Our Three-Year Struggle to Get Chicago to Admit We Were Beaten by the Police
In 2010, we were beaten by men who appeared to be cops with the Chicago Police Department, an encounter that came to define our lives.
All photos by Ryan Lowry except when noted
Later, after the beating, after the intimidation by police, after the hours and hours spent going through legal documents and telling our story at depositions, after the media fixed us in its gaze and then released us, people still asked us the question. It's always the same question—they want reassurances that what happened to us couldn't happen to them.
"Why did those cops attack you?"
Sometimes it's an honest query; other times it sounds more like an accusation. It's the same sort of question people ask when victims like Ferguson's Michael Brown are killed by the police—what did they to do deserve being targeted?
More than four years after our attack, we still don't know the answer. And we're unable to reassure anyone, regardless of the color of their skin, that what happened to us won't happen to them. All we know is that when we attempted to fight back we found out just how deeply dysfunctional the system can be.
CHAPTER 1: The Assault
It was three in the morning on February 7, 2010, when our lives changed—not that we had any warning that the moment would hold any sort of significance. We were just two guys eating a late dinner at Arturo's Tacos, a 24-hour Mexican joint known for selling burritos the size of mini-footballs in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood.
As we finished our meal, Jonathan* stood to put his coat on in the narrow aisle of the restaurant and two men and a woman approached him. The first guy looked like a bodybuilder or a wannabe pro wrestler: a white dude with a concentrated, powerful build. The second guy was taller and slimmer but still muscular, with slicked-back hair and a leather jacket.
"What the fuck? Get out of my way!" barked the shorter one.
"What the hell? I'm just putting my coat on. I'll be out of your way in one second," Jonathan replied.
The man pushed Jonathan, and a waitress came over to see what was happening. Matt reassured her: "Everything's fine. We're not looking for any problems."
The group slipped past us to the exit, and we thought that was the end of it. But after we went to the register and paid, we found them waiting for us in the small parking lot outside. As we neared Matt's car, we could feel the tension ratchet up; the men were shouting obscenities as they moved toward us.
We didn't want a fight with these lunatics, and as they neared us Jonathan kept saying, "Let's just shake on it. We're here out of peace. We're not looking for any problems. Let's just go home and forget about it."
They weren't having it. The shorter one charged at Jonathan a few times with balled fists, stopping just short of making contact, and then he made his move: He charged again, this time shoving Jonathan and swinging around to hit Matt with a vicious right hook. Within seconds both the men were on top of Matt, throwing him to the ground and pounding him repeatedly in his face with their fists.
Jonathan pulled the instigator off Matt and for a moment managed to pin his arms to his sides. But he broke free quickly, hit Jonathan in the head, then brought him to the ground with a practiced takedown maneuver and put him in a choke hold while kneeling behind him.
Matt, meanwhile, had blacked out when he was thrown to the ground, but the taller guy went on pummeling his head, tossing it from side to side. Matt's eyes shot open as he woke to the sound of his own blood splashing on the ground. The woman who'd accompanied the two guys was now leaning over Matt, screaming, "Quit resisting! They're cops! They're going to beat your ass!"
Finally they stopped, either convinced by our pleas for mercy or simply tired of whaling on us. As they walked back to their car, Matt staggered to his feet, fishing his phone from his pocket while trying to make out the license plate of the vehicle the trio was getting into. As Matt dialed 911 in shock, he was just grasping the new reality: We've just been assaulted by some plainclothes cops, and they're leaving.
The line rang, and in a heartbeat the taller man sprinted at Matt. You can hear him scream on the recorded 911 call, "Who the fuck are you calling?" just before he hit Matt hard enough to knock him several feet backward and into the wall. They were on Matt again in seconds—Jonathan rushed to pull them off once more, but they violently slammed the back of Jonathan's head to the pavement. He lost consciousness.
Jonathan woke to the bright lights of a police cruiser rolling into the parking lot. Finally, he thought, his face still pressed into the cold pavement by his assailant, this is over. They're going to be arrested, everything will be fine.
