Federal lawsuit claims Zion officer lied to justify shooting of black teen
The family of a black Lake County teen shot to death by a Zion police officer during a foot chase last year is suing the city and officer in federal court, alleging authorities falsely claimed the teen was armed with a gun to justify the killing.
The suit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Chicago, seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the city and Officer Eric Hill. Alice Howell, the maternal grandmother of Justus Howell and administrator of his estate, is the named plaintiff.
Justus Howell, 17, was killed April 4, 2015, while running from police officers who had been called to investigate reports of a shot fired. According to an investigation that ruled the shooting justified, authorities say Howell was armed with a handgun while fleeing from officers and ignoring their commands he drop the weapon.
Authorities said that after leading officers through several yards, Howell leaned forward and turned slightly to the right with a gun in his hand. Hill "fearing for his life, as well as the life of the officer that was in Howell's direction of travel," shot the Waukegan teen twice in the back, killing him, according to Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim.
"Officer Hill provided Howell ample opportunity to drop the weapon and only fired when he felt that his life and the life of his fellow officer was in danger," Nerheim said in May 2015 while announcing Hill would not face charges.
However, the family's lawsuit claims Howell never was armed with a gun, never pointed anything at Hill and never posed a threat to the officer or anyone else that would justify the shooting.
"To cover up the unjustified shooting, the defendant, Officer Hill, falsely claimed that Mr. Howell was holding a firearm and presented a threat to him," the lawsuit states.
Zion Police Chief Steve Dumyahn declined to comment Sunday, saying the department does not comment on the merits of pending litigation. Mayor Al Hill could not be reached for comment.
The six-count lawsuit also alleges that the Zion Police Department fails to adequately train its officers and fails to punish misconduct "leading Zion Police Officers to believe their actions will never be scrutinized and encouraging future abuses such as those affecting (Howell)."
The suit states a "code of silence" exists in the department, by which officers routinely fail to report misconduct by their peers.
The shooting of Howell occurred shortly after violent protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, when authorities declined to charge a white police officer who fatally shot a black teen there. The Howell decision raised tensions and sparked small protests in Zion and Waukegan, but there were no associated reports of violence.