SOUTH SHORE — Through the quick release of edited footage showing Harith Augustus touching his holstered gun, the Chicago Police Department sought to calm a volatile city in the days following his July 2018 shooting death at the hands of Chicago Police Officer Dillan Halley.
A recently released investigation from Woodlawn-based journalists at Invisible Institute and London research agency Forensic Architecture challenges that decision — along with numerous others in the minutes, hours and days that followed the high-profile South Shore shooting.
The investigation models the events of the shooting through various timeframes, from the milliseconds in which Halley’s muscles pulled the trigger to the following days in which the Chicago Police established its official narrative.
At 5:30 p.m. July 14, 2018, Augustus was running errands in the 2000 block of East 71st Street near his barber shop when he was shot and killed by Halley. Police said he was stopped because he appeared to have a gun and holster under his shirt.
In Augustus’ death, as with many police shootings, a common rationale is that Halley only had a “split second” to decide how to react to his perceived threat, Invisible Institute founder Jamie Kalven said.
“The argument from the split-second perspective is, ‘Look, [Augustus] had a gun, his hand is in proximity to the gun, the officer had to make a split-second decision,'” Kalven said.
The investigation argues against this idea. Instead, it claims a series of events — beginning when Officer Quincy Jones stopped Augustus — “manufactured” the split second in which Halley decided to fire.
Trina Reynolds-Tyler is a Black Youth Project 100 organizer who was canvassing the neighborhood the day of Augustus’ death. She came across the scene about an hour after the shooting, when fellow organizers texted a BYP100 group chat about heavy police presence in the area.
Tensions likely wouldn’t have risen — and shots likely wouldn’t have been fired — had officers Halley and Megan Flemming not rushed Augustus as he initially cooperated, said Reynolds-Tyler, who narrates each video.
“Maybe they shouldn’t have stopped him in the first place, but if they did, questions are fine,” Reynolds-Tyler said. “You don’t need to crowd an individual. … This whole thing I believe was based out of assuming that he was a criminal from the jump.”
From Eric Garner to Michael Brown to Sandra Bland to Tamir Rice, police shootings of black individuals “begin with really minor, if not trivial occasions for the stop,” Kalven said.
Placing Augustus’ name into that company, Kalven said it’s important that police leadership learns from his death and trains officers in such a way to avoid ever getting to the “split second.”
“The police brought the disorder, brought the violence, brought the chaos and injected it into a situation that was completely peaceful,” Kalven said. “Harith Augustus shouldn’t be dead. It was improper and incompetent and inept police work that produced this result.”
‘Mislabeled and lost’ footage
Harith Augustus was killed on July 14, 2018.
On Aug. 16, 2018, in response to activist Will Calloway’s lawsuit calling for “all audio and video” of the shooting, a city attorney said in court that the request would be honored that same day. Twenty-three pieces of evidence were released.
A year later, on Aug. 30, 2019, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) released previously unseen dash-cam footage of the incident, despite a requirement to release video of police shootings to the public within 60 days.
“Following a thorough internal review, COPA with the assistance of the Invisible Institute, has identified and released additional video related to the ongoing investigation into the officer-involved shooting death of Mr. Harith Augustus and has commenced a full review of its transparency release process,” the statement reads. “We are reviewing oversight management protocols and processes to ensure nothing but full compliance is followed going forward.”
COPA officials did not respond to Block Club’s request for comment on the reason for the delays.
The new footage provides context that the originally released body camera footage does not, Kalven said: A third-person view of Halley’s actions.
“The body camera is the police officer’s perspective,” Kalven said. “Somebody who is shown in the frame of a body camera is almost necessarily seen as an offender, a perpetrator, a criminal.”
The 13-month lapse could be due to suppression, or it could be due to “investigators’ lack of care and rigor,” Kalven said. “Both could potentially be true.”
Even before COPA released its statement, Kalven said he was under the impression the agency had “lost track” of the unreleased footage.
If one accepts the explanation as truth, the lack of care is troubling, he said.
“Immediately [after the shooting] there were demonstrations, there was disorder,” Kalven said. “If ever there was a case that you would expect great care and attention to be brought to, it would be this one. But in fact, they effectively lost evidence in the course of our investigation.”
COPA’s reasons for the delayed release are irrelevant, said Brian Ragsdale, membership chair of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (NAARPR).
NAARPR members organized a mass protest in South Shore days after Augustus’ death, and the alliance has been a vocal proponent of replacing COPA with an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council.
Ragsdale said what matters is that COPA did not uphold one of its own stated values: Timeliness.
“It seems to me that the video should have been released right after we demanded it,” Ragsdale said. “When there are shootings of folks, those videotapes need to be released immediately.”
Reporters ‘also need to talk to us’
Fraternal Order of Police spokesperson Martin Prieb said he was not familiar with the dash-cam footage, but he doubted it added any context to the situation.