It wasn't. When the uniformed officers got out of their car; they chatted with our attackers; they seemed to know each other. The man holding Jonathan stood up, wiping the blood off of his knuckles onto Jonathan's scalp. As Jonathan tried to rise to his feet, the uniformed cop put his knee on his back, pinning him to the ground. The cop punched Jonathan, rolled him over, and punched him again.
After a short conversation, the officers politely ushered the two men who had just left us bloodied and concussed to their car.
As Matt got to his feet—his face, light blue shirt, and brown suede jacket soaked in his own blood—he pleaded with the officers to arrest our attackers, file a report, to look at the blood on our faces and help us get medical attention.
Instead, we witnessed what appeared to be the infamous "blue code of silence" unfold before our eyes. After a short conversation, the officers politely ushered the two men who had just left us bloodied and concussed to their car. As our attackers drove away, the uniformed cops obstructed us from obtaining their license plate number and, when talking to us, repeated the same thing to us over and over:
"Just go home and forget this ever happened."
CHAPTER 2: "Very Serious Accusations"
After the police cruiser retreated into the darkness, we stood shell-shocked, staring at each other. We paused just for a moment before a passerby handed back Matt's glasses to him from beside the pool of Matt's blood on the ground. "Man your face is fucked up!" he said. "You need help, bro."
We called 911 again, but not wanting to wait in the parking lot we went to Matt's house, where the routine logistics of trauma began. A police officer arrived and immediately called an ambulance; we spent four hours being treated for broken noses, split lips and foreheads, and concussions at St. Mary's Hospital; we recounted the assault to the police there; we took a cab to Matt's in the harsh early morning light, feeling completely exposed and vulnerable.
One thing we couldn't tell the officers who questioned us at St. Mary's was that our beating had been at the hands of plainclothes cops. Talking to the police, even in the confines of the hospital, terrified us. Only once we got back to Matt's did we realize we had to report what had happened, even if we didn't know quite how.
A 911 operator transferred us to the 14th District, where the front desk attendant transferred us to IPRA, a set of initials we'd never heard before but would come to loathe over the years that followed.
The Independent Police Review Authority is supposed to be, as its name suggests, an independent agency that handles complaints against Chicago cops. The City Council created IPRA—which replaced the old Office of Professional Standards—in 2007, after news emerged that significant effort had gone into covering up an incident involving a drunk off-duty Chicago cop violently beating a female bartender who dared to stop serving him.
IPRA quickly developed a reputation for dismissing complaints against cops, or taking so long to investigate that the relevant statute of limitations ran out. A tiny percentage of alleged police-misconduct cases brought to its attention have been sustained, and even though Chicagoans are by some estimates six times more likely to be shot by the cops than New Yorkers are, in seven years IPRA has never found a police shooting to be unjustified.
We didn't know any of that when we spent an hour and a half talking on the phone with an IPRA investigator that morning. We started the call with a naive hope that this could all work itself out. In this initial interaction, however, we were repeatedly warned, "You should really think twice about what you're doing before you come in to report this. These are very serious accusations you're making!"
"But they aren't accusations; we're just telling you what happened to us," Matt responded. Every question of ours about the next step in the process of reporting the assault was met with the same warning, verbatim.
The call ended and Matt called his mom to tell her everything. After she overcame her shock, she pushed Matt to go to IPRA's office. "That's bullshit!" she said. "They're trying to intimidate you!"
A 911 call Matt made shortly after the attack
So Matt, resolute but extremely fearful, limped down the stairs and cautiously made the short drive from his place to the IPRA office, on the 12th floor of a nondescript mid-rise building near Chicago Police Headquarters. The interior, seemingly unchanged since the 80s, only added to the sense that he had entered the city's bureaucratic machine. Matt would give our first official statement while the investigator brought in a couple of uniformed Chicago cops to take photos of Matt's injuries. The wheels had begun to turn.
Jonathan, meanwhile, went home stitched and concussed to contemplate his plan of action and the list of serious questions suddenly thrust upon him. What would happen to his life if he decided to pursue a case against the police? Given the department's history of corruption and the degree of power it wielded, could he win such a case, and would the cops retaliate against him? If the media started taking an interest and his name were splashed all over TV and the internet, would that affect his future employment chances or romantic prospects? And he still had a lecture course to teach at the University of Chicago. As the hours and days went by, Jonathan decided, like Matt, to move forward. The words of one of his dissertation advisers proved influential: "If you don't pursue justice here, it will eat away at you forever."
