Chicago Police Officer Alvin Weems Dies in Suspected Suicide

One of the most tragic Chicago stories of the last decade adds another tragic chapter: the officer who accidentally killed an unarmed man at a Red Line stop dies of an apparent suicide. Here’s what happened.

You likely recall the case of Anthony Abbate, the Chicago officer who beat bartender Karolina Obrycka; the fallout, and worldwide attention, led to the resignation of superintendent Phil Cline and the brief tenure of outsider Jody Weis. “He’s tarnished our image worse than anybody else in the history of the department,” Cline said at the time.

The Abbate tape doomed Cline and put the CPD on its heels. But for me, a worse tape, and much worse bureaucratic malfeasance that followed, was the tape of Michael Pleasance, the unarmed man accidentally shot by CPD officer Alvin Weems. I played a very small role in the coverage, editing the tape to my then-colleague (and now Better Government Association senior investigator) John Conroy’s narration. I watched Pleasance get shot a good hundred times over the course of a day; Eric Zorn did a frame-by-frame breakdown.

I admit that I might be biased, knowing I’ll be unable to get that video out of my head.

Yesterday, one of the most tragic Chicago stories of the decade added another tragic chapter: Weems was found dead in his home, and suicide is suspected.

I’m not sure why the Pleasance shooting never got the attention that the Abbate beating did. Perhaps because Abbate’s offense was malicious, whereas Weems’s was a tragic mistake. Perhaps because it’s complex—the degree to which Weems was negligent is dependent on the interpretation of a chain of minor events. I recommend you read Conroy’s definitive Reader piece, “Killed On Camera,” to see how a series of errors—some small, some serious—led to Pleasance’s death. There’s a Rashomon-like quality to the story, and it can’t be properly understood without the details.

But the errors didn’t end with the shooting. As Conroy details, Weems’s story changed, as did the CPD’s, as information came out. The Office of Professional Standards recommended Weems be fired on the basis of ten charges, encompassing both the shooting and its aftermath. He was suspended for 30 days, and later promoted to detective.

It reminds me a bit of what caused John Kass’s break from Mayor Daley, as described in his widely discussed column from yesterday: not the errors that led to the man-made Chicago Flood, but the victims of the bureaucratic ass-covering that followed:

One reluctant head belonged to Jim McTigue, a low-ranking North Side city worker, a Cubs fan and tunnel inspector. Daley held a news conference to rip on McTigue, saying McTigue didn’t warn his superiors of the breach in the tunnel that led to the flood. It turned out that Daley was wrong, that McTigue had indeed warned his bosses, and they had ignored him.

“I don’t want to become the Mrs. O’Leary’s cow of the flood,” McTigue told me.

I think citizens have a greater tolerance for terrible mistakes than bureaucrats believe, and a lower tolerance for them not being dealt with honestly, for obvious reasons, but the spread is something I’ll never really understand.

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