How Chicago Police Created a False Narrative After Officers Killed Harith Augustus

A video investigation of the police killing of Harith Augustus by Forensic Architecture and the Invisible Institute challenges the official narrative.

People partake in a rally and march organized by The Chicago Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, in the South Shore neighborhood near the site where Harith Augustus was shot and killed by Chicago police, Monday, July 16, 2018. (James Foster/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
People participate in a rally and march on July 16, 2018, organized by The Chicago Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, near the site where Harith Augustus was shot and killed by Chicago police. Photo: James Foster/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

Harith Augustus, a 37-year-old African-American barber, was shot to death by police patrolling 71st Street in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago on July 14, 2018. A statement issued later that day by the Chicago Police Department stated:

The officers approached a male suspect exhibiting characteristics of an armed person, when an armed confrontation ensued resulting in an officer discharging his weapon and fatally striking the offender. … A weapon was recovered at the scene.

Over the last year, Forensic Architecture and the Invisible Institute have collaborated on a project that excavates this carefully crafted formulation in search of the truth of what happened on 71st Street that day. By means of new forensic techniques and on-the-ground reporting, our counterinvestigation contests the official police narrative and examines the process by which that narrative was constructed.

This work will be presented as an exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which opens on September 19 and runs through January 5, 2020.

Power imposes itself through narrative. It does so by techniques both subtle and crude. The former include various moves in the semantic realm, performative gestures, and assertions of point of view that, taken together, engender identification with the narrative perspective of the police. The latter include strategies of information control, such as the selective release and deliberate suppression of public information.

On August 30, more than 13 months after the incident and only after we made repeated freedom of information requests, dashcam video footage that shows Officer Dillan Halley in the act of shooting Harith Augustus was released. In the context of our reconstruction of the incident, this is a critical piece of information.

Police records indicate that the dashcam footage was retrieved and secured on the day of the incident. The fact that it was withheld from the public for more than a year raises troubling questions — especially so when the Augustus killing is viewed in the context of the city’s catastrophic effort to maintain a patently false official narrative in the Laquan McDonald case.


A still from dashcam footage showing officers in pursuit of, and subsequently shooting, Augustus.

“The Video Speaks for Itself”

The Augustus incident occurred in a neighborhood — and a city — tensely awaiting the trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of the 17-year-old McDonald. Two and a half years earlier, the release of police dashcam video of an officer shooting a child 16 times had precipitated a political earthquake that continues to reverberate. Citizen outrage at what the video depicted was compounded by the fact that the city had suppressed it for 13 months. A cascade of events ensued: The superintendent of police was fired, as was the head of the agency that investigates police shootings; the state’s attorney was voted out of office; and Van Dyke was charged with murder.

Official investigations of the CPD were undertaken by the Police Accountability Task Force appointed by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Both yielded scores of recommendations regarding training, accountability, supervision, use of force, deescalation, body camera protocols, and more. And both emphasized the critical importance of transparency as an antidote against official lying and a means of building public trust.

Against this backdrop, the events flowing from the Augustus shooting had the quality of a wildly accelerated replay of the McDonald case. Within minutes of the incident, community members gathered at the site of the shooting. The yellow “caution” tape surrounding the crime scene delineated the frontier of confrontation between civil society and the state that intensified as hours passed and ultimately erupted into a convulsion of disorder and police violence.

The next day, activist Will Calloway, who had played a key role in forcing release of the McDonald video, held a press conference outside CPD headquarters and called for the immediate release of all relevant video footage of the incident.


Bad Chicago Cops Spread Their Misconduct Like a Disease

Several hours later, Superintendent Eddie Johnson, clearly attempting to quell public outrage, held a press conference at which he released a short video from the body camera worn by Halley, the white police officer who shot Augustus, showing that Augustus had a gun. The superintendent explained that he had taken the unprecedented step of releasing the video less than 24 hours after the incident “because the community needs some answers, and they need them now.”

“We’re not trying to hide anything,” he said. “We’re not try to fluff anything. The video speaks for itself.”

The video was titled “Aggravated Assault to a Police Officer” and had been edited to zoom in and freeze on a frame showing Augustus’s holstered gun.

Some in the media accepted the video at face value, but it was sharply criticized from other perspectives.

Sydney Roberts, chief administrator of Civilian Office of Police Accountability, sent Johnson a letter in which she expressed concern that his “piecemeal and arguably narrative-driven video release breeds suspicions, which may ultimately undermine COPA’s ability to successfully investigate allegations of misconduct and officer involved shootings.”

The video was titled “Aggravated Assault to a Police Officer” and had been edited to zoom in and freeze on a frame showing Augustus’s holstered gun.

The Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement in which it characterized the Augustus shooting as “textbook legitimate” and chastised the superintendent for not taking “a stronger stand against the lawless protestors and their false claims.”

And Calloway, represented by Matt Topic, the lead attorney in the McDonald video litigation, filed a FOIA lawsuit demanding the release of “all audio and video from the fatal shooting of Harith Augustus — not just the selective, incomplete, and edited recording that CPD released to justify the shooting in response to public criticisms and questions.”

On August 16, 2018, a city lawyer represented to the judge presiding over Calloway’s lawsuit that “all of the requested records in this case” would be produced by COPA that day. Later in the day, COPA released 23 additional items of evidence provided by the CPD, including 18 videos from body cameras, a police surveillance camera, and third-party cameras.