Those first interactions with IPRA gave birth to our fears that there wouldn't be any real investigation into how we ended up bloodied in that parking lot. And we might have remained helpless, scarred by those long minutes of violence, if not for Matt's mom.
As soon as she got off the phone with Matt, she headed to the Seattle airport, flew to Chicago, and took a cab from O'Hare Airport to Matt's place because he wasn't going outdoors again after the unnerving trip to IPRA. She channeled her angst at seeing her oldest son so brutally beaten into her own investigation. That meant searching for attorneys who specialized in police brutality, coaxing Matt back to the scene of the assault, and looking for any security cameras that might have captured the beating. With her help, we persuaded the owners of Arturo's and Lazo's, a nearby Mexican restaurant, to give us copies of their security-camera footage from that night. One, a close-up, would prove brutal to watch, but the other was key: It showed the entire assault and aftermath from a bird's-eye view, from which you could see the uniformed officers escorting our attackers off the scene.
In those early days, it was difficult to focus on anything but the fear that gnawed at us, consumed us, and was made worse by what we can only describe as textbook police intimidation.
That first week after the beating, we were talking on the front deck at Matt's place when a black SUV with tinted windows pulled up to the curb. The passenger-side windows were rolled down, revealing two open laptops on the dash and four plainclothes cops in bulletproof vests who leered at us stone-faced for a very, very long minute before the driver floored it down the street. It left us trembling, which we assumed was its intended purpose.
Another time, an IPRA investigator called Matt and snapped, "You need to stop interfering with the case. What were you doing at the 14th District?" In fact, Matt had never been to the 14th, but two days earlier he'd parked just south of the neighborhood post office, which he then learned was close to the police station. That was how we first learned about the practice of "GPS pinging," a process by which law enforcement can track your location by honing in on your cell phone. In the time before questionable government "observation" practices got mainstream media attention, we became aware that someone might be watching us at all times.
We each had our own issues and coping tactics. The prescribed meds and therapy for PTSD only reduced his anxiety so much, so Matt spent evenings smoking cigarette after cigarette. Jonathan had trouble falling asleep each night until just after 3:40 AM, the time the attack had ended. For both of us, just leaving our homes was a challenge. Sometimes this would take hours of peering out of windows—and if we saw a cop car nearby, we'd panic. When we did emerge into the wider world, prompted by work or some other unbreakable commitment, we'd remove our cell-phone batteries to make sure we weren't being tracked. We carried cameras on us to record any potential police interactions. A once-familiar city now seemed full of risks.
By the end of that first intense week, we'd learned enough about police assaults to know we had to hire attorneys and file a civil rights lawsuit. Doing so would serve several purposes. First, it offered us protection. Once we were in the federal court system, we knew it would be harder for the authorities to intimidate us, as any such action would in theory provoke a federal investigation. It meant that Jonathan wouldn't have to give an interview with IPRA without a lawyer as Matt had done. Importantly, we were also told it could encourage a formal criminal investigation into the assault by Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. It also meant that we could put the ordeal into someone else's hands so that we could focus on the work of healing.
We signed a retainer agreement with the law firm of Loevy & Loevy 13 days after the assault. We felt a swelling of confidence when we brought them aboard—L&L had a reputation for pursuing some high-profile police-misconduct cases in city history, including those of Juan Johnson, who spent 11 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder, and Joseph Regalado, who was beaten into a coma by Chicago cops.
With the videos in our hands and legal representation at our backs we were optimistic about bringing our attackers to justice. Given the facts at hand and the sheer volume of evidence, it was the logical outcome, we told ourselves.
Our story is grim, but it's not unique. In the weeks after our assault, our injuries still fresh and visible, we encountered people who'd ask about our bruises and cuts. When we told them our story, a surprising number replied with personal and deeply troubling stories of their own about police-related violence they or those close to them had experienced. Our fear of Chicago's finest was all too common, our story tragically mundane.
