Eric Garner’s death is difficult to watch, but at least we can watch it. We can dissect it and determine what the cops did wrong, maybe what Garner could have done differently. We can examine it in the hopes that it will prompt change in police tactics, so perhaps something that awful won’t happen again. And while that video didn’t lead to the charges many wished for, at least we know—without a shadow of a doubt—what happened that day.
On the streets of Chicago, things can be very different.
Like all law enforcement agencies, the Chicago Police Department is not required to report the number of incidents where an officer fires their gun, or, necessarily, when a subject is killed in police custody.
Even when pressed, the department has been less than forthcoming with specifics on police shootings in the city. A Freedom of Information Act request for reports on all officer-involved shooting incidents in the past two years was denied by the department because it was deemed to be “unduly burdensome.” That decision is on appeal with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, but it doesn’t look like the CPD will be dropping those documents on my doorstep any time soon. The department did, however, provide some basic numbers. They are as follows:
• Forty-three people were shot by Chicago cops in 2013, prompting 42 investigations. (The discrepancy could be due to more than one person being shot during an incident, Larry Merritt of the Independent Police Review Authority explained.) Of those incidents, 13 people died.
• In the first half of this year, Chicago police shot 27 people, seven of whom died. (Numbers for the rest of the year have been requested, but hadn’t been received at press time.) The IPRA report 32 officer-involved shooting investigations for the first three quarters of this year on their website.
But beyond the numbers are the actual incidents, which often include more concerning uses of lethal force than the Garner case in New York or Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. In some cases, cops have been off-duty or drunk. In others, victims have been shot in the back, contradicting police accounts.
In most cases, IPRA has decided in favor of the officers. In all cases, lives have been altered or ended, and facts have been disputed endlessly in the courts as families try to figure out what happened when their loved ones died. With police versions of events overwhelmingly taken at their word by investigators who are often former or current members of law enforcement, those facts can be skewed to benefit those behind the blue line.
Here are just a few of the most egregious uses of lethal force by Chicago police.
Thinking they’d pulled him over earlier in the night, two Chicago cops stopped Cornelius Ware, a 20-year-old paraplegic who drove by using wooden canes to press the pedals of his car, on Aug. 18, 2003. They hadn’t. They were also wrong when they thought Ware had pulled out a gun. One officer fired five times before reloading and pumping more bullets in Ware’s direction.
As Ware fought for his life in the hospital eight hours later, the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Office of Professional Standards, IPRA’s predecessor. Eyewitnesses said Ware put his hands in the air, and his family’s lawyers contended that the gun found inside the car was planted by the cops. The city was sued and paid $5 million for the actions of officer Anthony Blake.
Lawsuits are one path of retribution for family members of those killed by police, but sometimes the deaths of men who are overwhelmingly African-American are simply forgotten.
Lajuanzo Brooks is one of those men. An off-duty cop told his superiors Brooks pulled a gun in an armed robbery outside a bar in 2001. When Robert Haile pulled his own weapon, Brooks continued his stick-up. So Haile fired, and was quickly found to be in the right. The only problem came when Brooks’s body was examined at autopsy. The 21-year-old was shot three times—twice in the back and once in the back of his neck. Either Brooks was robbing Haile backward or the cop’s story was bullshit. We’ll never know though because further investigation was never carried out.
The bullets in Brooks’s backside are eerily similar to those that struck 17-year-old Robert Washington, killed in 2000 by officer Phyllis Clinkscales. An autopsy showed “all four of the gunshot wounds were on the back right side of Washington’s head and neck, including a ‘muzzle imprint’ that suggested the gun barrel had been pressed against his skin,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
For her part, Clinkscales maintained that she shot Washington, who was trying to steal her car at the time, from several feet away. She denied putting the gun to his head, a statement investigators found to be at odds with the evidence, and was put up for firing. But that never happened. Clinkscales is still a cop, and made more than $100,000 in salary and overtime last year. In 2007, when the Tribune reported on the discrepancies between Clinkscales’s story and evidence from Washington’s autopsy, a spokesman for the Cook County Attorney’s Office said, “We’re going to look at all aspects of it. What was said, what the evidence was, what our decision was, why our decision was made.”
On Thursday, a woman who answered the phone there was dumbfounded as to why someone would be asking about the case.
“So, let me get this straight: You’re asking about a death from 14 years ago and an investigation from seven years ago? I just think that’s a little weird.”
The problem with police shootings in Chicago isn’t just that they happen but also how they’re investigated.
One of the results of the Tribune’s work in 2007 was the dismantling of the Office of Professional Standards. Whether its successor, IPRA, is any different, is difficult if not impossible to tell. IPRA is run by a former high-up from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Chicago office, Scott Ando. Appearing before the Chicago City Council in October, Ando faced no questions about IPRA’s investigations into Glenn Evans, the police commander who is the subject of multiple lawsuits in addition to his recent indictment for shoving a gun in a suspect’s mouth.
Quavibis Green, a community activist in the city’s Austin neighborhood, said IPRA is nothing more than a front.
“I don’t think they’re very independent,” Green said, noting that IPRA just recently moved out of a building shared with the Chicago Police Department. The agency began making the number of investigations public in 2008. But if you want information on any police shootings prior to that, said Merritt, the IPRA spokesman, you’ll have to get them from CPD.
“How do the police investigate the police?” Green asked rhetorically.
On Thursday, Green was in court for an appearance by Dante Servin, an off-duty detective who shot and killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd in 2012. Servin is a rarity: A cop who is being tried for his lethal actions. And not by IPRA, the agency Green and others have little confidence in. Servin will face a more objective judgment, Green said.
“When we shut down the Dan Ryan [Expressway] on Monday,” said Green, previewing an upcoming demonstration, “we’re saying ‘We need federal investigations into police shootings.’ We need someone to say ‘I don’t have any interest with the police, I have no ties to the community, I am completely independent.’”