The mother of a Chicago teenager who was fatally shot in the back while running from police will receive $5 million in a settlement approved by the city.
Michael Elam Jr., 17, was killed after police pursued his friend’s vehicle for traffic violations in February 2019. His family says he was taking his girlfriend on a Valentine’s date.
Elam’s mother, Alice Martin, filed the civil lawsuit six months later. Chicago officials agreed to a multi-million-dollar payout on Nov. 16.
“I still can’t believe that he is truly gone,” said Martin during a press conference. “Our whole family is just heartbroken.”
Court documents show Elam was a passenger in his friend’s 2004 Acura when officers followed it in an unmarked police vehicle. Chicago police officer Adolf Bolanos and his partner tried to pull over the vehicle, but the driver kept going for 10 blocks until the car crashed into a tree.
All of the occupants ran out of the vehicle. Bolanos shot Elam in the back of the head and “multiple times in the lower back” as he ran away from the officer, the lawsuit says.
Bolanos told investigators that Elam pointed a gun at him and he thought he was going to shoot him, so he had to fire his service weapon. However, the lawsuit alleges Bolanos fired his gun immediately after getting out of the unmarked vehicle and the teenager was unarmed. Martin filed the wrongful death suit against the city and Bolanos for his alleged use of excessive force.
Chicago deputy corporation counsel Victoria Benson recommended the settlement to the city’s finance committee.
“It is a he-said she-said,” Benson said. “The question is whether Elan had a gun at the time.”
The lawsuit claims Bolanos did not activate his body-worn camera during the encounter with Elam. However, his partner, Guillermo Gama, captured the aftermath of the shooting, which attorneys said shows Elam was searched, and the officers removed a cell phone and headphones from his coat pocket, but no gun was found.
Police have said guns were recovered near the scene.
The lawsuit also accuses the officers of waiting five minutes to call dispatch for an ambulance while Elam bled on the sidewalk.
“The allegation is that Officer Bolanos shot Mr. Elam without legal justification to do so,” Benson told city aldermen. “That Officer Gama failed to intervene from that excessive use of force. That both officers failed to provide medical attention to Mr. Elam in an appropriate manner.”
Cell-phone video captured by a witness shows both officers frantically searching Elam as he was sprawled on the ground. CBS Chicago says the body-worn camera showed a gun on the ground but on another side of the car away from where Elam was shot.
Alderman Nick Sposato said the officers’ “screw-up” was not calling an ambulance, but he was confused about the presence of the weapon.
“I’m stuck on the gun. Whose gun it was. Did he have a gun? Was it somebody else’s gun? Did he point it? Did he drop it? Did the officer see him drop it?” Sposato asked.
He also questioned if police “just happened to find guns laying on the street at this incident” or whether the guns belonged to Elam or his friends.
Benson said there was no way to confirm Elam or his friends had the gun or if he dropped the weapon.
Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability recommended Bolanos be fired for shooting Elam, according to reports.
They found that Bolanos violated policy by failing to turn on his body-worn camera and not immediately notifying dispatchers of the shooting or requesting aid for the teenager. The board also recommended a 30-day suspension for Gama. However, police superintendent David Brown disputed the findings and argued that the shooting was justified.
Brown has recommended a 10-day suspension for both officers.
Martin’s lawyers claim that Elam’s death was caused by willful, wanton and wrongful conduct by Bolanos.
“Michael was an outstanding, charismatic, funny, outgoing, ambitious and loving young man,” his mother said. “His smile would light up any room and just his presence alone would bring joy to all he knew.”