Our story got more attention than the vast majority of brutality cases, however, when our lawsuit against the city, our assailants, and the uniformed cops on the scene that night was filed on March 23, 2010.
CBS was the first media outlet to contact our attorneys for an interview. NBC, ABC, FOX, and Univision followed, along with newspapers, radio stations, and websites of all sorts. We have to guess the attention came from us having a video of the assault and, perhaps more importantly, being white academic types instead of the minorities who are Chicago's typical victims of police brutality.
We had assurances from our attorneys that filing the suit was a nonevent that likely wouldn't register at all with the media, so Jonathan was visiting his parents in New Jersey for spring break the week our lawsuit was filed in federal court. That meant that when the media swooped in, Matt went to L&L's offices alone to meet the CBS team, get interviewed, and then do the apparently obligatory walk down a hallway with one of the lawyers, pretending to talk, so they'd have a visual for the broadcast. It was surreal, but we thought the coverage could lead to identifying our attackers and also pressure the city into taking action against the uniformed officers.
That night, coverage aired of Mayor Richard M. Daley being asked about our case in a mayoral press conference, while television reporters showered Chicago police chief Jody Weis with similar questions. Inside Edition, the nationally syndicated tabloid news program, managed to track Jonathan down at his parents' house that week, leaving two voicemails requesting an interview. Jonathan didn't return the calls; he was exhausted by the constant stress of the last six weeks.
Despite all the attention, our case languished in the courts, and it took nine months just to fend off the city's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Disappointed by the lack of progress and intimidated by the police, we retreated from everything—the media, the case, and the investigation. It was easier, when possible, to let our attorneys handle the legal aspect and focus on getting through our PTSD and returning to how we'd lived our lives before the assault.
That healing process was interrupted pretty regularly, however, by circumstances that required us to think and talk about the violence we'd endured. In December 2010, Jonathan was asked to provide a statement to IPRA, and Matt was asked to provide a second statement to the agency a month later. We handed over phone and medical records along with numerous emails and Facebook postings, though the uniformed officers would never provide anything other than phone records, the content of which we're not permitted to discuss.
Soon our every spare hour was spent reviewing legal documents and brainstorming on ways to ID our attackers.
Until that winter we were in a daze of sorts, trusting that our lawyers and the system would eventually do right by us. But around the time of Jonathan's IPRA statement we both snapped awake and realized we needed to be completely engaged if we wanted justice—a concept that we were still naive enough to believe in at that point. A judge and jury would eventually hear us out, we assumed, and once that happened there would be no way for them not to be swayed by the facts, by the force of the evidence we already had and would continue to accumulate.
Soon our every spare hour was spent reviewing legal documents and brainstorming on ways to ID our attackers. One night we came to the conclusion that we needed the public's help. IPRA and the cops weren't helping, but somebody out there might know something, and might be willing to aid us, if provided with the right incentive. Most victims of police violence don't have the financial means to offer that incentive, but we did, and we needed to do everything possible to enlist the public's support.
We hired a public-relations professional to help plan a press conference to announce the launch of a 1-800 number that would serve as a tip line and a $10,000 reward for information that would lead to positively identifying our attackers. This meant a lot of work, but we felt revitalized, though we remained cautious when outside our houses, never knowing if we could be recognized or targeted in some way. Given the publicity we'd experienced after we first filed the lawsuit, we felt our case wasn't just about us—it had become a battle to expose the city's corruption, and with a renewed sense of purpose we became less concerned with our safety or our personal lives.
On March 21, 2011, two days before the press conference, CBS Chicago did a piece on the one-year anniversary of our lawsuit, a story made possible by our connected PR person. We released new video clips, audio from the 911 calls, and gave interviews about the assault and ordeal. We emphasized that we were searching for the men who beat us. CBS reported that we'd soon be holding a press conference to try to get the public's help in identifying them.
While we were smart enough to know how to get our story out there, we had no clue how to control the spin.
When the day finally came, news vans lined the block around our attorneys' office; a couple of plainclothes detectives stared us down from their Crown Vic. We sat at a long table with our lawyers and faced the television cameras from all the major Chicago TV stations as we spoke about our case and our search for information. It was nerve-racking to put ourselves out there to the press and the city once again.