He said it was “disturbing” that a report from the Invisible Institute, which he referred to as “biased,” was being taken seriously.
“It’s a very chilling sign of the wasteland Chicago media has become,” Prieb said.
Frustration at the media’s coverage of officer-involved shootings is perhaps the one common thread between Prieb and organizers like the NAARPR.
The perspectives of victims, survivors and their advocates are routinely ignored in favor of the police narrative, NAARPR co-chair Frank Chapman said.
“The first time [the media puts] out a report on any crime, it’s always based on the police report. They never come into the community and ask us what happened,” he said.
Exploring the police’s construction of the “official” narrative the media so depends on was central to the Invisible Institute’s investigation, Kalven said.
From placing handcuffs on Augustus’ dying body to the selective and edited release of footage, “a whole set of moves” were made to establish a narrative almost instantly, Kalven said.
In response, he made it a point to take a wide view of Augustus’ death, in part because he witnessed the intense but “redundant” media attention drawn by Laquan McDonald’s murder.
During Jason Van Dyke’s trial, “I kept thinking, there’s so many other stories that are unfolding in this building at 26th and California, and nobody’s covering them. They’re all covering this high-profile trial,” Kalven said.
If media coverage never steps beyond the police narrative or other “official” sources, accountability will remain hard to come by, Chapman said.
“I’m not saying don’t talk to the police,” he said. “But you also need to talk to us.”
‘They disrupted the flow of life’
During his research for “Years,” the final, yet-to-be-released part of the investigation, interviewees painted Augustus as a respected and reserved man, Kalven said.
Augustus was a barber at Sideline Studios, 1873 E. 71st St. He had left the barbershop to run some errands when he was stopped and killed.
Reynolds-Tyler, now a Bronzeville resident, lived her “young childhood” at 78th and Jeffery — seven blocks from the site of the shooting.
She said barbershops are a “community pillar” in black communities like South Shore, where barbers are entrusted with one’s sense of style and can be depended on for emotional support.
Augustus was “part of the life cycles of the people in the community,” Kalven said. “One of the last — if not the last — haircut he gave was to a very young boy whose father and grandfather had brought him in for his first haircut. He gave a haircut to a friend of his who was going to be married that weekend.”
The shooting was not only an act of violence against one man, said Kalven, whose 2015 Slate report revealed that officer Jason Van Dyke fired 16 shots at Laquan McDonald. It was “experienced as an injury to the community as a whole.”
During interviews for the project, multiple South Shore residents suggested community-focused policing efforts as a way to safeguard against future injury.
“One way of saying that is ‘more black officers,’ but it’s more telling to say ‘members of the community, whose job is to perform a function on behalf of the community,'” Kalven said, noting Augustus’ initial response to Jones, “an African-American officer well-known in the community.”
That’s a point on which Reynolds-Tyler disagrees.
As chaos broke out along 71st Street in the hours following the shooting, she said a young black cop — someone who in appearance would belong on a South Shore beat — was the most aggressive with protesters.
“Black cops, I can’t — I don’t support that either,” Reynolds-Tyler said. “If it was my way, the police wouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
Calling on COPA to consider ‘the totality of the circumstances’
Kalven “hopes and trusts” that COPA will seriously consider the Invisible Institute’s work as it continues its investigation.
“My strongest hope … is there will be a serious assessment of the totality of the circumstances and not just the split second,” he said. “There was a sequence of actions that were taken by the police that produced this outcome. If those aren’t taken into account, it’s really impossible to do justice in this case.”
Kalven said his goal is to see the Invisible Institute investigation result in “changes in policy and practice,” as did his work to uncover the facts of Laquan McDonald’s murder.
Yet there are a few key differences between the two cases, he said.
In Augustus’ case, Kalven “shared an expectation with law enforcement and Civil Rights lawyers that [Halley’s decision to shoot] would almost surely be found to be within the law and within regulations.”
That wasn’t necessarily the case with McDonald. Van Dyke’s decision to fire 16 times when no other officer did was “an egregious act of police violence” — a clear outlier when it comes to police shootings of black individuals, Kalven said.
Halley’s action “feels more like the norm; this scenario happens a lot,” he said. “The idea that the law would prove [the shooting] to be justified, it felt like a challenge. To understand a case of this nature, you have to understand the broader phenomena.”
Halley remains on active duty and is assigned to the 1st District, according to a CPD spokesperson.
The project, based on publicly available footage of the shooting, debuted Sept. 19 as an exhibit for the Chicago Architecture Biennial and runs through Jan. 5, 2020. Out of concern for “presenting graphic scenes of police violence against a black man in the context of an exhibition,” the visuals are not available at the Biennial’s exhibition space, 78 E. Washington St. Downtown.
Instead, the investigation can be viewed in full online. The videos are also shown at the Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave. in Woodlawn, from noon-5 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays.
“This was a draining project for everybody, just looking all day at images of this kind of violence,” Kalven said. “It was also incredibly fruitful.”
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.