“Torn apart by misconduct” — Chicago police brutality survivors call for strong consent decree

A protester holds a sign that says "The People United Will Stop Racist Police Terror" at a rally following the conviction of police officer Jason Van Dyke on Oct. 5. Van Dyke, a white police officer, was found guilty for second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the 2014 death of black teenager Laquan McDonald. (Jess Martinaitis / MEDILL)

By Becky Dernbach
Medill Reports

Emotional testimony from Chicagoans whose lives were changed by police brutality dominated the second and final day of the hearing for the Chicago police consent decree.

The overwhelming majority of speakers at Thursday’s fairness hearing at the Dirksen Federal Building testified in support of the consent decree, though many wanted it to go further. Speakers identified gender issues, police training on disabilities, and support for survivors of police violence as key areas for improvement. Police union representatives, however, expressed concern that the decree would interfere with their collective bargaining agreements.

The proposed consent decree to reform the Chicago Police Department represents the culmination of a three-year process. After the video of police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald was released in 2015, the Department of Justice began an investigation of the Chicago Police Department, ultimately producing a lengthy and scathing report with recommendations for reform in the final week of Barack Obama’s presidency. Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery earlier this month.

After President Donald Trump made clear he would not continue the Obama administration’s push for police reform, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued the City of Chicago to develop a police consent decree in federal court outside the purview of the DOJ.

As the proposed consent decree reached its final stages, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Dow Jr. scheduled a two-day fairness hearing to listen to feedback. Dow will ultimately decide what changes the decree needs and whether to adopt the decree.

The second day of testimony began with people whose loved ones were killed by Chicago police.

Cynthia Lane’s son Roshad McIntosh was 19 when a police officer fatally shot him in 2014. She described a difficult and expensive healing journey for her family.

“I see a psychiatrist and go to therapy on a weekly basis and none of this is paid for by Chicago police,” Lane said. The experience had also been traumatic for her other children, she said. Her daughter nearly didn’t complete high school because her depression, brought on by her brother’s death, made it difficult for her to get out of bed. Lane said the consent decree should have support for survivors.

Angelica Nieves said she was there on behalf of her brother Jose.  An off-duty police officer is accused of killing him  in 2017. “The pain that you suffer, the sleepless nights, the days that you go through crying will never be the same,” she said.

Eric Wilkins said his family was “torn apart by misconduct and the code of silence.” He said in 1991 his brother was arrested and tortured, ultimately spending 25 years in prison until he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2016.

Police reform is also important to him because of his experiences as a disabled black man, he said. He suffered a gunshot wound in 1999. When the police arrived, he said, they treated him roughly. He wound up paralyzed from the waist down. “I can’t help wondering if my injury wouldn’t have been so serious if I was treated properly and given the help that I needed,” he said.

Trina Townsend, 51, said she was speaking out on behalf of girls, women, and the LGBTQ community, for whom she said the decree needed to be strengthened. Townsend said a Chicago police officer raped her in the mid-1980s, and that she started to speak publicly about it earlier this year. But since coming forward, she has not heard from city officials, she said.

“It has made me feel that my issue is not important and that I don’t matter at all,” Townsend said. “This is why the consent decree is so very important to me…so children and women like me can once again feel safe.”

Kevin Graham, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, criticized the Illinois Attorney General’s office for “going after our collective bargaining agreements” in the consent decree. He also praised U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with whom he said he “had the pleasure of speaking” and who last week filed a statement of interest opposing the consent decree.

“There’s a very delicate balance in collective bargaining,” Graham said. “The city gets something, we get something. The city hasn’t given us anything of substance.”

The proposed consent decree does not explicitly mandate any changes to the collective bargaining agreements. But, in an interview with Medill Reports Graham said, “Anytime [the consent decree] says discipline, they need to negotiate with us on that.”

Robert Bartlett, a 20-year police officer and representative of the FOP, spoke against the proposed decree’s requirement that officers document when they point their guns. He said he spent more than a decade on Chicago’s SWAT team and searched many poorly lit buildings using a flashlight attached to the weapon.

“My concern is that it’s out of context, that it will be viewed as the pointing of a gun when maybe it was the pointing of a flashlight,” Bartlett said. While most officers also have separate flashlights, he said, in some dangerous situations, it is important to have both tools available.

Dow will now take the matter under advisement and has not given a definitive timeline for a decision. In an Oct. 16 status hearing, he told attorneys from Madigan’s office and the city of Chicago that he would give them feedback after hearing from the community.

“If there’s going to be a consent decree entered, it’s the beginning not the end,” Dow told them. “I want to get this as right as I can and may take additional time to get it more right.”

Albert Mejias, an Albany Park resident, attended the hearing to share his story about the police pointing guns at him when he was visiting a friend. He said he hopes the consent decree will help Chicago “just be on the same page finally.”

“I feel like that’s something in Chicago we’ve been talking about for so long, what’s good for the city is good for everyone else,” Mejias said. “But no one’s really concerned with what’s going on with the people. We’re always talking about the taxpayers but it’s us, the small people of Chicago, we’re the reason the lights stay on.”

Photo at top: A protester holds a sign that says “The People United Will Stop Racist Police Terror” at a rally following the conviction of police officer Jason Van Dyke on Oct. 5. Van Dyke, a white police officer, was found guilty for second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the death of black teenager Laquan McDonald. (Jess Martinaitis / MEDILL)