While we were smart enough to know how to get our story out there, we had no clue how to control the spin. By the time the four o'clock news came on, the incident had mostly begun to be depicted as a fight between two parties rather than an unprovoked attack. And except for Univision, none of the networks showed viewers the tip line number or our Facebook page URL, narrowing our ability to get the public's help in identifying our police attackers.
Nonetheless, a couple of weeks after our press conference a man called the law firm offering the names and photos of our attackers in exchange for the reward.
"Deep Throat," as we'd later nickname the caller, spoke in clipped sentences with an obviously fake Southern drawl. He told us he needed to remain anonymous and couldn't stay on the phone for long because he was worried about it being tapped. We began intently planning how to make the money drop to our source—not that it ended up mattering. After calling our lawyers sporadically for a month, Deep Throat claimed he'd provide a photo of one of our attackers the next day. We never heard from him again.
Another time the tip line received a voicemail from an Arturo's waitress who claimed that the restaurant's management knew the guys who attacked us but instructed the staff not to say anything—but she apparently got spooked and moved out of the country before our attorneys could reach her.
A call the authors received on the tip line
That was a common theme: We'd get what appeared to be a lead only to have it disintegrate in our hands. We had videos, but that was of little use without the names of our attackers or the close-up images that the squad car dashcam would have provided—had it not been "turned off or malfunctioning" as the city alleged.
Despite all our struggles, however, a year after we'd been brutally beaten we were no closer to figuring out the identities of our attackers. We were just going further down the rabbit hole.
CHAPTER 3: Grinding Through the Machine
By the first week of April, our story had fallen out of the media cycle completely. Yet we still believed we would find the perpetrators of the assault. There were times we felt we'd truly made progress, like when the woman in the trio who had ordered Matt to "quit resisting" turned out to be the off-duty partner of the three uniformed officers who showed up on the scene.
Not a day went by when we didn't think about the case or talk about it with our families and close friends. There were so many conversations, so many hopes of identifying the cops who beat us, and so many notes we prepped for court in an effort to catalogue every twist in logic, every blurring of fact the city used to defend itself. We spent almost all of a cool gray Memorial Day weekend in 2011 indoors analyzing the files IPRA had turned over to us. It was a depressing period. The deeper we looked, the more we began to understand how far the city would go to make a single case of police brutality go away.
We should note here that there are things we can't talk about as a result of the lawsuit. We've been silenced by the city with regard to what we can say in this account, though we fought to have that limited to the IPRA files. The pages upon pages of uniformed officers' depositions aren't subject to that silence, however.
When Brian Postrelko, Michael Torres, and Nelson Crespo—the uniformed cops who let our assailants walk away—had been deposed in January 2011, we didn't attend the proceedings; seeing them, being closed off in a room with them, was something neither of us could get our heads around, even a year after the assault. But in June and July of 2011 we reviewed more than 20 hours of deposition transcripts and began to attend other depositions.
Perhaps it's sad that we believed our only shot at justice was to take over the investigation into our own assault, but we were beside ourselves as we stared at the stonewalling and contradictions. For example, Postrelko stated under oath that we were ten feet away from our assailants and yelling at them when he and the other uniformed officers left the scene—which is completely contradicted by the full-length video of the assault that shows the uniformed officers walking them to their car.
While we prepared our notes on this and other deceptions, our lawsuit was proceeding at a snail's pace; after 18 months, neither IPRA, the Chicago Police, nor the state's attorney's office was interested in pursuing criminal charges. Having lost faith early on in IPRA's resolve to bring our attackers to justice, and now doubting the mechanics of the legal system, we went to the FBI. We walked into the agency's local headquarters against the advice of our attorneys, figuring that if local law enforcement was turning a blind eye, maybe the feds would care.
After a formal check-in process we were sitting across a pane of bulletproof glass from a sharply dressed FBI agent, relating our story and outlining the evidence we'd assembled showing we'd been beaten by cops and that the police were lying to cover for our attackers. The agent told us he remembered our case from the news and expressed surprise that the Bureau hadn't reached out to us before. He thought our story was compelling and said there was a "95 percent chance the FBI would take up an investigation" to pursue the officers who beat us. He refused to take the documents we'd brought with us, as he would connect with the color of law violations group, who'd follow up with us. If we didn't hear from that division, he said, we should call him back.
