Police lawsuits cost city thousands

By Patrick Smith

The city of Chicago spent $740,000 in the past month settling lawsuits that stemmed from two separate incidents involving the same two Chicago Police Officers.

The majority of that sum was a $700,000 payout to the Arreola family, approved by the City Council on Feb. 10. The family sued the city in December 2008, claiming that a group of police officers physically assaulted them, shouted racial slurs, pointed weapons at their unarmed 14-year-old son and sent the 44-year-old father of the family to the emergency room with trauma caused by the head from a baton.

Involved in that incident were Officers Matthew Peterson, Elmer Fabian and Robert Roth, along with Officers Bryant Garcia, T. Kinsella and E. Biles.

Since last April, the city has spent $750,000 settling lawsuits out of court involving Peterson, Fabian and Roth. One still pending lawsuit claims Peterson put a young man in a coma after firing at least six rounds into his parked car without cause.

It is important to note, settling a lawsuit is not an admission of guilt; rather, it is an effort “to avoid the uncertainties of trial.” But the Arreola lawsuit and a study of the Chicago Police Department’s 2008 Annual Report by The Chronicle raises questions as to whether the police department does enough to investigate and discipline officers accused of using unreasonable force or unlawful arrest.

In 2008, there were 687 police officers accused of using unreasonable force, but there were a total of 773 allegations of use of unreasonable force. This means 86 alleged incidents were committed by officers accused of more than one offense in the same year. Peterson, Fabian and Roth are three of those repeat offenders, and the accusations against them have cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars

The incident involving all three officers occurred on July 27, 2008, on the 1800 block of West Cermak Road.

According to the complaint against the city, the Arreolas were having a small, family birthday party in the backyard of their apartment building when Juan-Carlos Arreola, 18, saw an unknown man with a gun in the apartment building and

called 911.

Shortly after the call was made, a police car arrived and Arreola was placed under arrest for carrying a handgun, although the city admitted in their answer to the suit that he was not in possession of a weapon at the time of the arrest. A version of events according to the Arreolas’ complaint against the city is as follows:

After Juan-Carlos’ parents, Gustavo and Gloria Arreola, protested to police that their son did not have a weapon, the police told them they were there because of a noise complaint. In response, the 14-year-old son of Gustavo and Gloria headed toward the backyard to turn off the music. Two officers ran behind him, pointed a gun at the child’s face, pushed him to the ground, punched him, kicked him and arrested him. After the boy’s brother Arturo Arreola, 23, asked police what was going on, the officers allegedly beat Arturo and arrested him.

Juan-Carlos, watching from the squad car, kicked out the vehicle’s window from inside. Gustavo asked the officers why they had arrested his three sons. In response, according to Gustavo, the officers hurled racial insults at him, calling him a “wetback” and telling him to go back to his own country. The police officers then sprayed pepper spray at Gustavo, Gloria and their two children, ages 16 and 9, and struck Gustavo in the head with a metal baton, causing him to bleed and sending him to the emergency room in an ambulance.

The police officers and the city of Chicago deny all allegations of wrongdoing and completely deny the Arreolas’ version of events. What is agreed upon is that Gustavo, Arturo, Juan-Carlos and Gustavo’s 14-year- old son were all arrested that night, and only Juan-Carlos was convicted of a crime. He pleaded guilty to kicking out the police car window after he was arrested.

The state did not press charges against Arturo or his 14-year-old brother, and no other charges were filed against Juan-Carlos. Gustavo Arreola was found not guilty of assaulting a police officer.

According to Jennifer Hoyle, director of public affairs for the city’s Law Department, the city chose to settle the Arreola case because the police officers could not offer any explanation for the blow to the head that sent Gustavo Arreola to the emergency room in

an ambulance.

Gustavo Arreola claims that a police officer drew his black metal baton and dragged it menacingly across a metal gate before striking him in the back of the head, causing injury to his skull. Then, Gloria pleaded with police officers to call an ambulance.  The officers refused, so the family called 911 themselves. The city’s response to the complaint said the officers did not remember who called the ambulance.

“You had a large number of people who would have been testifying for the plaintiff’s version of events,” Hoyle said. “[Gustavo Arreola] actually had an injury, and there isn’t a good explanation of how that occurred other than the version that is put forth in the complaint. There’s not an alternate explanation of how that injury would have happened.”

According to the city’s answer to the Arreolas’ complaint, Gustavo Arreola was placed under arrest for resisting arrest; it was only later that the unsuccessful charge of assault on a police officer was levied against him.

“The fact that we settled it is not an admission of guilt on the part of the officers,” Hoyle said, adding that the police department’s Independent Police Review Authority was still investigating the incident. According to Hoyle, it is not unusual for that agency to take more than a year and a half to investigate an incident if it involves a civil suit.

Another incident that has been under investigation by the Independent Police Review Authority for more than two years is the shooting of Jeremy Williams and Pierre Manning. The reason for the shooting is still disputed, but some facts are agreed upon by all parties.

