HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

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In Chicago, as in most cities, abuse cases often have racial components. The local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reports that its office receives, on average, two complaints of police misconduct a week involving African-American victims.23 The NAACP notes that race data are not collected by the Office of Professional Standards (OPS) - data that could help identify trends in the treatment of minorities.

Case of Jeremiah Mearday: Racial tensions between minority communities and the police most recently came to a head in September 1997, when eighteen-year-old Jeremiah Mearday alleged brutality on the part of officers from the city's West Side.24 On September 26, Mearday, who is black, was with friends when two white officers, James Comito and Matthew Thiel of the Grand Central District, emerged from their patrol car, one of them reportedly with his gun drawn.25 Mearday and his friends claimed the officers started kicking and beating Mearday with flashlights.26 Mearday was hospitalized with a broken jaw and head injuries. For their part, theofficers claimed Mearday resisted arrest and punched Comito.27 Mearday was charged with resisting arrest and battery; there were no reports of injuries to the officers who were allegedly attacked by Mearday.28

In response to community outrage over this and other incidents of perceived police abuse and harassment in the city's West Side, and following the intervention of state and national legislators, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would review the Mearday incident to ascertain whether federal criminal civil rights violations had occurred. And in an unusually rapid response, the police superintendent suspended the two officers involved in the Mearday beating and sought to have them fired.29 The department filed disciplinary charges against the officers and claimed that the officers had filed false reports about the altercation. It was reported that Officer Comito was involved in at least one other incident involving the use of excessive force on April 20, 1997, but was not disciplined until the Mearday case attracted attention; the superintendent reportedly was seeking to dismiss him in relation to the April 1997 incident.30 Fraternal Order of Police officials denied wrongdoing on the part of the officers, with the union's president, William Nolan, telling reporters, "I'm sick and tired of our police officers getting punched and pummeled and kicked," Nolan said. "Some punk gets cracked because he resists arrest, and everybody makes him out to be a hero."31 In the meantime, the attorney representing Mearday claimed difficulty in obtaining even basic information about the incident from the police department, telling reporters, "The city has taken the position that they don't have to provide anything."32

After reports of a disorganized and contentious police board disciplinary hearing, featuring conflicting witness accounts and an apparently substandard OPS investigation,33 the police board found the officers guilty on administrative charges of using excessive force and of trying to cover it up by filing "blatantly false reports."34 The police board president reportedly stated the officers' version of events was "simply unbelievable."35 The officers were fired, but their attorney reportedly planned to appeal the decision. In April 1998, resisting arrest and battery charges against Mearday were dropped.36

Following the Mearday case and other incidents of brutality, Mayor Richard Daley stated, "[A]ny officer who commits police brutality will be looking at penitentiary time, and he or she will lose their job. That's plain and simple right there."37 Then- Police Supt. Matt Rodriguez stated that the department would have a "zero tolerance" policy toward misconduct and reportedly sent a department-wide memo expressing his concern over "serious allegations of excessive use of force and criminal acts [that] have been leveled against members of the department."38 Andthe mandate of a task force created in February 1997 to investigate police corruption was expanded to include brutality.39

Case of Eric Holder: In another racially charged case, Eric Holder, a Chicago police officer who is African-American, alleged that he was beaten while off duty on July 10, 1997 by white officers at the scene of a shooting, and that the beating took place despite Holder's identifying himself as an officer.40 Holder also alleged the officers, from the West Side's Austin District, yelled racial epithets at him. Holder claims that he was attempting to calm the shooting victim's brother when officers told him to leave the scene; when he responded that he was an officer and was taking the man to see his brother at the hospital, the officers reportedly took offense, pushed him to the hood of a patrol car, and hit him. When he fell to the ground, Holder claims he was dragged nearby and beaten with batons and flashlights. The officers reportedly told him, "You're not one of us." Several neighborhood residents reportedly confirmed Holder's account.41 Holder was arrested and charged with battery and resisting arrest; he told reporters that he was not surprised by the charges, since officers involved in altercations usually charge the individual involved, even when the officers are the aggressors.42

