Chicago Police Officer John Poulos was off-duty and leaving a Lincoln Park sports bar owned by his family when, on the night of Aug. 31, 2013, he spotted a man apparently trying to break into a building from a second-floor back porch.
Poulos, cutting through an alley on his way home, identified himself as a cop, ordered the suspected burglar, Rickey Rozelle, to come down and called 911, according to police records.
What happened next raises fresh questions about the use of deadly force by Chicago police, and whether the government agency that probes shootings by Chicago cops, the Independent Police Review Authority, acts too quickly to absolve officers in those incidents.
Mug shot of Rickey Rozelle — Photo from Cook County sheriff
Poulos shot and killed Rozelle in a darkened gangway on the 1900 block of North Lincoln. Poulos later relayed that he pulled the trigger because Rozelle threatened to kill him and “turned toward [him] with a shiny, metallic object in or near his hand,” according to records from the Chicago Police Department and IPRA.
Not only did IPRA find Poulos did nothing wrong, the officer was later honored for his actions by a national law enforcement organization.
Now, more than a year after IPRA closed its investigation, Rozelle’s sister and her attorney want federal authorities to re-investigate the shooting and IPRA’s handling of the matter.
“There’s so many conflicting stories,” says Michael Goode, the attorney representing Rozelle’s sister in a lawsuit against city government and Poulos. “This needs to be looked at objectively.”
Most notably, records show no weapon was found on or near Rozelle, and in a 911 call after the shooting Poulos told an emergency dispatcher he pulled the trigger because Rozelle wouldn’t show him his hands, possibly contradicting accounts by IPRA and police that quoted Poulos about the “shiny” object.
A wristwatch with a black band and chrome face was found near Rozelle’s body but IPRA records don’t indicate if Poulos mistook the watch for a weapon, or even if Rozelle held the object when he was shot. A black iPhone and a bloody box of thermometer probe covers also were found near the body, records show.
Officer John Poulos in photo taken by CPD shortly after he shot Rickey Rozelle while off duty.
Poulos declined to comment.
A Better Government Association review also found:
- Poulos was cleared of wrongdoing in an internal police investigation – separate from the IPRA probe – led by Det. Timothy McDermott. McDermott, a white officer, was fired in 2014 for posing in an offensive photo as a hunter who captured a black man as a trophy. The black man had deer antlers on his head.
- Poulos shot Rozelle with a revolver licensed to his brother. Poulos told investigators his brother gave him the gun earlier that night for safekeeping. Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, says Poulos’s use of the weapon didn’t violate any law or policy.
- Police reports say Poulos was “sober” at the time of the shooting. He had come from Gamekeepers, a sports bar owned by his family, though told investigators he didn’t drink. Poulos tested negative for drugs and alcohol. The tests weren’t administered until more than three hours after the shooting.
IPRA has been under heavy fire since dash-cam video was released last year showing white Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke shoot Laquan McDonald 16 times even though the black teen appeared to pose no immediate threat. IPRA hasn’t released its findings in that shooting, but Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder.
Since 2007, IPRA has investigated more than 400 shootings by Chicago cops, and the agency found only two officers were in the wrong. All shooting cases are referred to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office for review, but prosecutors filed criminal charges in two instances.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating police practices in the wake of the McDonald shooting.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s police accountability task force, convened after the McDonald video release, recommended replacing IPRA with a new civilian oversight agency.
Meanwhile, IPRA has hired an outside law firm to determine whether the agency’s investigations were done correctly. It’s unclear whether the Poulos case will be among those reviewed.
IPRA spokeswoman Mia Sissac says IPRA stands by its findings in that case.
Goode says Rozelle was a felon with a history of mental problems.
Poulos told investigators that Rozelle charged him when Rozelle got to the bottom of the stairs of the building he was burglarizing. Poulos knocked him backward and Rozelle tried to flee down a “completely dark” gangway but the path led to a locked door, according to police and IPRA records.
Gangway where Rickey Rozelle was shot in 2013. Photo from Chicago Police Department
“[Rozelle] then turned toward [Poulos], at which time [Poulos] observed [Rozelle] holding a shiny object near his waist,” according to IPRA reports. “In fear of his safety, [Poulos] fired two rounds, striking [Rozelle] in the chest area.”
Poulos called 911 at 11:40 p.m. to report what happened.
“I’m an off-duty police officer,” he told an emergency dispatcher, according to a recording. “I just shot somebody.” Asked about Rozelle’s condition, he said, “He is on the ground. He refused to show me his hands.”
He later added, “He refused to show me his hands and then he went into his pockets.”
Rozelle was pronounced dead at the scene.
IPRA completed its investigation Jan. 30, 2015. The agency referred findings to the state’s attorney but no criminal charges were filed.
In July 2014, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund named Poulos its Officer of the Month.
A month later, Kenyatta Hill Cotton, Rozelle’s sister, sued the city and Poulos, claiming the use of deadly force was unnecessary as Rozelle was unarmed and posed no imminent danger.