Today, after an anguished month of seeking answers in vain, the family of Anthony Alvarez is learning details about what happened on March 31 when a Chicago police officer fatally shot the 22-year-old. They are meeting with representatives of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability to view footage of the incident. Soon after, perhaps as early as Wednesday morning, COPA will publicly release the video.

The Alvarez case has been largely eclipsed by the police killing two days earlier of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, an incident that commanded national attention. That may change after COPA releases video from their investigation into Alvarez’s death. There is strong reason to believe it will be every bit as troubling as the footage of Toledo’s killing.

On the evening of April 23, at the corner of North Laramie Avenue and West Eddy Street on Chicago’s Northwest Side, Alvarez’s family and friends gathered for a vigil. Many contributed to a memorial by carefully laying bouquets of flowers, lighting candles, and planting crosses in the grass beneath a one-way sign near the site of the shooting.

As the community gathered, some wearing T-shirts bearing Anthony’s picture, the memorial grew from a few prayer candles into a poignant display of grief. It was a grave and solemn occasion. Family members stood quietly, contemplating the flowers and flickering candles as if in church, while traffic streamed by on Laramie and occasional motorists sounded their horns in solidarity.

It was the second memorial the family had built on this spot. They created the first during a vigil on April 1, the day after Alvarez was killed. After that event concluded, a resident recorded a police officer dismantling the carefully constructed memorial. On the video, an officer can be seen picking up the veladoras and tossing them into a nearby garbage can. “Come on, bro,” someone behind the camera says, “you can’t be doing that.”

As dusk fell on last week’s vigil, Roxana Figueroa, Anthony’s cousin, turned her attention to neighbors who had been watching the vigil through open windows and cracked doors. Her voice reverberated down the quiet, tree-lined street, begging anyone with information to come forward.

“I hope at night when you’re praying to God, God touches your heart to come forward and testify,” she said. “To help bring our family a little bit of peace and justice for Anthony Alvarez.”

According to Figueroa, the family has no more information today than the day Alvarez was killed.

“‘Until this day, CPD has not shown up at any of our families’ houses or done anything to provide any explanation, any information,” she said. “Until this day, CPD hasn’t confirmed what happened here on Eddy and Laramie in Portage Park. They’ve done nothing but be disrespectful to Anthony and our family.”

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for CPD said that after the department issues a preliminary statement on a police-involved shooting, responsibility for the investigation of the incident falls to COPA.

“COPA remains sensitive to the grief of the Alvarez family and has worked with the family’s representative over the past few weeks to schedule a viewing of the materials related to the officer involved shooting of Mr. Alvarez,” Ephraim Eaddy of COPA wrote in a statement. “The family’s review and pending release of materials are but one of a series of actions that have and will take place over the course of our full and thorough investigation.”

When Anthony’s mother arrived at the crime scene on April 1 looking for answers, police turned her away, Figueroa said at a press conference on April 3.

“I’m supposed to feel protected by you guys,” she recounted his mother saying. “I’m supposed to get answers from you guys.” According to Figueroa, an officer responded, “We’re here to kick out people like you.”

The Chicago Police Department has released little information about the shooting. What information they have provided is in the form of a press release posted to Twitter by Tom Ahern, CPD’s deputy director of news affairs and communications. The night of Anthony’s death, the CPD press release states, officers engaged in a foot pursuit during which “the offender produced a handgun which led to confrontation with police.” An officer then discharged his weapon, fatally shooting Anthony just two blocks from where he lived.

He was pronounced dead from multiple gunshot wounds at 1:13 a.m. at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner.

It remains unclear why the officers stopped Alvarez in the first place. The CPD press release says nothing about what prompted the stop. What is clear is that when the officers sought to engage him, Alvarez ran away.

COPA plans to release multiple videos — some-body worn camera footage, some third-party footage — of what ensued.

According to multiple sources close to the investigation, the relevant videos show two officers pursuing Alvarez on Laramie Avenue. As he runs, the young man has his cellphone in his left hand and what appears to be a gun in his right. At the intersection of Laramie and Eddy, he turns the corner. When officers round the corner, one of them fires multiple shots in quick succession at the young man’s back. Alvarez collapses in front of a house on the 5200 block of West Eddy.

“Why are you shooting me?” he asks the officer.

“Because you had a gun,” the officer replies.

IMG_8073-Justice-Anthony-Alvarez

Mourners embrace at a vigil for 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez in the Portage Park neighborhood of Chicago on April 23, 2021.

Photo: Madison Muller

The question Anthony Alvarez asked with his last breath demands a better answer. More than five years after revelations about the police murder of Laquan McDonald initiated an era of supposedly urgent police reform, Chicago is descending into a deepening crisis of the civil order. The Alvarez incident, following closely on the Toledo killing, has illuminated the extent of the city’s failure to make progress on the police reform agenda that has clearly and repeatedly been articulated.

At an April 5 news briefing on the Adam Toledo police shooting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that she had directed CPD to put in place a foot pursuit policy by summer. She sternly chastised others for their failure to institute such a policy long ago.

“We cannot and will not push the foot pursuit reform off for another day,” she said. “No longer can we afford to put off to tomorrow what we can address today, because lives are truly at stake.”

That strong, clear statement has a context worth examining.

In 2016, the report of the Police Accountability Task Force, chaired by Lightfoot, stated that “troubling practices” such as shooting “at the backs of fleeing suspects” made clear the pressing need for “a fundamental rethinking of the current use-of-force policies.”

In an investigation of the CPD published in 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice found that CPD engages in a pattern and practice of unconstitutional use of force, including deadly force, that disproportionately impacts communities of color. The report stated that “officers engage in tactically unsound and unnecessary foot pursuits, and that these foot pursuits too often end with officers unreasonably shooting someone—including unarmed individuals.”

“In some cases,” the Justice Department reported, “CPD officers initiated foot pursuits without a basis for believing the person had committed a serious crime. In these cases, the act of fleeing alone was sufficient to trigger a pursuit ending in gunfire, sometimes fatal.”

Having successfully pivoted and rebranded herself as a change agent in large part on the strength of her role as chair of the Police Accountability Task Force, Lightfoot became mayor of Chicago in 2019. Since she has been in office, her interim police superintendent and the police monitor who audits CPD compliance with the federal consent decree have both echoed the recommendation that CPD establish a foot pursuit policy.

That was the context when Lightfoot took the lectern, after years of failure to address the problem, to announce with an air of decisive leadership that she had directed CPD to develop a foot pursuit policy.

Hidden to the public was another critical dimension of the context in which she spoke that day: the troubling specifics of the Alvarez shooting five days earlier. As the mayor expressed her personal sympathy for the mother of Adam Toledo at the press conference, another grieving family was suffering in the dark, unable to get anyone in city government to respond to their questions about what had happened to their loved one at the hands of the police.

Various metrics can be employed to measure the extent of the failure of the city’s political leadership and its police department to make progress in dismantling racist modes of policing that inevitably produce outcomes at once catastrophic and avoidable. Some of those metrics are opaquely bureaucratic, such as the consistent failure of the CPD to meet benchmarks it agreed to under the consent decree or the fact that the position of deputy mayor for public safety has been vacant for six months.

The critical metric, though, was evoked by the mayor on April 5 when she said “lives are truly at stake.” The ultimate measure of success would be the flourishing of lives that would otherwise be lost to state violence. Conversely, the grim measure of the current failure of leadership and political will is the rising toll of avoidable deaths.