We never did hear back from him or anyone else, though we continued to follow up for six months to no avail. More energy wasted, more dead ends.
Jonathan now understood, viscerally, what it meant when you found yourself on the wrong side of the power structure.
Unsurprisingly, the case began to seep into our everyday lives. Jonathan was in Chicago for the summer, living in Hyde Park and teaching, and he began to study the history of policing and the sociology of police violence. The ordeal made him want to know more about the force we were dealing with, and he found himself drawn into an area of research that was intensely personal. If some upper-middle-class academics tended to talk about the power of the state on an intellectual level, Jonathan now understood, viscerally, what it meant when you found yourself on the wrong side of the power structure.
As Jonathan dug deeper into the historical context of their assault, Matt focused more intently on the investigation and every aspect of the legal proceedings, trying to resurrect the fading hope that there would be justice at the end of this ordeal. His efforts only led to hurt, sometimes in sad ways and sometimes in comical ones. There was a period when Matt firmly believed all cops were corrupt, which led to a horrible fight with his mother and sister. He also tried to get a tattoo of a mantra that had been running through his head—"You Tried to Kill My Spirit"—but that attempt at empowerment was somewhat muted by the alternate spelling of "spirit" the artist went with. When you see "Sprit" on your body you can laugh or cry. That time, we laughed.
Moments of levity never lasted long. In September 2011, we were deposed individually by the city's lawyers in a staid corporate boardroom in a downtown high rise. The team of attorneys facing us across the table—suited, cocky, aggressive—perfectly embodied the kind of institutional authority we had to overcome. They were joined by the uniformed cops, who were there in civilian clothes watching silently—presumably paid by tax dollars for time spent in legal proceedings—for the entire two-day affair.
Depositions are hours-long ordeals with question after question solely designed to intimidate, to make the victims look bad or react strongly to what's being said. There's no judge and you have to answer nearly everything they throw at you. It's exhausting, even when there aren't cops who contributed to the worst experience of your life sitting in the same room.
Officer Torres wore aviator sunglasses the whole time, while Postrelko sat two feet away from Matt during his deposition, staring him down with a perverse look on his face. Jonathan, watching the scene unfold, pressed our attorneys to demand that the officer move, which sparked a debate that ended with the cop finally retreating. Their apparent attempts at intimidation could have been shrugged off as childish if they hadn't distressed us so much.
Despite all this, we got through our depositions and we started to get some traction from the depositions that followed our own. The officer who came to Matt's home after his last 911 call readily admitted he decided to summon an ambulance as soon as he saw Matt's injuries and that he believed an assault had been committed and a report should be written, which went against the claims of the uniformed officer defendants. The lead EMT who transported us to the hospital for treatment testified that both of us were clear, coherent, and not visibly impaired by alcohol—contradicting the officers' story that we were a couple of "kids out partying." He also revealed that he didn't report our statement that we were beaten by cops out of fear for getting involved in a police assault. In another deposition, an IPRA investigator on the case testified that our assailants could be seen on video utilizing very specific tactical moves she had seen taught in the Chicago Police Academy.
Despite all the evidence that confirmed our account of events, fall moved to winter and then spring without any true progress. We trudged on.
By April 2012, we'd established a clear division of labor: Matt pushed our attorneys to deliver on the intensity they'd promised our case, while Jonathan began to organize with human rights activists in Chicago and elsewhere to advocate for the passage of laws that would hold police officers accountable for their crimes. At that point, we were more or less done with the idea of "justice"—our assailants wouldn't suffer for what they did, and the uniformed officers likely wouldn't be punished for what they did and didn't do.
And the roller coaster sent us up again. On July 11, 2012, the judge ruled we could sue the city under Monell claims, meaning that the city itself could be sued for employing a policy and practice that promoted police violence. To date the lawsuit had been focused on holding the city accountable for the wrongdoing of the men who beat us and the actions of the uniformed cops who arrived on the scene. This ruling, our attorneys explained, was crucial—it meant the actions of the officers could be elevated to the level of an institutionally supported set of behaviors.
