State’s attorney clears Tilton police chief’s use of force in officer-involved shooting

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VERMILION COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) — Vermilion County State’s Attorney Jacqueline Lacy says Tilton Police Chief Phillip Bernardi was justified in shooting a suspect that attacked and choked him in May.

In a letter addressed to Illinois State Police, Lacy says that after reviewing all evidence in the shooting investigation, she found that no criminal charges were warranted.

It happened on around 3 p.m. May 5 near East 14th Street and Greenwood Cemetery Road.

The State’s Attorney says Robert Cunningham III was involved in a ‘commotion’ at the Tilton Village Hall. He then sped away in a car with Michelle Burton and two children inside, according to the prosecutor’s statement.

During the chase, Cunningham broke several traffic laws, Lacy says. More officers were called in to help with the pursuit.

The letter says the car stopped near 14th Street and Greenwood Cemetery Road. The state’s attorney says Cunningham and Burton were taken into custody, and the assisting officers then left the scene.

Lacy says Cunningham was handcuffed with his hands behind his back and seated in Chief Bernardi’s squad car. She adds the suspect then moved his hands to the front of his body.

The letter states the chief stopped his squad car to return Cunningham’s hands to the back of his body. He then went to the prisoner door of the squad car and had pulled his taser because the suspect was combative, according to Lacy.

“Once Bernardi began to open the prisoner door of the squad, Cunningham pushed through the door,” says the state’s attorney. “Bernardi then attempted to tase Cunningham, which had no effect. Cunningham then attacked Bernardi ripping of his vest and radio as Bernardi was attempting to call for help.”

Lacy says Cunningham is seen on video ‘scissoring’ his legs around Bernardi’s neck. She says the chief told the suspect that if he did not stop choking him, he would shoot him. Lacy says the suspect did not stop choking the chief, so Bernardi got his gun and shot him once in his torso. Cunningham then released his legs from the chief’s neck.

The state’s attorney says the chief and the suspect were taken to a hospital for treatment. Tilton Police later said the officer involved in the incident was released from the hospital after being treated for minor injuries. A condition update for Cunningham was not immediately available Thursday.

Based on the circumstances, Lacy says Bernardi using force that could likely kill or greatly harm the suspect was justified.

“As Bernardi was opening the squad door, Cunningham attacked Bernardi, taking him to the ground,” Lacy says. “Bernardi was being choked and felt as though he was going to pass out. Bernardi believed if he passed out Cunningham could acquire his gun and kill Bernardi or other people in the neighborhood.

“Cunningham would not comply with commands to stop attacking Bernardi. Bernardi warned Cunningham “I will shoot you” and Cunningham still refused to stop choking the officer.”

At that point, Lacy, says, the chief reasonably believed Cunningham was either trying to kill him or cause great harm to him by choking him unconscious.

You can read the full letter written by the State’s Attorney below.

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