officers are making decisions in a very tumultuous, hectic, fluid, changing situation.”
He added that witnesses said they heard three or four shots, which indicates the shots were heard on top of each other and were fired in rapid succession. He said it takes about one-quarter of a second to fire a shot from a drawn weapon. “We’re talking about total elapsed firing time of about three seconds or less.
“At some point we need to come to grips with the actions of Mr. York. Had he just stood there, had he dropped the knife, had he done a myriad of things instead of continuing on in a style of rage. …” the situation would have been different.
The Chief said he found two of the officers fit to return to duty. The third officer, who was shot in the confrontation, is on leave because of his injury. The Chief said in making his determination he concluded the officers were legally justified in shooting Mr. York. He said the incident was still being reviewed by the Evanston Police Department Office of Professional Standards.
The Chief said he has received notice that the City will be sued in connection with the shooting of Mr. York. He said Mr. York has “no serious criminal record.”
Other Threats to Police Officers
Since Jan. 1, 2008, Evanston police officers have responded to 127 calls involving handguns and have confiscated 32 guns, said Commander Tom Guenther, public information officer for the police department, told the RoundTable. In a number of the incidents, police have been shot at or fought to gain control of a weapon:
- On July 29, 2008 at approximately a young man fired two shots from a sawed-off shot gun at an Evanston police officer, narrowly missing the officer. The young man has been found guilty of attempted first degree murder and related charges.
- On Sept. 17, 2008, an armed gunman shot a single shotgun blast that broke out a window and damaged the front door of a building. During a canvass of the area, police approached a man who appeared to have a rifle barrel protruding from his pants. A struggle ensued, in which police managed to take the man into custody and recover the shotgun, said Cmdr. Guenther.
- On Oct. 21, 2008 a man, who was being detained in connection with dealing drugs, lunged at a police officer and attempted to take the officer’s gun. During an ensuing fight over the gun, the officer sustained facial contusions and abrasions and was treated at an area hospital.
There were two incidents in the last year in which police fired their weapons and wounded suspects:
- On Oct. 8, 2008, police officers responded to a domestic battery investigation. One officer observed a readily accessible handgun on the floor at the suspect’s feet, said Cmdr. Guenther. When the suspect leaned forward and grasped the gun, police officers were compelled to act in defense of their lives, said Cmdr. Guenther. A police officer fired a shot which struck the suspect in the neck and bicep and an officer “”also sustained an injury directly related to the force used,”” said Cmdr. Guenther.
- On Oct. 30, 2008 at approximately a police officer shot a suspect who was allegedly charging him with a knife near the intersection of Davis Street and Benson Avenue, said Cmdr. Guenther. Police were responding to a call of a reported battery at the Davis Street train station.
The only use of deadly force by Evanston police officers in the last decade was the shooting of Desrick York on April 26, Chief Richard Eddington told the RoundTable.