On Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray and the Cost of Police Impunity

Two police officers pass a mother and son along a Safe Passage route on 15th Street on Chicago's West Side.Two police officers pass a mother and son along a Safe Passage route on 15th Street on Chicago’s West Side. (Photo: Bill Healy/WBEZ)

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In the months since the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the killing of Black civilians by police has continued unabated. Not only that, but according to the data collection project, Mapping Police Violence, a spike occurred last month in the aggregate number of deaths across the United States.

When April is tallied, a statistic will sadly belong to Baltimore’s Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old was known around his neighborhood as “kind-hearted,” if imperfect, a “gentleman” who once bought ice cream for every kid on the block, and “could have been a comedian.” On a Sunday morning in mid-April, Gray’s spine was “80 percent severed at the neck” by police officers arresting him, according to the family’s lawyer.

The young man’s death now dominates national news, alongside events in Chicago, where Dante Servin, the police officer who shot and killed Rekia Boyd, an unarmed 22-year-old, has been acquitted of all charges – prior to presenting his defense.

Conversations on reform have gone mainstream in the months between Brown’s killing and the “not guilty” verdict granted to Servin. Yet while the 24-hour news cycle stands ready to cover ongoing killings, little coverage exists of the actual mechanics underpinning the cycle of violence itself.

Rekia Boyd. (Courtesy of the Boyd family)Rekia Boyd. (Courtesy of the Boyd family)Meanwhile, the town Rekia Boyd once called home has unofficially become ground zero in the battle for meaningful reform. On either side of the release of an explosive exposé on Chicago Police Department ties to Guantánamo torture, local activists have twice made history across a six-month span that began with the United Nations Committee Against Torture’s focus on the Chicago Police Department, and ended with a landmark win – of reparations for survivors of police torture.

In addition, among reforms recommended broadly, are those that have been implemented in Chicago, including data collection, transparency measures and a purportedly independent, civilian-led oversight body.

The true cost of police impunity can never be measured. It is a cost borne by civilians, with their very lives.

But nothing has stemmed the violence. Because nothing the City of Chicago provides offers true oversight of the police. The problem is not one of ineffectiveness, but of complicity – by design and not by coincidence. When seeking redress by any means but a civil suit, survivors are confronted with the false promise of accountability posed by the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which justifies even the most questionable of shootings and relates to complainants in a way many describe as adversarial and re-traumatizing.

To unpack the facts of how police violence is provided cover by the agency tasked with police accountability, Truthout launched a four-part investigation into the IPRA, which was formed in 2007 out of debate and community desire for harm reduction. The reporting does not seek to stir the ashes of high hopes gone up in flames, but to help light the fire of new ones.

Systems justifying the current violence allow it to continue, as shooters like Servin not only remain on the force: They are often rewarded for the very shootings that are settled with large sums in civil court.


As a supplement to the most recent installment of Truthout’s series, the visualizations above were created to depict two years of the cost of police lawsuits paid by the City of Chicago. In juxtaposition is the system of misconduct complaint processing, which purges the vast majority of allegations prior to investigation. Among cases that are pursued, penalties representing more than a slap on the wrist are rarely administered.

“It is as if his life didn’t even count, as if he was trash.” – Laura Rios, mother of 14-year-old shooting victim Pedro Rios Jr., in Part I of the series

The picture is one of mixed messages on the surface, with massive sums of money spent to account for police wrongs, while misconduct allegations en masse go ignored. But the portrait is indeed a unified one: of impunity. Police violence occurs and is allowed to continue. There is a price to pay, but the cost is absorbed elsewhere.

Unlike the taxpayer monies recorded above, the true cost of police impunity can never be measured. Unabsorbed by any real oversight, it is a cost borne by civilians, with their very lives and the lives of their children and loved ones.

The price is paid as well by civil society at large, never to benefit from the unknown talents of bright young women like Rekia Boyd, who planned to become a nurse, and young men like Freddie Gray, who might have become a comedian or simply remained the guy who occasionally got into trouble and bought ice cream for children – or not. Everyday people pay the price, every day, for a system they are already forced to fund in taxes – one that endangers civilians and enforces the culture of impunity every time it succeeds in protecting officers from accountability.

A tireless champion of his younger sister, Martinez Sutton spoke to media, after the man who shot Boyd walked free, saying, “My sister was 22 years old. She would be 25 right now if she was living. She will never come back. We’ll never be able to hug and kiss her no more. We’ll never be able to say ‘Rekia, I love you.’ … We’ll never be able to see that smile again.

“Not only did he take away my sister’s life, he took a piece of all of our lives away. Do you know how bad that hurt?”

For more on the experiences of families and survivors navigating the aftermath of police violence, visit Truthout’s series, resuming with a final installment later this month.

As Chicago Police Kill Youth, Vast Misconduct Allegations Purged

Young Life vs. Deadly Force: The Training and Racism of Police Shootings

Civil Suit: Chicago Police Struck 14-Year-Old With Car Prior to Fatal Shooting

How the “Gold Standard” of Police Accountability Fails Civilians by Design