It was an important win in an ordeal that provided few tangible victories. That evening, we were reflecting on the potential ramifications of the ruling, hanging out in Matt's condo watching TV when we heard what sounded like a gunshot. Jonathan immediately hit the deck. Our hearts were racing. Something slammed into the third-floor window just above where we were sitting. What the fuck was happening?
After a minute, Matt went outside to assess the damage. It was dark, but he could tell the window was wrecked: A web of cracks covered the entire pane, centered around a tiny round hole half an inch across. Some kind of projectile had clearly been fired at it.
If this had happened to us before the attack, we'd have called 911 immediately, but summoning the cops seemed like a risky proposition. What if the cops themselves were behind this? Who would respond to the call? We did nothing, feeling robbed of the security that law enforcement is supposed to provide. The next day our attorneys offered to come with us to file a police report, but in the end, we decided not to—we had our eyes on much more important things.
At times like that, the apparent intimidation we experienced seemed too perfectly timed to be coincidental. But that incident, unlike some of the others, inspired defiance in us. Matt decided to leave the shattered window on display for a couple of weeks before getting it fixed. One day he saw two uniformed cops in a CPD SUV driving by the house, pointing at the window. When the driver looked up, he saw Matt on his front porch and quickly pulled his arm back inside the car and turned his head away.
Matt, at least, looked at events like these as "plausibly deniable"—he was uncomfortable with the idea that the cops were targeting us. For Jonathan, however, the feeling that we were being watched only increased as he told our story and spoke out against police brutality at rallies and protests all over Chicago, where he met other victims who had been harassed and intimidated by the police after pursuing legal recourse.
By the time winter had set in, we were working together again, combing through stacks of federal civil rights lawsuits, motions, and rulings against the Chicago police for beatings and assaults. We reviewed every part of our case and prepped for our pending trial, tentatively set for March 2013.
Despite our focus on forcing the city to respond to our charges before a judge and jury, our attorneys began pushing us hard to settle out of court. They forcibly persuaded us to dial back the settlement request we'd earlier been required by law to make. Initially we'd set that amount close to $1 million for the two of us, a number we believed the city would never accept, thus forcing a trial. But the head lawyer of the firm stepped in and laid into us repeatedly, telling us we had to make a "reasonable offer" to the city. We finally agreed to sign a new settlement proposal of $185,000, but only because our attorney promised the city would never settle with us for one penny, let alone nearly 200 grand.
If they didn't want an ugly public courtroom brawl, well, we did.
All this coincided with the three-year anniversary of our assault, and the beginning of the system's final and most effective push to silence us.
Just weeks before we were supposed to go to trial in March 2013, the City of Chicago responded to our $185,000 settlement offer. Our attorneys said the government was worried about our proven ability to attract media attention. On the heels of several other high-profile police-violence cases, the people in charge didn't look forward to a spring of headlines about cops participating in an assault and abandoning two men who'd been beaten to a pulp in a parking lot. (In November 2012, a jury ruled against both the city and an individual off-duty cop in the 2007 beating of bartender Karolina Obrycka and she was awarded $850,000 in damages.)
We scoffed at the city's attempted resurrection of the expired offer without hesitation. If they didn't want an ugly public courtroom brawl, well, we did. It was now the only opportunity we saw to affect any sort of change with Chicago Police and the system that supports their violence.
Two days after we turned down the settlement, the federal judge delivered his summary judgment. Cases like ours go through two major hurdles before they ever see a courtroom with a jury in it. The first is defending against the city's "motion to dismiss," which happens very early on in the case. When we faced that challenge, we were shocked and elated with what the judge wrote in his November 17, 2010, denial of the motion:
"It is plausible, based on the facts alleged in the amended complaint, that the Uniformed Officers discovered either before arriving or upon arriving at the scene that the Plainclothes Officers were police officers. It is not plausible that the Uniformed Officers would arrive at the scene of an altercation, proceed to participate with unknown private citizens in the beating of other private citizens, and then allow the private citizens to leave. Thus, based on the above, Plaintiffs have stated valid claims for failure to intervene, and we deny the motion to dismiss the claims for failure to intervene."
