Research by Forensic Architecture Suggests Injustice in the Police Killing of Harith Augustus

A rendering of Harith Augustus’s fatal altercation with police officers(all images courtesy Forensic Architecture)

CHICAGO — Harith Augustus was killed by police patrolling the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago not far from the barbershop where he worked. The day was July 14, 2018; the weather was mild; and the 37-year-old succumbed to his five gunshot wounds in the middle of the street. That night, hundreds of community members mobilized to protest what appeared to be yet another unlawful police killing of an African American man. Journalists covered the killing and initial public fervor for about a month — and then, radio silence.

What exactly happened to Augustus in his altercation with the Chicago police and why was his death largely ignored in the media? Those questions prompted a yearlong collaboration between Forensic Architecture and the Invisible Institute, which is being presented by the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Combining video analysis and investigative reporting, the pair of organizations uncovered an effort by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to mislead the public on the details surrounding Augustus’s death and justify the use of lethal force against him. Their findings are split between two different exhibition spaces: a text-based installation at the Chicago Cultural Center and a six-video installation at the Invisible Institute’s location on the South Side.

The project is defined by time, with each chapter taking a different measurement: years, days, hours, minutes, seconds, and milliseconds. Together, these segments build a counter-investigation that questions the official narrative built by police. Titled Six Durations of a Split Second, researchers critique the notion that a policeman’s decision to use deadly force happens in a reactive moment. On the contrary, a forensic recreation of the Augustus shooting shows that only one of the five officers, Dillan Halley, raised his gun while others were putting theirs back into holsters. And if the split-second reaction by most policemen at the scene was to avoid the use of lethal force, on what legal or ethical basis does the Augustus shooting have?

The project incorporates all available footage of Augustus’s killing with eye witness accounts and reporting to better understand every moment leading to his death
Using body-camera footage, Forensic Architecture was able to accurately recreate precisely where and how police officers were standing when they confronted Augustus

“Police manufacture the split second,” Jamie Kalven, executive director of the Invisible Institute, told Hyperallergic in an interview. “There is an extreme deference to the perception of police officers, but this analysis is about reversing that perspective.”

Accordingly, the project includes a recreation of what Augustus might have seen in the seconds before he was shot by officer Dillan Halley. And we also get a clearer sense of how the CPD strategically spread information about the shooting. Within 24 hours of the incident, CPD released a statement portraying the barber as “exhibiting characteristics of an armed person” and body-camera footage showing the officer Dillan Halley shooting Augustus. The video was published online with the title “Aggravated Assault to a Police Officer” and included a freeze-frame of Augustus, who can be seen wearing a holstered gun.

“We’re not trying to hide anything,” said Superintendent Eddie Johnson in a press conference about Augustus’s death. “We’re not trying to fluff anything. The video speaks for itself.”

However, law enforcement failed to mention that Augustus had a license to carry his gun. (If he also had a concealed carry license, which is offered in Illinois, he never had the opportunity to show it to officers before the altercation began.) The Fraternal Order of Police, a membership organization for law enforcement, also issued a statement that described the shooting as “textbook legitimate” and criticized Superintendent Johnson for not taking “a stronger stand against the lawless protesters and their false claims.” Responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit a month later, the city released 23 additional videos of the altercation in what was supposed to be, according to the claim, “all audio and video from the fatal shooting of Harith Augustus — not just the selective, incomplete, and edited recording that CPD released to justify the shooting in response to public criticisms and questions.”

The city’s attorney subsequently told the court that “all of the requested records in this case” would be produced on August 16 by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA). It now appears that the lawyer’s statement to the judge was untrue. Only two weeks ago, the Invisible Institute obtained police dash-cam footage of the Augustus shooting. According to researchers, the attorney’s false statement either amounts to perjury or gross incompetence. The omission was especially galling to the counter-investigation because the video, taken from a more objective position, raises new questions about Halley’s use of lethal force.

A recreation of the last image Augustus likely saw before he was shot dead by police

After surveilling Augustus walking through the neighborhood, police suspected that he was concealing a gun. Quincy Jones, a well-known African American cop in the community, called out to Augustus, who stopped. The two engaged in civil conversation and things looked under control. Suddenly, officer Megan Flemming — who, like Halley, was still new to the patrol — grabbed Augustus’s arm from behind to handcuff him without any verbal warning. Augustus instinctively pushed away from her and stumbled toward the street. In doing so, he appears to touch his holstered gun but it’s unclear whether or not he was reaching for it or pulling up his sagging pants.

What Six Durations unveils is how determined Halley’s decision to shoot Augustus became in the moment. Renderings of the altercation show him pushing Flemming’s arm outside of his line of fire. He waits for Augustus to stumble past the police car and then shoots four times — and then there is a significant, unexplained pause before he shoots Augustus, already on the ground, for a fifth time.

A journalist with the Invisible Institute attended the protest following Augustus’s death and helped create an accurate recreation of the scene, where police were videotaped beating men and women with batons

In describing the circumstances of Augustus’s death, Kalven stressed the important parallels between this case and the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African American who Chicago police shot 16 times. Initial reports claimed that McDonald lunged at the officers, but released dash-camera footage shows that he was walking away, and that law enforcement had shot the teenager in the back several times, including as he lay on the ground. (A coroner ruled his death a homicide.) Protests after the video released in 2015 lasted for months, and had severe political repercussions. Then-Mayor Rahm Emmanuel created the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, which was then led by Lori Lightfoot, the city’s current mayor; the police superintendent at the time was fired; and Cook County’s State Attorney Anita Alvarez ultimately lost her March 2016 reelection bid.

The protests that occurred following the Augustus killing were, in part, fueled by the continuing lawsuits and investigations into CPD in 2018, and the bench trial of the three officers involved in the McDonald murder, which commenced in November of that year.

That an alleged police coverup may have occurred again in the aftermath of the Augustus shooting has concerned local journalists and human rights advocates working on the Chicago Architecture Biennial project. And according to the Invisible Institute, the city’s Inspector General, Joseph Ferguson, has expressed interest in examining their analysis of the shooting. The Augustus family, which was consulted in the making of Six Durations, is also currently suing CPD for a wrongful death claim. If either party incorporates Forensic Architecture’s analysis and renderings of the shooting into their cases against the police, it would be one of the first significant courtroom tests on the legitimacy of the London-based research group’s work as admissible evidence.

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