In March 1998, Holder was convicted of resisting arrest and sentenced to a form of probation and a work program.43 He was also stripped of his police duties. According to an OPS investigator, an investigation into Holder's allegations was opened, but she could not disclose additional information about its status.44 In January 1998, the Justice Department announced that it would open an investigation into Holder's allegations.45

Case of Joseph Carl Gould: In another high-profile case, Joseph Carl Gould, an African-American homeless man, was shot and killed on July 30, 1995, by an off-duty white police officer, Gregory Becker. Gould, who washed windshields at red lights and asked for payment from drivers, got into an altercation with Becker. According to press reports, Becker went to his car to retrieve his gun, shot Gould, and drove away; he did not report the shooting.46 Becker was subsequently charged with involuntary manslaughter, but that charge was dismissed by a Cook County Circuit Court judge because of conflicting witness accounts, including Becker's companion's defense of him. A witness who knew neither of the men reportedly said Becker grabbed Gould and shot him.47 Community activists alleged a weak effort by the Cook County state's attorney, who is a former police officer. Because of sustained community pressure, former officer Becker was subsequently charged with involuntary manslaughter and armed violence, and was convicted in April 1997. In May he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.48 Gould's family filed a civil lawsuit against the city that is pending.

Case of Jorge Guillen: On October 3, 1995, Jorge Guillen, who had a history of mental illness and was reportedly threatening his family, died after officers tackled him and one knelt on his back, apparently causing asphyxiation.49 OPS investigated the case and found that Guillen had been asphyxiated by one officer and that other officers allegedly hit him with a flashlight while he was handcuffed. The officers claimed that Guillen attacked them with a board. After the OPS reportedly recommended that three of the involved officers be suspended, police Superintendent Rodriguez vacated one of the suspensions; the Police Boardeventually vacated the remaining two suspensions.50 The decision was met with community protests, with some calling for the resignation of the Police Board's members and the police superintendent.51 No criminal charges were brought against the officers following federal and state's attorneys' investigations.52

In February 1998, the city reportedly agreed to a settlement of $637,000 for Guillen's family, one of the largest settlement amounts involving police in recent city history.53 The settlement required City Council and court approval, which were pending at the time of this writing.

Sexual assaults: In August 1993, a Chicago police detective was arrested and charged with kidnaping, criminal sexual abuse, and official misconduct following a twenty-hour standoff with officers attempting to arrest him.54 Harrison Area Det. John Summerville was accused of committing three sexual assaults over a month and a half beginning in July 1993. He allegedly ordered women into his car at gunpoint, showing his police identification. Summerville had reportedly been the subject of three complaints of alleged brutality, none of which were sustained by IAD.55 In July 1995, he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting several women during traffic stops and was sentenced to four years in prison.56 At least one of the women reportedly filed a lawsuit against the city.57

Case of David Arana: On April 29, 1988, off-duty officer Johnny Martin got into an altercation after a fender-bender with David Arana.58 Arana spoke no English, and Martin did not speak Spanish. After Arana failed to produce his license and appeared drunk, Martin fatally shot Arana in the right side of the neck as he drove slowly and as Martin leaned into the car's passenger side window.59 Arana's autopsy showed bruises on Arana's face and right arm. While Arana was being operated on after the shooting, police charged him with battery, leaving the scene of an accident and negligent driving. A friend of Martin's who witnessed the incident, however, stated that Arana never posed a threat to Martin.60

Martin reportedly told the OPS three different stories about what had happened, witness statements taken by a plainclothes officer on the scene were not found in the investigators' files, and relevant tests were not done. Arana's attorney told the press that the OPS investigator never questioned Martin, or any witnesses, or other police officers because, as the investigator explained to the attorney, he knew there was a code of silence.61 The OPS report said "the shot fired by Officer Johnny Martin was accidental. Officer Martin was justified in having his gun drawn. Officer Martin was in fear of his life because the victim/offender refused to stop his vehicle while a part of Officer Martin's body was hanging out of the car and while the victim/offender punched Officer Martin in the face."62 Martin, reportedly, was never treated for wounds allegedly received during the confrontation.63

The attorney representing Arana's family filed a civil suit against Martin and the city. As the civil trial approached in January 1993, the city settled the case by offering Arana's family about $1 million.

