'We failed Adam': Chicago's Little Village mourns 13-year-old's life cut short

Nicole Acevedo
·6 min read

One of the nation’s most recognizable Latino neighborhoods is grieving the death of Adam Toledo, 13, after a video showing him being fatally shot by a police officer was made public.

Residents of Little Village, a predominantly Mexican American and Latino neighborhood in Chicago, have been placing flowers and candles near South Sawyer Avenue, where Adam was killed, mourning a life that ended way too soon.

“That police officer took away opportunity from Adam Toledo, opportunity to make a difference, opportunity to live a life and opportunity to grow into a well civil young man in our society,” Jessie Fuentes of the Illinois Latino Agenda, an advocacy group, told NBC News. “He was robbed of a full life, and there is nothing that Adam Toledo could have done that night that would have justified his murder.”

A small memorial where 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer in the Little Village neighborhood (Kamil Krzaczynski / Getty Images)
A small memorial where 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer in the Little Village neighborhood (Kamil Krzaczynski / Getty Images)

Adam was killed on March 29 around 2 a.m. after a police officer chased him down an alley, ordering him to stop.

"Freeze stop! Stop right f---ing now! Hey show me your f---ing hands! Drop it,” the officer, who has been identified as Eric Stillman, said. Body-camera footage made public by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability shows Adam being shot in the chest immediately after he put both of his hands up.

Stillman's attorney, Timothy M. Grace, said in a statement that the officer had no choice because he “had no place to take cover or concealment, the gun was being orientate[d] in his direction and he was left with no other option.”

Based on the video from the shooting officer, it was not clear if Toledo was holding a gun when he was being chased down the alley.

Police later released an edited timeline video that showed a firearm lying on the ground at the scene of the shooting. It also featured freeze frames of the firing officer's body camera video that police say shows Toledo was holding a gun immediately before he was shot. Footage from a nearby surveillance camera that captured the shooting appears to show Adam toss something with his right hand behind a wooden fence before facing the approaching officer, who quickly fired his weapon.

While there's all this debate about what happened leading up to the shooting, there’s no doubt that “the child had his hands up, he was surrendering, and the police shot him anyway,” Nicole González Van Cleve, a sociology associate professor at Brown University, told NBC News. “So, compliance doesn't seem to save you, not even a child.”

“How do we get to a point where the police aren't thinking of the vulnerability of a 13-year-old, rather than seeing that 13-year-old in this kind of monster framework,” said González Van Cleve, the author of “Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court,” which examines racial bias in Chicago's legal system. “If you were in a white neighborhood and saw a child out at 2 a.m., you would escort them home, right?”

In Chicago, police kill Latinos at a rate six times higher than white people, said González Van Cleve, who grew up in the area.

Adam's killing is one of the latest high-profile incidents of police shootings of Latinos. Data analyzed by The Washington Post shows that Latinos have been killed by police at the second-highest rate, after Black Americans, over the past five years.

'We failed Adam'

“I feel grief, anger and pain. Whatever the circumstance, we must never normalize the shooting of a child by police. We failed Adam, as we have failed so many other young people in our country,” Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., a resident of the Little Village, said in a statement.

García said the newly released video shows “Adam was unarmed in his last seconds of life, contrary to now-retracted claims by city leadership that an armed confrontation occurred between Adam and the police.”

The Cook County State's Attorney's Office said in a statement Thursday that a prosecutor who accused Adam of having a gun at the time of the shooting “failed to fully inform himself before speaking in court” last weekend, NBC Chicago reported. "Errors like that cannot happen and this has been addressed with the individual involved. The video speaks for itself,” the statement said.

González Van Cleve described Adam’s case as “troubling,” not only because it involves a child’s death, but because “we didn't understand the entire circumstances” around it. But following the release of the video, it became evident “that the narrative that the police, as well as the prosecutor, were advancing were rooted in some lies,” González Van Cleve said. “Unfortunately, these lies are not the outlier.”

“Clearly, the officers were seeing him in a wrong light, and clearly the officer's use of force was excessive. And the prosecutors were clearly trying to cover it up, not because this is some scandal, but this is what they often do for police,” González Van Cleve said, adding that Adam’s case seems to be consistent with a troublesome pattern she uncovered during her decadelong investigation looking into racial abuse in Chicago–Cook County’s legal culture.

“If you're a prosecutor, you need police officers to win cases in order for you to get promoted within the system,” a pattern that discourages prosecutors from questioning the truthfulness behind the officers’ version of an incident, González Van Cleve said. “There's no manual for this, but this is just how they have been trained informally through generations of attorneys passing down these norms.”

The Toledo family put out a statement on Friday urging calm ahead of planned protests.

"The Toledo family implores everyone who gathers in Adam's name to remain peaceful, respectful and nonviolent and to continue to work constructively and tirelessly for reform," said the statement by attorney Adeena Weiss Ortiz. "The family is forever grateful to the leaders and members of Chicago's Latino community and the residents of Little Village for their support in this time of grief and mourning."

A small memorial where 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer in the Little Village neighborhood (Kamil Krzaczynski / Getty Images)
A small memorial where 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer in the Little Village neighborhood (Kamil Krzaczynski / Getty Images)

Some Little Village residents are now calling for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown to step down and for the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved, NBC Chicago reported.

Adam’s death has also catapulted needed conversations about police reform in communities of color, where chronic disinvestment in education and youth services have persisted for years, Fuentes said.

"Police officers are supposed to serve the people, and they have been killing our youngest, the people that need them the most," Fuentes said. "We must completely revaluate, what does policing look like? And I think that that's a discussion for both the Latino and Black community.”

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