A Chicago cop was sentenced to five years in federal prison Monday for shooting into a car filled with black teens. The conviction and sentence on federal civil rights charges is a rarity in Chicago, and some police reform experts say it’s evidence juries are becoming more willing to hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct.
Veteran officer Marco Proano is the first Chicago cop to face federal criminal charges for an on-duty shooting in more than 15 years. In August, a federal grand jury concluded that Proano violated the civil rights of the victims by using excessive force when he unleashed a hail of gunfire into a moving vehicle in December 2013.
On that night in December, officers stopped a car for speeding, and then concluded the vehicle had been stolen and called for backup; Proano and his partner responded. During the trial, prosecutors relied on dash cam footage showing Proano brandishing his weapon immediately upon exiting his vehicle, pointing it at the car, which was full of black teenagers, and firing 16 shots as they reversed away from him. Two of the teens were wounded, but they recovered from their injuries.
One factor that separated this case from other police shootings that resulted in non-convictions or non-indictments is that the victims survived and were able to tell their side of the story in court.
“Another thing that I think is critically important: Juries are educated about police, in general, these days,” Northwestern law professor and lawyer at the school’s MacArthur Justice Center Sheila Bevi explained to Chicago Magazine. “The culture of racism and the lack of accountability is something that is well known to anybody who reads the papers.”
Other experts are more skeptical.
“I don’t think that his case represents a turning of the tides,” said Phil Stinson, a professor of criminology at Bowling Green State University. Both Bevi and Stinson also pointed out Proano was prosecuted on civil rights violations in a federal court, rather than on homicide-related charges in a state court.
READ: When cops commit crimes
“The elements of the crime are different in these federal cases than in the state court cases,” Stinson said. “Also, I think it is important to note that a federal jury trial in a U.S. District Court pulls jurors from a multi-county area and that might make a difference.”
Although Bevi couldn’t say what the conviction of Proano might mean for the upcoming trial of Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is facing murder charges for shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald three years ago, she expressed hope that an increased awareness of police shooting cases would influence jurors.
If convicted, Van Dyke faces a sentence of 20 years to life.
Van Dyke’s indictment alone was a watershed moment in Chicago criminal justice; it was the first time in more than 30 years that a Chicago cop was charged for first-degree murder for an on-duty incident.