Martin was shot and killed during another off-duty altercation two years later. The Chicago police department gave Martin a hero's funeral, and the City Council proclaimed a "Johnny Martin Day," rather than the typical practice of passing a resolution in honor of the slain officer.64

The case of Shirley Alejos: On June 10, 1994, Shirley Alejos was arrested by Chicago police officers after she and others reportedly refused to leave an area near Alejos's home.65 Alejos was taken to the police station, where officers claimed she was uncooperative and would not answer questions about an alleged gang-related disturbance in her neighborhood.66 Alejos alleges that, once she was at the station house and handcuffed, two Foster Avenue District officers, Ross Takaki and Robert Knieling, beat her; her eyes reportedly were swollen shut afterward, and she was bruised on her face and body.67 The officers claimed that Alejos injured herself, yet witnesses reported hearing her scream during the beating, and a doctor found that her injuries were consistent with her allegations.68

Officers Takaki and Knieling were found guilty of the beating in administrative hearings and were suspended for fifty-five days; they reportedly remained on the force as of October 1997. Alejos also won a $200,000 settlement of a lawsuit against the city. In April 1997, Alejos and her attorney renewed their calls for criminal prosecution of the officers. A spokesmen for the State's Attorney office and the U.S. Attorney's office told reporters that prosecutors would consider the case if Alejos's attorney would provide them with information. It was unclear why the prosecutors were seemingly unaware of a three-year-old case that had resulted in relatively serious disciplinary action against the officers or why the burden to provide information was placed on the victim and her representative when the Police Board had deliberated on the case already and would have key information. The prosecutors' reactions also pointed to a lack of communication between the policedepartment and prosecutors, since this type of case - involving apparent criminal behavior on the part of officers - should have been brought to prosecutors' attention much earlier.

Corruption scandal: As in other cities' police departments, there is often a link between brutality and corruption on Chicago's police force. On December 20, 1996, seven Chicago police officers were indicted in federal court on charges of extortion after they allegedly stole money from drug dealers.69 The officers were part of an elite tactical unit, members of which robbed or extorted money from undercover officers posing as drug dealers. The sting operation followed months of complaints by residents of the Austin neighborhood in the city's West Side about the officers, who would also rough up drug addicts and steal their money.70 Said a community leader, "[M]aybe they thought they were doing some kind of street justice....But that's no excuse. If you can't trust the police, who can you trust?"71

Following this police corruption scandal and another in Gresham District, the Commission on Police Integrity (hereinafter "the Commission") was created to examine misconduct in the Chicago police force and ways to avoid future scandals; in November 1997, the commission published its findings and recommendations.72 While the focus of the report was police corruption, it also described general problems with recruitment, training, oversight and disciplinary systems that are relevant to the issue of police brutality. (See below.)

23 Telephone interview, Furmin Sessions, Executive Director, Chicago NAACP, August 24, 1995.

24 Stephanie Banchero and Flynn McRoberts, "Forces collided to highlight cop-abuse charges," Chicago Tribune, October 13, 1997; Michelle Roberts, "Pols join marchers in brutality protest," Chicago Sun-Times, October 12, 1997.

25 It was later reported that there was an arrest warrant out on one of the men with Mearday, but it was unclear whether the men were originally approached in relation to the warrant.

26 After the incident, the department reportedly switched to less heavy flashlights. Steve Mills, "Brutality probe makes case for Mearday, cops," Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1997.

27 Steve Mills, "Brutality probe makes case for Mearday, cops," Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1997.

28 Ibid.

29 Steve Mills, "Two cops suspended in Mearday beating," Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1997.

30 Ibid. and Steve Mills, "Cop in Mearday brutality case is suspended," Chicago Tribune, October 20, 1997. At the time of this writing, the alleged victim in the April 1997 claimed that Officer Comito was not one of the officers who beat him but was present during the incident. Steve Mills, "Beating victim says accused cop not the one," Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1998.

31 Michelle Roberts, "Brutality fall out enrages cop union," Chicago Sun-Times, October 11, 1997.

32 Ibid.

33 Mills, "Brutality probe makes case...," Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1997; Steve Mills, "Cops try to turn tables on Mearday," Chicago Tribune, December 16, 1997; Mills, "Key Mearday witnesses stumble at hearing," Chicago Tribune, December 24, 1997; Mills, "Side issues bog down Mearday hearing," Chicago Tribune, January 13, 1998; Mills, "Testimony adds to twists in Mearday beating case," Chicago Tribune, January 14, 1998.

