In a high-profile rebuke of Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and the city’s law department, aldermen narrowly rejected a $2 million police settlement Wednesday from a controversial case of alleged police misconduct.
The federal lawsuit had been filed on behalf of Darius Cole-Garrit, a 21-year-old man who was fatally shot by Chicago police in 2014 after officials said he pulled a gun from his waistband and pointed it at officers. The suit alleged police, who fired on Cole-Garritt 16 times, used excessive force and were insufficiently trained, but the city’s Independent Police Review Authority had found the shooting justified, a city attorney said.
Separately, the city council approved a settlement of $750,000 for a man on whom police used an “emergency takedown” move — an encounter that went viral four years ago after it was caught on video.
And in yet another settlement, aldermen agreed to pay almost $5 million total to five people who alleged in a lawsuit that they were subjected to unconstitutional stop-and-frisk procedures by police.
Bernard Kersh, the man who was slammed to the ground by the officer in 2019, later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery for first spitting in the cop’s face, which was not caught on the video shot by a passerby.
That video prompted widespread headlines and complaints by activists that it was part of a pattern of police brutality against Black residents. Noted civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson got involved, accompanying Kersh’s family to bail him out of jail.
The Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which replaced the independent police review authority, found that the officer who body-slammed Kersh, Jerald Williams, violated department policy by using excessive force. Though COPA called for Williams to face a 45-day suspension, records show then CPD Superintendent David Brown recommended a 135-day suspension for Williams, a former mixed martial arts fighter. Williams, who is still employed by Chicago police, has not served that suspension and remains in the “grievance process,” according to a police spokesperson.
Activists at the time said the takedown at the bus stop was part of a continued pattern of police brutality against the Black community. But a police union representative complained that concern for the safety of police officers was being overlooked.
Stop-and-frisk — the police practice of stopping, questioning and sometimes patting down people on the streets who are deemed suspicious — has also been criticized as unfairly applied based on race and prompted a 2015 lawsuit by a group of Black Chicagoans.
Following a critical study of the practice that year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, the police department adjusted its practices, requiring officers to fill out more detailed forms to document their reasonable suspicion for stopping people. At the time, the Tribune reported that officers complained about how much longer the paperwork took to fill out, keeping them from their street duties.
The residents who sued the city over stop-and-frisk sought class-action status. But the city successfully fought the ability of others to participate in the suit, which could otherwise have covered the subjects of more than 2.5 million police stops since 2013, said city deputy corporation counsel Jennifer Bagby.
If the case were to go to trial, attorneys’ fees and costs could have reached $10 million, Bagby told aldermen Tuesday. As it is, about $4 million of the nearly $5 million settlement will go to attorney costs — of which new 34th Ward Ald. Bill Conway, a former prosecutor, said: “Obviously, that is shocking.”
Another $750,000 settlement approved in committee was for a man who was severely injured when his car was hit by a suspect who was being pursued by police in an unmarked car for suspected drug offenses.
The case was recommended for a settlement because the pursuit created “a danger to the public that outweighed the need to immediately apprehend” the suspect, James Ormond, assistant corporation counsel for the city, told aldermen at Tuesday’s committee meeting.
Ald. Raymond Lopez took issue with the settlement, saying the subject of the police pursuit bears responsibility.
“We’re on the hook once again, because we happen to have the biggest checkbook, to the criminals,” Lopez, 15th, said at the committee meeting Tuesday.
City Council discussions involving police settlements are frequently contentious, but the proposed payouts are rarely rejected.
Aldermen who represent wards with high concentrations of first responders, particularly along the North and Southwest Side bungalow belts, often criticize settlements as rewarding criminals and punishing police. City lawyers, meanwhile, counter that the settlements are less than what a jury might award to residents who claim they were mistreated.
Wednesday’s 26-22 vote to reject the Cole-Garrit settlement was different. Council members rejected the settlement after Conway noted that Cole-Garrit pointed a gun at officers and that his autopsy showed eight of nine bullets that struck him came from the front, indicating he was facing the cops at the time.
Ahead of the final CPD lawsuit vote Wednesday, aldermen hashed out long-running frustrations with how the council handles police settlements, which cost the city upwards of $100 million last year.
Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st, chided his colleagues who who have largely supported settlements and said, “You need to do your due diligence.”
”For eight years we’ve been voting yes on cases,” Napolitano, a former Chicago police officer, said. “… And I can’t sit here any longer and hear ‘put your money where your mouth is and pay for that,’ because it’s my money. It’s your money. It’s your constituents’ tax dollars.”
But conservative aldermen opposing what they saw as giveaways to people who may have been engaged in wrongdoing at the time met plenty of pushback, too. Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, said the concern over the character of such plaintiffs was “ignorant.”
”When we talk about a city that since its inception that has been segregated … they can’t do that to a people and then generations down the line wonder where are the parents,” Vasquez said. “I will be damned if we talk like this in Council knowing we represent communities of color.”