The judge had described the scene in this first statement just as the video showed it. During the summary judgment stage—nearly two and a half years later in February 2013—in which a case can be decided in part or in full by the judge, he reversed his previous assessment, stating instead that: "It is undisputed that Individual Moving Defendants did not arrive on the scene until after the altercation between Plaintiffs and Plainclothes Officers had ended," a description that is clearly refuted by video evidence.
With that sudden reversal, we watched our case crumble. This judge was now telling us the uniformed cops basically had done nothing wrong. If you're being beaten and bleeding, they don't need to get you medical help or file a report. Those points could never be revisited. Period. We only had the off-duty female officer left in the case—whom Jonathan had identified—and theMonell claims linked to her.
We had lengthy conversations with our attorneys in which they relayed the city attorneys' threats to countersue the two of us personally for the city's legal fees if we were to lose the trial—which could amount to six to seven figures. Our attorneys had their own "financial considerations," telling us they would re-negotiate our representation agreement ahead of any appeal, and they would require heavy up-front fees for their efforts. If we kept fighting, there was a real chance we'd be left with nothing to show for it—no justice, no closure, just debt.
We were forced to settle.
In the end, we each got about $45,000. That's $45,000 after three-plus years of fear and suffering, $45,000 for injuries both physical and mental inflicted upon us by city servants. The uniformed cops, meanwhile, were never charged with anything. As far as we know, they're still cops. And we never found out the identity of our attackers; to this day the city and the police department have never admitted that they're cops.
The city attorneys had one more insult for us, however. During our final interaction with them—the only time we were together in a courtroom—they insisted on including language in the settlement that would characterize the payment as taxable. While case law is clear in defining settlements in injury cases like ours as generally nontaxable, it is apparently routine for the city to insist otherwise. The opposing lawyers wouldn't budge, but their vindictiveness and pettiness was so obvious that the judge reprimanded the city: "So, you mean we're here because you're trying to force them to pay taxes on this settlement money? Get out of my court and adjust the language in the agreement." It was one of our few victories in our dealings with a completely broken system.
We now recognize that the government's ability to silence victims is a skill that's been honed through years of experience.
From the moment we walked into that parking lot four and a half years ago, the city machinery was set in motion to conceal the truth and make us go away. We don't mistake this settlement for fulfillment or cause for a celebration. Payouts like the one we got are empty victories and everyone close to us knew it was nothing more than the final insult we were forced to accept.
We now recognize that the government's ability to silence victims is a skill that's been honed through years of experience. The decks are stacked—heavily—on the side of the police, who can create the official record of events through their reports. Coupled with their legal authority, this instills a powerful sense of fear in victims, who are often discouraged, as we were, to file complaints. Meanwhile, police accountability institutions, like IPRA, are often staffed by former cops who are hired and paid by the people who have every incentive to avoid lawsuits like ours. A slow official response makes it easy for the public to forget about incidents of police brutality, sluggish and ineffective complaint protocols make it difficult for incidents to become cases, and the common practice of essentially forcing people to take payouts makes it impossible for cases to effect change in the legal system.
Even if a case makes it into court, the odds continue to be stacked against the victims of police brutality. This can be seen in the biases of judges and other decision makers in the justice system, or in the gross warping of normal legal processes, as we recently saw in Ferguson. The net effect is that it's virtually impossible to effect lasting change through the courts.
Our case didn't result in any lasting legal change, either. But we had one final victory: We got the city to delete their usual full-gag-order contingency clause, which would have barred us from discussing the case publicly in any form with anyone. This has allowed us to speak out about what happened to us. It's allowed us to regain some dignity by staying vocal and trying to add to the ongoing dialogue about police violence and the broken justice system in this city and in the country. It's allowed us to write this piece, and share our story. We hope it helps, somehow. All we can hope is that the victims will continue to refuse to be silenced, that the system will change, and that what happened to us won't happen again.
*After publication, one of the subjects asked that VICE remove his name from this article. We have therefore removed his full name from the piece.