In the early morning of Dec. 20, 2007, the first officer named in the Arreola lawsuit, Peterson, fired at least six shots into Manning’s vehicle. One of those bullets struck Manning in the hand. Three more hit Williams. One was in his right forearm another entered through his right eye and exited through his skull, and a final bullet grazed his back as he was hunched over.

Williams was in a coma for five days as a result of these wounds. He still has not fully recovered. While Peterson claims he fired into the vehicle because he saw a gun in the car, no gun was ever recovered, and no charges have been filed against Manning or Williams.

Manning’s lawsuit ended in a $10,000 settlement last April. According to Hoyle,  city council does not have to vote to approve settlements under $100,000.

Williams’ lawsuit is ongoing.

“They shot him while he was sitting in a parked vehicle, he had not committed any criminal acts,” said Steven Fine, an attorney for Williams.

According to Fine, after Peterson fired into Manning’s vehicle, Manning drove off to escape the gunfire. Rather than pursue him, Peterson and the officers with him, Oscar Serrano and Paul Sandoval, drove off in the other direction.

“Police never recovered a handgun in the vehicle or on the street,” Fine said. “While [Williams] was in the hospital, the police had him in protective custody, they had him under arrest, he was in a coma at that time. They never officially charged him with any criminal acts.”

According to Fine, Williams continues to suffer from the injuries incurred that night.

“He has balance issues, he lost his eye, he cannot close his eyelid … he has headaches and has lost his sense of taste,” Fine said of Williams’ current condition.

The attorneys for Williams and the Arreola family contend that Peterson has a pattern of excessive use of force, and the city is responsible for leaving a dangerous police officer on the street.

“He was improperly trained and not supervised,” Fine said of Peterson, who added that his experience with the Independent Police Review Authority is that they very rarely find officers guilty of the offenses with which they are charged. “I think that’s one of their biggest problems.”

Hoyle said that she was not familiar with Manning or Williams’ case and so could not comment. The Media Affairs Office for the police department refused to comment on any of the cases or give an update on the status of the Independent Police Review Authority’s investigations.

The city’s Law Department agreed last week to a settlement with Torrance Caldwell that stemmed from an

incident with Roth and Elmer on Aug. 19, 2007.

Caldwell filed a complaint against the city, Roth and Elmer on Sept. 8, 2008, claiming that the two stopped him while he was walking and searched him. According to the complaint, the officers found a CD in his possession they assumed was bootlegged and told him it was a felony to carry a bootlegged CD.  They put him in handcuffs and placed him in thebackseat of their police car. Elmer then allegedly punched Caldwell in the face several times.

The officers then allegedly told Caldwell they were taking him “to a gang area.” They stopped the car at 31st Street and Comiskey Avenue, removed the battery from his cell phone and told him to walk down an alley, threatening him to mace him if he didn’t.

Caldwell then walked to a gas station and had the attendant call his fiancée. She called an ambulance which transported Caldwell to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was treated for injuries to his face and released after a few hours.

Caldwell’s complaint claims that officers Roth and Elmer “acted willfully and wantonly, maliciously and with a conscious disregard and deliberate indifference to plaintiff’s rights.”

Both Elmer and Roth deny they have ever encountered Caldwell.

“Their position was that this never happened, they don’t know Torrance, they’ve never seen Torrance and I’m not sure how they were going to explain how he got injured,” said Caldwell’s attorney,  Adele Nicholas, who added she wanted to go to trial and was disappointed they settled. “We have pretty good proof that it was them.”

Hoyle said she was not familiar with Caldwell’s case and could not comment on it.

The police department’s Media Affairs Office refused comment on the Caldwell case or to make any of the officers involved in the lawsuits available for interview.

When asked to comment on the allegations that the police department does not monitor or discipline its officers properly, they referred The Chronicle to the department’s 2008 annual report.

That report seems to confirm the allegations made in the Arreola lawsuit that the department disciplines a very small amount of officers who are accused of excessive use of force.

Of the 773 allegations of unreasonable use of force made in 2008, 103 accusations resulted in disciplinary charges filed, a total of 13 percent. The Independent Police Review Authority has an even smaller rate of investigations sustained. Of 2,610 investigations retained by the authority, only 57 were sustained, a total of 2 percent.

The disciplinary actions taken against officers who are found to have violated police rules are rarely harsh. While no data is available about the actions taken against police specifically charged with unreasonable use of force, more than 75 percent of all disciplinary actions taken in 2008 were either a reprimand or a suspension of five days or less. There were 75 incidents in which violation was noted, and no action was taken or the penalty was simply put on hold and not served, compared to only 41 incidents when an officer was suspended for more than 30 days or removed from the police department.

Both the Arreola lawsuit and the Williams lawsuit blame the department’s failure to properly investigate accused officers for the alleged infractions, or discipline officers found guilty of violations for the alleged crimes committed by the police officers.

“Municipal policy makers have long been aware of the city of Chicago’s policy and practice of failing to properly train, monitor and discipline its police officers,” the Arreolas’ complaint reads.