We now know that the dashcam video of Halley firing at Augustus, finally made public only three weeks ago, was not among them. It thus appears that the CPD, through its attorney, lied to the court. The only available defense against this charge would be a claim of gross incompetence that would, in its way, be equally alarming.

Manufacturing a Split Second

“Decisions to use lethal force are made in a split second,” said Johnson at his press conference the day after the Augustus shooting. Such decisions, he explained, are “based on the safety of the officer and also the surrounding community.”

The logic of the “split second” is often invoked by police to justify acts of violence against civilians and is enshrined in constitutional law. In Graham v. Connor (1989), a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court took note of “the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” In effect, the law treats the split second as an indivisible unit of time within which great deference must be given the perceptions and judgments of the officer who inflicted the violence. The durational concept of the split second thus tends to isolate the incident from its context. Any antecedent or contextual events are considered irrelevant.

Titled “Six Durations of a Split Second,” our project challenges this conceptual frame. It takes the form of six video investigations, each of which reconstructs the killing of Harith Augustus across a distinct time scale — from milliseconds to secondsminutes, hours, days, and years — and exposes different dimensions of police violence. Taken together, these counterinvestigations raise fundamental questions both about the Augustus incident and, more generally, about the ways the logic of the split second confers impunity on police officers who kill. Their cumulative effect is to bring into focus the totality of circumstances that produced the split second in which the police reacted with deadly force.

On the afternoon of July 14, 2018, Augustus left the barber shop where he worked and set off walking along a route he had traveled multiple times each day on 71st Street. Beneath his shirt, he wore a holstered gun. A group of five officers on foot patrol observed, as the initial CPD statement put it, “a male suspect exhibiting characteristics of an armed person.” It is not clear why they thought this alone was a sufficient reason for a stop in a state that permits concealed carry. In any case, Officer Quincy Jones, an older African American well-known in the neighborhood, called out to Augustus to stop. He did so, and they engaged in a calm, civil exchange.

Augustus took out his wallet to show Jones his Firearm Owners Identification card. He does not appear to have had a concealed-carry permit, but if he had, he would never have had an opportunity to show it, for three white officers — all of them rookies and presumably unfamiliar with the neighborhood they were policing — surrounded him. Without any verbal warning and without probable cause to initiate an arrest, Officer Megan Fleming grabbed his arm from behind. Startled, he sought to break free and took several stumbling steps into the street. While doing so, his hand appeared to touch his holstered gun. Halley shot him five times. Augustus fell to the street, holding in his hand not his gun, which remained holstered, but his FOID card. Moments later, an officer who arrived on the scene immediately after the shooting placed handcuffs on the motionless body of Harith Augustus.

Darren Coleman, a security guard, was standing beside Jones as the incident unfolded and was the closest witness to what happened. In an interview with us, he described Jones as a “seasoned” officer. “He knows the community,” said Coleman. “He’s been working in the community for years. People talk to him.” The three young white officers, by contrast, “were nervous — I’m being honest — in a black neighborhood,” and Halley struck him as being “pumped, ready. It seemed like he had a point to prove.” The interaction between Jones and Augustus was “completely calm.” Coleman has no doubt that nothing would have happened, had the other officers not intervened. “I think if she never would have grabbed at him, that situation could have been totally different,” he said. “because Jones was basically dealing with the situation.”

There is a great deal to unpack in this incident with respect to training, implicit bias, body camera protocols, use of force, deescalation, enforcement of concealed carry regulations, and the exercise of common sense. The critical point, though, is that it was not criminal activity by Augustus, but aggressive and inept policing that produced the split second in which an officer responded with deadly force — and produced the snippet of video, stripped of context, that Johnson said “speaks for itself.”

The recently released dashcam video also speaks. It does so not only in isolation but most powerfully in context. It serves to illuminate the deep structure of the official narrative by adding a perspective that is rarely available in these cases. Recall the phrasing of the initial CPD statement on the incident: “an armed confrontation ensued resulting in an officer discharging his weapon and fatally striking the offender.” In this typically Orwellian formulation, all agency is assigned to “the offender” who caused a police weapon to be discharged. The police officers as actors who made a series of decisions that resulted in the death of a civilian all but disappear from the sentence. The dashcam video corrects that skewed perspective. Unlike body camera footage that necessarily presents the officer’s perspective — which turns the person filmed into a suspect and is known to have the effect of generating identification with the police narrative — the dashcam video reverses the perspective and shows us Halley’s actions as he pursues and shoots the fleeing Augustus. Had this footage been released at the same time as the body camera footage, it would almost surely have significantly altered public perception of the incident.

The construction of the official narrative began immediately after the shooting. The first thing we hear when body cameras are belatedly activated is Halley shouting out after shooting Augustus, “Police shot. Shots fired at the police.” Over time, the official narrative drifts from “an armed confrontation” to “Augustus attempted to pull a gun.” What remains constant is the labeling of the man dying on the street with his FOID card in his hand as “offender” and the officer who shot him as “victim.” The dashcam video does not resolve this case, but when viewed in the context of the series of actions by the police that produced the fateful split second, it confronts us with the question of whether those labels should be reversed.

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