Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim (Photo: NBC Chicago, Local News)
WAUKEGAN, Ill. (AP) — A prosecutor said Thursday that he won't charge a white northeastern Illinois police officer in the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old black youth last month, saying the teen was armed and the officer feared for his safety.
Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said an investigation that included the FBI concluded that Zion police Officer Eric Hill was justified in shooting Justus Howell on April 4, despite concerns of racial bias that arose after the county coroner reported that Howell had been shot in the back twice.
Howell, of Waukegan, met a man to buy a handgun but then tried to steal it, and Howell pointed the gun at the man during a scuffle, authorities said. Hill intervened and chased Howell through yards and an alley, then shot him twice when the teen turned slightly toward him with the gun in his hand, authorities said.
Hill, a nine-year police veteran, feared for his life and knew another officer was in the area, Nerheim said, adding that several witnesses said Howell had a gun in his hand.
"Officer Hill was justified in his decision to use deadly force ... Howell was armed and dangerous," Nerheim said at a news conference. "In the officer's mind ... he is responding to a shots-fired call."
Outside of the news conference, Howell's family disputed the decision not to charge the officer.
"There is no video or pictures of him actually holding a gun," Alice Howell, the teen's grandmother, told the Chicago Sun-Times. She previously compared the incident to another police shooting in South Carolina, in which a white officer was charged with murder after a video showed him repeatedly shooting a black man in the back.
Howell's mother, LaToya Howell, said she was upset that authorities said video showed her son appearing to turn toward Hill.
"I have seen that video," Howell said, according the Chicago Tribune. "There is nothing that suggests they should execute my son. His back was turned. He was no threat."
Zion police Chief Stephen Dumyahn Zion said he expects Hill to return to duty soon.
The county coroner found that Howell had small amounts of alcohol and marijuana in his body when he was killed.
Tramond Peet, 18, told investigators he met with Howell to sell him a handgun, but that Howell tried to take it without paying, Zion police have said. Peet said the gun discharged into the ground during a struggle and he released the handgun when he heard police cars approaching, according to police.
Peet told investigators that he saw officers running after Howell, heard them giving Howell commands and then heard gunshots. Peet was later arrested and charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.
Zion is a community of about 24,000 people along Lake Michigan about 45 miles north of Chicago, near the Illinois-Wisconsin state line.