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After police killings, activists and families urge Chicago leaders: 'Stand up or step down'

After police killings, activists and families urge Chicago leaders: 'Stand up or step down'
Janet Cooksey, center, listens to speakers talk about the deaths of her son Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Family members of two people killed by Chicago police during a weekend shooting joined activists Sunday to call for sweeping changes in the way officers interact with the city's black residents.

"Police are supposed to serve us and protect us, and instead they kill us," said Janet Cooksey, whose 19-year-old son, Quintonio LeGrier, was shot and killed early Saturday when police were called to his house for a domestic disturbance. "What's wrong with this picture?"

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Bettie Jones, 55, who lived downstairs from LeGrier, also was shot and killed. The officers were responding to a report of a man carrying a bat, and opened fire after LeGrier became combative, Chicago police said in a statement. Jones was shot by accident, authorities said.

The deaths were the first fatal police-involved shootings in Chicago since the release last month of a video showing the 2014 police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The video's release led to a series of demonstrations in the city, including Christmas Eve protests on Michigan Avenue.

City and church leaders responded to the latest shootings at a news conference and vigil Sunday. They criticized Mayor Rahm Emanuel's response to police shootings and pushed for changes to the way officers treat residents and are trained to respond to volatile situations.

Some family members asked city residents to respond to the shootings with calm, while others called for a march on City Hall and for members of the black community to take to the streets to demand action from city leaders. U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis and Alderman Jason Ervin were among a few elected officials who said they didn't have any more details than the public.

"Police officers have batons, police officers have Tasers, police officers have [pepper] spray," Ervin said. "But I don't how a bat instantly equals a bullet."

Sam Adam Jr., an attorney who is representing the Jones family, said family members told him that Jones received a call early Saturday informing her that police were on their way to the residence. She went to answer the door, he said.

"If there's one person who should feel safe when the police arrive at her door, it's her," Adam said. Several shell casings from a police weapon were recovered near the sidewalk, at least 20 feet from the front door, and Jones and LeGrier were reportedly found near the doorway, he said. Police would not have been under immediate threat from that distance, he added.

"That gives me great pause and great concern as to whether this was justified," Adam said.

Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, which Jones attended, led dozens of mourners at the vigil in singing "This Little Light of Mine" as a tribute to the slain mother of five and bakery worker.

"God has a way often of using blood of the innocent to proclaim a message that cannot be ignored," Hatch said. "She was simply being a good neighbor to open the door for the police. She's now become a victim of police violence in Chicago."

Despite a light drizzle, one of Jones' daughters hung a large portrait of her mother on the trunk of a tree while Cooksey lit small candles for her son with relatives and three of her son's Northern Illinois University classmates.

Albert Person, LeGrier's cousin and a friend of Jones', also questioned why police fired at the two, saying they did so from across the frontyard as LeGrier stood in the doorway. He was holding a baseball bat but was not an immediate threat to officers, Person said.

The medical examiner's office said Sunday that LeGrier died of multiple gunshot wounds and that Jones died of a shot to the chest. The medical examiner's office did not release more specific information, including how many times or where LeGrier's body was struck. Family members and activists said he was shot seven times.

"This has to stop, and this has to stop now," said Ja'Mal Green, who has been a leader in protests since the McDonald video release. "We need to put more pressure on leaders to finally change the [police] culture in our neighborhoods, and to finally change how the police act toward us."

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Green said of Emanuel: "You failed us before, but now's your time to stand up or step down."

Emanuel, who is vacationing in Cuba with his family, directed the new acting chief administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority and the interim police superintendent to meet as soon as possible to review the Police Department's response to mental health crisis calls.

"While their investigation is underway, we must also make real changes within our Police Department today, and it is clear changes are needed to how officers respond to mental health crises," Emanuel said in a statement.

"The changes we have made in recent weeks are just a beginning — not an end," the statement read. "We will continue to ask tough questions of the Police Department, of the investigative agencies, and of ourselves, to drive the reforms the people of Chicago deserve and expect."

The mayor spoke Sunday morning with members of the Jones family, Emanuel's spokesman said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson also visited with families and said that systemic changes were needed.

"There's no reason why this teen should have been shot seven times. Seven times," he said.

As for Jones, Jackson said, "In a war zone, even the innocent are killed."

Family members said Jones was active in community groups, participating in marches and meetings with youth to try to make a difference in the neighborhood.

Susan Clay, who volunteered with Jones at the nonprofit Action Now, said she never thought a member of the group would become a victim of the violence they worked hard to stop.

"I'm frustrated. I'm angry," Clay said. "Here we have another situation where an innocent person was killed; an innocent person was killed for no apparent reason whatsoever. Now this hits closer to home."

LeGrier's family called into question reports about the teen's mental condition, saying he was an engineering honors student who had problems like any other teen.

He was briefly hospitalized recently, they said, but specifics were unclear. Cooksey, his mother, said doctors told her he was "dehydrated" and acting "hyper."

"My son was happy. He's not an angry child. He's not a violent child," she said. "He said, 'Mom, things happen; not everything I can talk to you about.'"

Person, the cousin, said a dispute between father and son started out as a typical family squabble, and LeGrier may have been upset about holiday night plans or his father being too controlling. He said that LeGrier was a successful, driven student and that his father was paying for his education.

Person was not present during the shooting but saw LeGrier and his father earlier in the evening, he said, and spoke with the father about what happened when police arrived at the house.

poconnell@tribpub.com

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Chicago Tribune reporter Jeremy Gorner contributed to this report.

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