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Why the Agency That's Supposed to Hold Chicago Cops Accountable Is Such a Failure

A veteran cop and independent police investigator explains why it's so hard to get the police under control in Chicago.

by Justin Glawe
09 December 2015, 5:00am

Ronald Johnson's mother, Dorothy Holmes, speaks to media and activists at the site of her son's death last year. Photo by the author

When Lorenzo Davis arrived at the corner of 53rd Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on October 12, 2014, he found a familiar scene: A black man had been shot and killed by a Chicago police officer, and detectives were running the show. So Davis, an investigative supervisor with Chicago's Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), started working outside the crime tape, looking for nearby surveillance cameras that may have captured the incident—the fatal police shooting of 25-year-old Ronald "Ronnie-man" Johnson.

He knocked on doors in case anyone in the graystone apartments that line King Drive across from Washington Park had seen the shooting. Davis hoped to find people milling about the sad scene and to learn what they knew, what they saw, and what they heard. But he found no witnesses and no cameras.

So he waited.

With the announcement on Monday that the Department of Justice is launching an investigation into the Chicago Police Department, there has been much talk from federal, state and local officials about how CPD can and should change. The release of grisly dashcam footage of Johnson's killing on Monday only fanned the flames. But IPRA—where Davis worked following a 23-year career at the Chicago Police Department that ended with his retirement at the rank of commander—has been a virtual afterthought, despite being the body tasked with holding local cops accountable.

At a press conference two weeks ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and since-resigned police Superintendent Garry McCarthy announced the creation of a new police accountability task force, essentially conceding at the agency wasn't doing its job.

"Since then," Davis said of police and the mayor, "they're staying away from talking about IPRA."

Ronald Johnson's mother, Dorothy Holmes, stood in the middle of Martin Luther King Drive at the intersection of 53rd Street Monday night, surrounded by TV cameras and reporters, as well as supporters, activists, and members of her family.

About ten feet to her right was where Officer George Hernandez stood last October 12 and fired five shots toward Johnson as he ran toward Washington Park, allegedly holding a gun. Two bullets struck the 25-year-old, with the fatal nine-millimeter round entering near his right armpit, traveling through his jugular and exiting near his left eye socket, according to an autopsy report I obtained last year from the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office and has since been made available by the New York Times and others.

Holmes and about 50 others had gathered at the intersection to protest State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's decision not to prosecute Hernandez, a move seen as an affront to Johnson's family and the activist community that have been railing against police for the deaths of Ronnieman and Laquan McDonald.

One woman, standing next to Holmes, called for "Alvarez's head," saying the state's attorney was "guilty of crimes against humanity."

Cars pulled up slowly and turned around, blocked by the scrum in the middle of King Drive. A passenger in a gray sedan leaned out of the window and voiced his support.

"He ain't have no gun!" he said of Johnson.

When Alvarez released dashcam video of the shooting Monday, her office included a version zoomed in on Johnson's right hand in which an object was held. Police recovered a gun from the scene that night that was equipped with an extended clip with a capacity of 21 bullets and held 12 at the time.

DNA from blood on the weapon matched Johnson, but an attorney for the family questioned Monday whether Ronnieman's fingerprints were also on the gun.

A forensic examination of the gun found "no latent (fingerprint) impressions suitable for comparison, according to the state's attorney's official report on the shooting.

Davis agrees with Alvarez's decision not to prosecute; he believes the preponderance of the evidence shows that Johnson was armed, he told me last night. But the Johnson case belies larger problems with how IPRA investigates officer-involved shootings.

Because police are already on scene, and because they are often investigating someone believed to be an offender, it was difficult for Davis and his former colleagues at IPRA to break through not just the crime tape but the blue line of police procedure and silence that is ingrained in the culture of the department, he said.

"They have first dibs on anything," Davis said of police. "They get it first always unless some private party holds it."

From there Alvarez's office is up, but "It won't be much of an interview because once you read (an officer their) rights, it's over. They lawyer up," Davis told me.

That's why video evidence and witness statements are so important.

Now, Chicago and the Department of Justice have another one to consider. Late on Monday, the city released video of the death of Philip Coleman, who died when he had a bad reaction to a sedative after being Tased in a holding cell.

After he went down, officers cuffed him. They dragged him by the wrists out of the cell and down the hallway.

They appeared to be smiling as they did so.

After previously indicating the officers were justified in the actions that led to Coleman's death, acting IPRA Chief Administrator Sharon Fairley announced Tuesday that the agency is re-opening the case.

On Monday night, I asked Davis what changes could be made to make IPRA more effective because, as we spoke, it became more and more apparent that the agency and its investigators are essentially useless.

He chuckled.

"That would really be the only thing that would help," he said of the Department of Justice investigation. "Basically they have to change the culture."

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