Police decision to arrest a man for breaking a minor CTA rule ends in tragedy

The moment before the police first shot the man they were trying to arrest for crossing between cars. Image: Michael McDunnah
The moment before the police first shot the man they were trying to arrest for crossing between cars. Image: Michael McDunnah

Update 3/1/20, 7:00 AM: According to a Chicago Tribune report Gloria Schmidt Rodriguez, a lawyer representing the victim, said he was shot in the abdomen and the buttocks, and it appears he will need additional surgery. Schmidt said the 33-year-old man is a lifelong Chicagoan who works as a cook and has no children but is close with his family and 5-year-old nephew.

In a statement, ACLU attorney Rachel Murphy said that the case is an example of the “lack of meaningful de-escalation by Chicago police officers. A man who apparently did nothing more than jumped trains ultimately was shot yesterday by a police officer… The consent decree guiding police reform approved a year ago requires officers to use de-escalation techniques to prevent or reduce the need for force.”

Update 3/1/20 10:00 AM: CBS Chicago interviewed Michael McDunnah, a bystander who shot the cell phone video of the incident embedded below. “[The victim] was resisting, but he was not violent as far as I could see, and he was unarmed,” McDunnah said. “At some point the male officer said, ‘Shoot him.’ The female officer at that point I think pulled out her Mace and Maced him in the face.” After the victim staggered to his feet, “That was the point at which the female officer fired her weapon… I could not see if it hit him. He sort of lurched. It looked to me like it did hit him.” After that first shot, the victim fled up the escalator, and the police chased after him and shot him again. “It did not seem justified to me,” McDunnah said.

Update 3/1/20 11:00 PM: Cook County prosecutors have dropped charges against the victim, identified as Ariel Roman, the Tribune reported. In a statement, Roman’s lawyer Gloria Schmidt Rodriguez said, “The Roman Family is pleased with the decision of the State Attorney’s Office and the Chicago Police’s Department’s decision to dismiss all charges. At this time my clients, the Roman family, have been reunited and are enjoying time with Ariel as he recuperates. He remembers everything about the incident that took place and is fully committed to cooperating with the various investigations. They thank the City of Chicago for all of their prayers and support and request for privacy during this very difficult time.”

Update 3/2/20 11:00 PM: Roman’s sister Wendy Roman has launched a GoFundMe page to cover medical bills and living expenses while he recovers from his injuries. “My brother has a long road ahead of him,” she stated on the page. “He has no health insurance and has already had more than one operation. He will not be able to return to work for a long time. As a family, we are rich in our values and love but are of meager financial resources.  I am confident his spirit will fully recover from this incident, but I know it will be a struggle for his body to do the same.”

Ariel Roman with his dog.
Ariel Roman with his dog.

On Friday Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a plan to have 50 additional Chicago Police Department officers patrol the CTA in response to the recent wave of violent crime on the public transportation system. In response, I wrote a post that discussed how increased transit policing in New York City and Los Angeles has resulted in widespread arrests of residents, mostly low-income people of color, for minor offenses like fare evasion and unlicensed peddling. In one incident in LA, a police stop for alleged nonpayment ended with an officer tackling a young man on a subway platform, causing him to be crushed to death by a train.

“While adding more police to the CTA may have been inevitable, the experiences in New York and LA suggest that it’s going to be crucial for them to stay focused on preventing and addressing serious crimes, not cracking down on fare evasion and other relatively minor infractions,” I wrote.

Ten minutes after publication, news came in about CPD officers shooting a young man at the Grand Avenue Red Line station. We don’t have all the facts of the facts yet, and it’s important not to rush to judgment. But simply going on the official account the police department has released, plus cell phone video posted by bystanders, it appears that this incident was the result of the type of counterproductive transit enforcement that I discussed in the post: police cracking down on minor rule-breaking and escalating the situation, creating the potential for violence.

Here’s the description of the incident from the preliminary statement from the CPD:

Shortly after 4:00 p.m., two officers assigned to the Mass Transit Unit attempted to stop a man who was moving between two train cars, in violation of city ordinance. A struggle ensued at the Grand Red Line station as they attempted to place the subject in custody. Both officers deployed their Tasers. At some point during the incident, officers discharged their weapon, striking the subject twice. The subject was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital and has made it through surgery. He is in critical but stable condition.

Here are two of the bystander videos of the incident that have circulated on social media. Warning, graphic content.

It is, in fact, prohibited to “[cross] between the cars of a train… unless there is an emergency, and a CTA agent has directly instructed or authorized doing so,” according to the CTA rules of conduct, but it’s a commonplace, basically victimless, infraction that should certainly not be a priority for enforcement. When the police allegedly saw the man do it, they could have ignored the behavior, or they could have given him a warning. There’s no indication from the CPD that the man did anything else wrong before the officers decided to arrest him, escalating the situation.

Whether or not an arrest is justified, your chances of surviving a police encounter are best if you’re passive and follow their instructions. But it’s shocking to see one of the officers shooting the man after the police Tased and sprayed him with pepper spray, and he didn’t follow her order to give his hands to her partner for cuffing. And after he fled, the police shooting up the escalator of the train station after him was a wildly reckless move that could have easily led to a bystander getting caught in the crossfire. The police have not indicated that the man was armed, which they likely would have done by now if that was the case. The mayor herself has said she was disturbed by the incident.

But the most important thing to keep in mind is that this awful incident could have been avoided had the officers not chosen to respond to a harmless infraction by trying to arrest the man, needlessly creating the potential for violence. Obviously the timing of this shooting on the same day that the mayor promised that more police on the CTA would make use safer is a terrible irony.

“Public transit is the great connector of our city, and residents and riders deserve a world-class public transportation system that is not only accessible, reliable and affordable, but most importantly safe,” Lightfoot said in a statement earlier that day. That’s very true, and the first thing she can do to help make the CTA safer is ordering the police to stay focused on deterring and stopping behavior that’s actually dangerous, instead of escalating petty offenses into encounters with the potential for bloodshed.