The intersection of 71st and Merrill on Chicago’s south side was quiet on the late night of 19 June 2015, as most of the city slept through another warm summer night.
But when the clock passed midnight, the block lost its quiet. Footsteps quickened and bodies began darting around the intersection when police arrived to investigate an emergency call about men in the area with guns, according to police. One of the men on that block was 22-year-old Alfontish “Nunu” Cockerham, who died days later as a result of police gunfire.
Footage of the incident obtained by the Guardian, and the first-hand account of a witness on the scene, raise questions about the night, as a spotlight continues to shine on the Chicago police department .
In the police narrative of that night, Cockerham pointed a gun at the cops, prompting them to shoot, according to police charging documents. According to an incident report, Cockerham was charged with aggravated assault for pointing a gun. However, the video – captured by a security camera at a payday lending business on the block – does not show Cockerham pointing a gun at police.
Instead, the grainy video shows an object that appears to be a gun materialize on the ground a couple of feet away from where witness Natasha Mclemore said the officer fired his shots. If Cockerham did point the gun, he would have had to have done it before entering the frame of the camera.
The only footage to be released from the night shows that after shooting Cockerham, officer Anthony Babicz runs toward Cockerham to get a closer look at the man - now on the ground - and then turns around to shine a flashlight directly on a gun that had fallen, very near where Babicz had fired his shots.
Mclemore, who saw the incident from the lobby of her apartment building across the street, says she witnessed Babicz firing about four times while Cockerham was between two parked cars. Afterward, she walked outside, and she and the officer exchanged a few words following the shots.
“I said, ‘You shot him! You killed him!,’” Mclemore said. “The officer yelled back, ‘Did you see what the f--- he did? He had a f---ing gun!’”
Mclemore says she saw a gun on the sidewalk that Cockerham may have had on him before Babicz fired shots and Cockerham was already between the vehicles.
Mclemore was at first reluctant to identify herself to tell her story, because in the days and weeks following, she said, police “harassed” her six times – five of those at her home.
“They kept coming to my house, ringing my doorbell. I got harassed to the point where I didn’t even want to go outside,” she said. When asked whether police could have just been trying to obtain another statement about that night, she said: “I already gave my statement. It wasn’t just asking they was doing, it was intimidating.
“They said, ‘You might not have saw what you think you saw.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, do I need a lawyer? I already told you what happened,’” Mclemore said. “I knew what I saw and I’m not going to change my story for nobody ... Somebody got to tell the truth. Somebody got to speak for Nunu because he can’t speak for himself.”
Chicago police department representatives declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
The new video footage comes in the wake of the explosive dashboard camera video of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times by a white Chicago cop, which caused protests to grip the city and prompted the launch of an investigation by the US Department of Justice into unconstitutional “patterns and practices” within the Chicago police department.
In initial reports of Cockerham’s death, police said they were responding to an emergency call that involved men with guns standing outside. When officers arrived, Cockerham took off running and headed east, police said at the time.
Once Cockerham had run around the corner of Merrill, the police said, an officer saw that he had a gun and told him to drop it. “Cockerham then turned, raised the gun at the officer and the officer shot at him,” the Chicago Tribune reported police saying.
Cockerham was transported to a local hospital to be treated for gunshot wounds. After being charged, a court set his bail at $100,000 as he lay fighting for his life miles away. Cockerham died shortly thereafter.
An autopsy released last week further complicates the picture of what happened that night, with a medical examiner finding that the first gunshot entered Cockerham’s upper leg from behind. The examiner wasn’t able to determine exactly from which direction another shot entered the upper part of Cockerham’s other leg.
Cockerham’s family’s lawyer, Nenye Uche, argues that the inconclusive autopsy could mean that the second shot occurred while Cockerham was on the ground with his hands up.
“Once circumstances are such that a suspect no longer poses a clear and imminent threat to the police,” the Cockerham family’s lawyer Nenye Uche told the Guardian, “then it is incumbent on the police to take him in so he can have his day in court.
“The use of deadly force could not possibly be found to be reasonable and necessary under such circumstances,” he continued.
Since the release of the McDonald video, protests have taken place almost daily in Chicago with the message clear: mayor Rahm Emanuel and state’s attorney Anita Alvarez must resign, as many citizens and the nation continue to call for a broader Justice Department investigation – into the mayor and state’s attorney’s offices – to see whether those offices have covered up these or other police shootings.
It’s this suspicion of coverup that led Uche and the Cockerham family to release the video, as the city continues to deny any misconduct.
“They should at the very least be investigated just for that,” Uche said referring to what he believes are discrepancies between the police report that he has seen and the video. “That should be the starting point. No police officer should be writing sworn police reports that don’t match up with what is captured in the video evidence.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015
Watch video of the incident below: