On March 29, just after 2:30 AM, Chicago’s ShotSpotter alert system detected eight or nine gunshots in the West Side, largely Latino, neighborhood of Little Village, where gangs like the Latin Kings and Two Six have made gunplay a regular part of life. Chicago police officer Eric Stillman and his partner sped toward the gunshots once they received the ShotSpotter alert, doubtless hoping to nab the perpetrators and spare the community additional carnage. When they arrived on the scene, almost immediately after those shots were fired, they happened upon two individuals. One of them—who we now know to be 13-year-old Adam Toledo—took off on foot and, at one point, pulled a gun with his right hand. Stillman gave chase, and the world saw what happened next—at least the part highlighted (and, in one case, deceptively edited) by media outlets, many of which elided the actual events of Toledo’s shooting.
The immediate cause of Toledo’s death was the bullet fired by Officer Stillman. But it’s worth examining how a 13-year-old boy ended up in a full sprint through a dark alley at 2:30 AM with a gun in his hand and a police officer on his tail.
Start a few minutes before the shooting. Though it hasn’t gotten much attention, a video compilation that the Chicago Police Department released includes footage that seems to show Toledo walking with a young man before one (or both) fired the eight or nine shots at a passing vehicle near the alley where the police encountered Toledo. Exactly who pulled the trigger remains unclear (the footage is grainy), though CNN reported last Friday, citing prosecutors, that both Toledo’s hand, and the gloves of the man he was with, tested positive for gunshot residue. According to police, that man is a 21-year-old named Ruben Roman, who was arrested at the scene for allegedly obstructing Officer Stillman as he gave chase.
All indications are that Roman was exactly the kind of negative influence to Toledo that loving parents stuck in high-crime neighborhoods stay up nights worrying about. Chicago’s publicly available arrest database shows that Roman has been collared at least six times by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) since 2017. He has at least one felony conviction, for a gun offense, for which he was apparently sentenced to probation. According to a Chicago police officer (who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity), Roman is listed as a member of the Latin Kings street gang in the CPD’s database.
Local thugs often lure impressionable children into the gangster lifestyle they glorify by promising protection and brotherhood, and Roman seems an illustrative example. But he didn’t protect or care about his young charge the morning of March 29. In fact, as shown on the body-worn camera footage of the officers arriving after Toledo was shot, Roman didn’t shed a tear after Toledo was shot but pretended not to know the 13-year-old at all. Roman’s decision not to provide police with information about Toledo’s identity meant that the boy would be listed as a “John Doe” in the CPD’s paperwork, and his family couldn’t be notified. Toledo’s body remained unidentified in the morgue for two days before the police were able to contact his mother.
This is a common story, sadly. People like Roman corrupt kids like Toledo, and put them on paths that lead to untimely deaths, incarcerations, and perpetrations of evil. Street gangs recruit child soldiers into their turf wars, which turn playgrounds into battlefields and leave parents holding the bodies of the children caught in the crossfire; and they should be shamed for it.
Some reformers, in Illinois and elsewhere, have been pushing proposals to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 or 21, which could make this phenomenon worse. A 2015 report in the Chicago Tribune quoted the now-former state’s attorney of Kane County, Illinois, who expressed concern that such a reform would heighten the incentive for “more adult members” to “push the responsibility to carry out shootings onto juveniles.”
Yet while future changes to criminal justice policy might worsen the gang problem in neighborhoods like Little Village, the current criminal justice system also plays a role in Chicago’s toxic gang culture. How does a system that continuously releases known gang members and other repeat offenders back into their communities—despite long arrest records and serious criminal convictions involving firearms and violent crimes—improve the prospects of children in Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods, such as Austin, West Garfield Park, Englewood, and Humboldt Park? It doesn’t.
In the end, Adam Toledo’s tragic death was caused not just by a police officer’s bullet but by the forces that introduced him to gang life—influences that won’t go away unless steps are taken to target the incorrigible violent offenders who reduce the chances of kids like Toledo living long and productive lives. That mission will require a groundswell of support to carry out.