34 Associated Press, "Police board: 2 guilty of brutality," March 13, 1998, [Wire Service]; Michelle Roberts, "Cops who beat Mearday dismissed," Chicago Sun-Times, March 14, 1998.

35 Michelle Roberts, "Board fires 2 cops in Mearday beating," Chicago Sun-Times, March 13, 1998; Steve Mills, "2 cops guilty in Mearday case," Chicago Tribune, March 13, 1998.

36 Lorraine Forte, "1st Mearday case dismissed," Chicago Sun-Times, April 10, 1998.

37 Michelle Roberts, "Cop panel takes lumps on brutality," Chicago Sun-Times, October 10, 1997.

38 Michelle Roberts and Basil Talbott, "Feds go after cop brutality," Chicago Sun-Times, October 8, 1997.

39 Ibid.

40 Steve Mills, "Cops beat me, officer says," Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1997.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid.

43 "Cop gets probation for resisting arrest," Chicago Tribune, March 7, 1998.

44 Telephone inquiry, Investigator Conlis, April 27, 1998.

45 Steve Mills, "U.S. to probe cop's alleged beating," Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1998.

46 Don Terry, "Homeless man's life gains currency in death," New York Times, September 10, 1995; John W. Ellis IV, "Homeless face death on the streets of Chicago," Streetwise, August 16-31, 1995.

47 Terry, "Homeless man's life...," New York Times.

48 Gary Marx and Flynn McRoberts, "Hard time for cop: Becker gets 15 years," Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1997.

49 Jerry Thornton, "Ruling on cop suspensions sparks protest," Chicago Tribune, December 13, 1996; Andrew Martin, "Daley backs officers in death of Honduran," Chicago Tribune, February 5, 1998.

50 Brian Jackson, "Fire cops, says widow of man who died in police struggle," Chicago Sun-Times, February 5, 1997.

51 Ibid.

52 Andrew Martin, "Daley backs officers in death of Honduran," Chicago Tribune, February 5, 1998.

53 Ibid.

54 Lou Carlozo, "Cop facing misconduct, sex counts after standoff," Chicago Tribune, August 21, 1993.

55 Ibid.

56 "Ex-cop gets 4 yrs. in sex assault," Chicago Sun-Times, July 28, 1995; Andrew Martin, "Badge shields cops accused of misconduct," Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1995.

57 "Suit claims officers assaulted woman," Chicago Tribune, August 11, 1994.

58 Florence Hamlish Levinsohn, "A fender bender escalates into a police brutality suit," Chicago Tribune, February 12, 1993; interview with Edward Stein, attorney for Arana's family, August 24, 1995.

59 Martin had explained that he always carried his gun because, "I never know when I am going to get involved in some type of action that requires police intervention." Hamlish Levinsohn, "A fender bender escalates...," Chicago Tribune.

60 Hamlish Levinsohn, "A fender bender escalates...," Chicago Tribune.

61 Ibid.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid.

64 Ibid.

65 Telephone interview with Standish Willis, an attorned who works closely with the NAACP, August 24, 1995, and Lorraine Forte, "Beating victim wants cops prosecuted," Chicago Sun-Times, April 15, 1997.

66 Misdemeanor battery and property damage charges against Alejos were subsequently dropped.

67 Lorraine Forte, "Beating victim wants...," Chicago Sun-Times.

68 Ibid.

69 Don Terry, "7 Chicago police officers indicted in extortion scheme," New York Times, December 21, 1996 and Terry, "Worst fears realized with Chicago officers' arrests," New York Times, December 30, 1996.

70 Investigators were also trying to determine whether one of the arrested officers was a high-ranking gang leader, as rumored, and if so, how he became and remained a police officer. Terry, "Worst fears realized...," New York Times.

71 Terry, "7 Chicago police...," New York Times.

72 Office of International Criminal Justice, University of Illinois, Chicago, Report of the Commission on Police Integrity, presented to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, November 1997.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch