Information and the Aaron Harrison Shooting

The lack of access to justice related information in Chicago and Cook County is nowhere more highlighted then in the officer involved shooting death of Aaron Harrison. Will we ever have an unbiased account of what happened in the alley of the Westside neighborhood of North Lawndale? No. However, the practices and policies of the Chicago Police Department (CPD) guarantee we will never be given access to the information we need to make an informed decision about the incident. Despite the CPD’s attempts to withhold all pertinent information regarding the officer involved in the shooting, we were able to learn one fact:

  • The officer involved was part of the long infamous Special Operations Section (SOS).

What remains of the details that have been released are less certain but have been put forward by the CPD to explain why this incident resulted in Harrison’s death.

  • Members of the SOS had questioned Harrison earlier in the day in regards to his participation in a murder.
  • The police say that Harrison was tugging at his belt when he and a group of other black males walked out of a liquor store and that this tugging represented to the SOS officers that he was carrying a gun.
  • When the officers approached Harrison to investigate, he ran from them into an alley.
  • When chasing Harrison into the alley he raised his weapon in the direction of the officer and the officer responded by firing one shot hitting Harrison and eventually killing him.

In every police shooting, unless the officer is wounded, the CPD withholds the name of the officer. The CPD states this is for the privacy of the officer. While I sympathize to a small extent with the officer, this practice withholds very important information from the public and should be stopped immediately. One aspect of information that the CPD has no problem releasing regardless of the law against its release is the criminal history of the person involved in the shooting. Within hours of Harrison’s shooting most news networks and the two major daily papers in Chicago were reciting a verbatim list of Harrison’s prior arrests. The Illinois Freedom of Information Act expressly forbids the release of this information. While I believe this information should be released, it definitely should not be done without releasing the name of the officer involved and his history of civilian complaints. It is clear from this and other officers involved in shootings that the CPD has a defacto11% policy of providing this information to reporters despite the law barring its release. Every time the database that holds this information is accessed the officer requesting the information needs to put in an identification code. If the CPD wanted to stop this illegal practice all they would have to do is trace that accessed Harrison’s criminal history. To my knowledge they have never disciplined a single officer for releasing information that was in the best interests of the CPD. In fact by stopping this illegal practice the CPD’s public relations campaigns would be significantly hampered if all they had to rely on was the facts of the shooting at hand and not the racism of the public at large. The public may have very well felt different about the shooting if along side the reporting of Aaron Harrison’s criminal history was the following facts:

  • The SOS has 80 officers assigned to the street unit that directly combats gang activity.
  • Of those 80 officers, 9 % or 7 officers have been indicted on charges from robbery to kidnapping.
  • Of those 80 officers, 15% or 12 officers (at a minimum) have been called to testify into an ongoing grand jury investigation into the unit.
  • Of the 12 officers, 11% of the total officers in the unit or 9 officers needed immunity before they would agree to testify in front of the grand jury.

Given these numbers are you now more or less likely to believe the released facts behind the Harrison shooting? I don’t know what happened in that alley, but the practices of the CPD make it impossible for the public to make informed decision about the incident that resulted in the death of one of its citizens. In part II of this series I will cover how exactly the police within hours of the shooting ruled it justified. A less then open practice of holding a “roundtableā€¯ is used by the CPD to investigate the shooting. With an exclusively obtained deposition I will detail how the practice is handled and why the results should never be trusted.

Tracy has nearly two decades of experience researching and working within criminal justice systems. When Tracy began pursuing a career dedicate to system reform, he found that no single organization existed to promote evidence-based discussions among law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Recognizing that citizens in Chicago deserved the right to demand transparency in their criminal justice system, Siska established the Chicago Justice Project. He received his Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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