For a Chicago police officer to be held to account for using excessive force, the violence must be egregious and the evidence overwhelming.
More than three times each day, on average, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) opens complaints of excessive force by Chicago police officers. Roughly once a day, those complaints involve injuries to civilians by on-duty officers. About four times a month, officers shoot suspects, bystanders or other police. More than once a month, on average, a death results from a police shooting.
Yet, in a typical year, prosecutors bring excessive-force charges against on-duty Chicago police fewer than two times a year, an Injustice Watch analysis of federal and state data dating back to 2009 shows.
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In that time, state or federal prosecutors have charged only nine Chicago police officers with crimes based on their use of force while on duty. Jason Van Dyke, who awaits trial on charges that he murdered teenager Laquan McDonald, is the only officer to face criminal charges for an on-duty police shooting.
No prosecution has resulted in time behind bars for excessive force while on duty since 2009, when William Cozzi was sentenced to 40 months in a federal prison for beating a man who was handcuffed and shackled to a wheel chair in a hospital – a crime memorialized on videotape.
The sentencing of another of the nine officers is still pending: Officer Aldo Brown, whom a federal jury convicted in October of civil rights violations based on an incident captured on video of Brown striking a man in a convenience store. Two other cases ended in acquittals, and four resulted in probationary sentences for the officers.
Where the data comes from
Cook County Circuit Court
U.S. District Court
Independent Police Review Authority
The Invisible Institute
Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University
City of Chicago Law Department
Cook County State’s Attorney
U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Illinois
During that same period, state and federal prosecutors charged 25 officers with corrupt acts on duty that involved personal financial gain. Eighteen of those 25 were given sentences behind bars. Another of the 25 convicted suspects, Sergeant Ray Ramirez, awaits sentencing in federal court after pleading guilty to charges that he illegally obtained access to federal criminal information for personal gain.
Former prosecutors warn that the statistics on prosecutions can represent a misleading picture, because so much may depend on the facts of each individual case, and how solid was the investigation.
In a typical year, the city has paid $14.2 million to settle an average of some 80 civil claims alleging excessive force by Chicago police officers.
While the standard of proof is lower in civil cases – “more likely than not” that the defendant is liable, rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt” — civil rights lawyers note that several times the city has paid sizable verdicts in cases where officers were accused of shootings, physical abuse and misrepresenting what occurred.
- The city paid $4.1 million in 2013 to the estate of Flint Farmer, an unarmed man who was shot to death by Officer Gilardo Sierra, an incident captured on video. The officer is seen firing shots at Farmer after he had fallen to the ground. After a two-year investigation, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said that she concluded the officer could have mistaken the cell phone Farmer was holding for a gun, justifying the shooting. Farmer’s father, Emmett Farmer, said in an interview this week, “He shot him in the back three times. How much more evidence do you need to indict someone?”
- The city paid $500,000 in 2013 to settle the lawsuit of Kentrell Reese, who in 2007 was shot by Officer Michael Pettis. Pettis at first told other officers at the scene that he fired by accident, then later changed his version and said he feared for his life when he shot Reese, who was then 14. IPRA sustained Reese’s complaint, concluding that the officer should be cited for filing a false report.
- The city paid $100,000 in November to settle the case of Joshua Lott as a result of injuries he suffered while photographing protests outside the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012. Lott, a professional photographer, contends he was taking photographs of police officers striking a protester with batons when Officer Matthew Tobias grabbed his cameras and destroyed them, while officers at the scene beat him. Lott was charged with reckless conduct, charges that were dismissed when the arresting officers failed to appear in court.
- The city paid $1.38 million, based on a jury award, to a Chicago grandmother after she was pushed to the ground outside her home by a police officer and struck her head on the ground; soon afterward Delores Delarosa suffered a heart attack and stroke that caused partial paralysis. The incident occurred after officer Jorge Cerda and a second officer came to the house to issue a citation over dogs running loose. Cerda ended up scuffling with the woman’s daughter and two granddaughters, and contended he shoved Delarosa in self-defense as she ran toward him. Family members testified that when Delarosa later went to the station to file a complaint, Cerda ordered her arrested for assault on an officer, a misdemeanor that was later dismissed.
Former prosecutors cite a variety of reasons that so few criminal cases are brought. Officers’ use of force often is justifiable, given that their jobs require making split-second decisions on how much force is required to protect themselves and the public. Even in cases where the conduct appears egregious, convincing a jury or judge that officers are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is difficult, especially when the prosecution’s case relies on the credibility of suspects. The “Code of Silence” – the unwillingness of officers to challenge the accounts of other officers – often hampers the ability to prove cases.
It is also problematic to bring charges against those on whom they rely as witnesses in other cases. “Prosecutors work with the police,” said former U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Sullivan. “When prosecutors are now asked to indict and prosecute policemen, they are indicting people that bring them their cases.”
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Diane Gordon Cannon acquitted Commander Glenn Evans of aggravated battery charges in December, based on accusations that he shoved a gun barrel down the throat of a suspect, despite evidence at a non-jury trial that the DNA of the victim was on Evans’s gun barrel.
A federal jury found Officer Craig Swistowicz not guilty in 2010 of civil rights violations, involving charges that he beat suspect Jose Parra, who suffered head injuries during a 2007 scuffle between the two that Parra contended occurred after the officer had placed him in handcuffs. Swistowicz said that the two scuffled when Parra resisted arrest and that he had a gun in his waistband. In 2012, the city paid Parra a settlement of $80,000.
In several other cases, the State’s Attorney has brought charges against officers for excessive force incidents while on duty, cases that ended in convictions as well as the officers’ resignations from the force, but no jail time.
Sgt. Edward Howard Jr. was convicted of aggravated battery at a non-jury trial, after a surveillance camera outside a restaurant captured him slapping a handcuffed college student three times. The officer was sentenced to 18 months of probation.
Officers Paul Clavijo and Juan Vasquez both pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of official misconduct involving battery after the two were indicted on 26 counts including sexual abuse, following an incident in which they offered a ride home to an inebriated woman they encountered near an elevated station. Inside her apartment, prosecutors contended, Clavijo and Vasquez assaulted the woman before she broke free and fled screaming into a hallway. The officers were linked to the crime by a cell phone they left in the apartment.
After the crime was publicized, a second woman came forward to allege that she too had been sexually assaulted by Clavijo after he gave her a ride home from a bus stop a few weeks earlier.
The officers contended the encounters were consensual, and pleaded guilty to a single felony count with no mention of sexual assault, receiving sentences of two years of probation.
State Attorney Alvarez’s representative, Sally Daly, said to The Chicago Tribune then that the plea agreement was “the best possible outcome….based on the circumstances” and that the women in both incidents agreed.
Nelson Stewart received a sentence of 30 months’ probation after pleading guilty to felony bribery and official misconduct, related to his offer to free a transgender inmate from a West Side lockup in exchange for sex. According to the court records, semen with DNA matching both Stewart and the prisoner were found in the cell.
In addition, the state’s attorney had contended that Stewart had two prior similar incidents with transgender individuals in lockup.
A representative from the State’s Attorney’s Office said both they and the victim were fine with the result of this case, as Stewart, like all officers convicted of a felony, retired from the police force and is ineligible to work as a law enforcement officer in the future.
Sam Hart contributed reporting. Former U.S. Attorney Thomas B. Sullivan, who was quoted in this story, is a member of the Injustice Watch board.