Following three hours of testimony focused heavily on aldermen expressing the need for better excessive force and mental health training for police officers, aldermen reluctantly approved two payouts totaling $6.45 million to families who say their sons died at the hands of police officers.
Attendance: Chairman Ed Burke (14), Joe Moreno (1), Brian Hopkins (2), Pat Dowell (3), Leslie Hairston (5), Rod Sawyer (6), Gregory Mitchell (7), Michelle Harris (8), Anthony Beale (9), Sue Garza (10), Patrick Daley Thompson (11), Marty Quinn (13), Raymond Lopez (15), Toni Foulkes (16), David Moore (17), Willie Cochran (20), Howard Brookins (21), Mike Zalewski (23), Michael Scott, Jr. (24), Roberto Maldonado (26), Walter Burnett (27) Jason Ervin (28), Ariel Reboyras (30), Scott Waguespack (32), Carrie Austin (34), Emma Mitts (37), Gilbert Villegas (36), Nick Sposato (38), Marge Laurino (39), Brendan Reilly (42), Tom Tunney (44), John Arena (45), Ameya Pawar (47), Harry Osterman (48), Deb Silverstein (50).
The larger of the two settlements, a $4.95 million payout, would go to the family of Philip Coleman. The suit names 13 police officers and one detention aide, and alleges their use of excessive force, which included tasing Coleman more than a dozen times, and refusal to take Coleman, who was experiencing a psychotic episode, to a hospital, as the cause of Coleman’s death. Harrison Coleman, Philip’s father, was a retired CHA police officer, and has told reporters, “I helped put my son in the paddy wagon. That was the last time I saw my son alive.”
According to Steve Patton, Corporation Counsel with the city’s Law Department, the Medical Examiner ruled that Coleman died from a “rare allergic reaction” to an antipsychotic drug provided to him when he was brought to the hospital.
Patton said if the case had gone to trial, the plaintiffs would have provided “the foremost expert” in the subject of the drug and its side effects, which they retained for this case. That expert would have argued Coleman’s death was the result of his treatment in lockup: dehydration, stress, and physical encounters with the police; not the drug. Patton also characterized Coleman, a University of Chicago graduate who was on his way to get his Masters in Public Health, as a “sympathetic plaintiff” with a “bright future,” which would have made it a hard case to win by jury.
Police officers were called to Coleman’s home where he suffered an “acute mental breakdown,” Patton explained, as he described the incident that resulted in the lawsuit. It was Coleman’s mother who called the police after her son chased her around the house and physically attacked her. She retreated and climbed out the bathroom window to “escape this mad rage,” Patton continued, describing Coleman as “acting like an airplane” and rolling around the ground when police arrived at the scene.
Data retrieved from the officers show that Coleman was tased 13 times, but according to Patton, that doesn’t mean the charges hit Coleman, but rather that the trigger was pulled that many times.
Coleman was a constituent of Ald. Carrie Austin (34), who did not take kindly to Patton’s characterization that Coleman was “acting crazy.”
“In your next deliberation, please don’t use that kind of language of this young man ‘being acting crazy’, because he is absolutely not. Anybody can have a breakdown. I’m sure that you’ve had one, and some of your children, as well,” Ald. Austin scolded Patton. She said she knew Coleman’s parents because they went to her for help following their son’s death. ”So don’t use that language on him, ‘cause this was a young man that you didn’t know personally.”
The conversation focused heavily on the need for better police training, especially as it relates to mental health issues, during this and the subsequent settlement the council approved–a $1.5 million payout to the family of Justin Cook, who died from suffocation after officers allegedly failed to administer his inhaler to him during an asthma attack.
“We are constantly paying out large settlements because of lack of training and lack of resources,” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9), who also knew the Coleman family. He pushed for Patton and Bureau of Internal Affairs Deputy Chief Eddie Welch, who was on hand to testify on proper police protocol, to do better.
“We don’t choose to defend these cases,” Patton later told reporters when asked to respond to public claims that the city’s process of settling cases enables police misconduct. “I think that’s absolutely false.”
“We’ve been a voice for trying to manage risk, is a polite way of saying it,” Patton continued, “trying to see what problems have led to lawsuits and try to prevent them from recurring, but there is a lot more work to be done. And as soon as we get that wood chopped and that work done, the better off we’ll be.”
The Cook settlement stemmed from an incident on Sept. 20, 2014, when two officers who had recently finished probation were on duty when they saw Cook drive through a stop sign, said Patton.
The officers followed Cook to an alley, where he and a fellow passenger pulled over and proceeded to run from the officers, said Patton. According to the officer’s account, as relayed by Patton, Cook dropped a gun that he had on him. The plaintiffs refute that claim. Both sides agree that Cook was an asthmatic, although how the officers handled that is a point of contention, said Patton.
The two officers said they retrieved Cook’s inhaler and sprayed it into his mouth when they approached him in the alley, then again when he was handcuffed in the squad car. But four eye witnesses, one of whom made a 911 call at the scene, said the officers deliberately withheld his inhaler, some claimed one of the officers threw the inhaler at Cook. Patton said one witness reported hearing the officer say to Cook, “Is this what you want? Well you are not going to get it.”
Patton said it was because of these witnesses that the city chose to settle out of court. The $1.5 million payout would be a structured settlement with payments over time to Cook’s three children. Both cases are currently being investigated by IPRA. None of the officers mentioned have been relieved of their police duties.
Other Items Approved by Finance Committee
Financial Transparency Resolution. The resolution from Ald. John Arena(45) that the committee approved requests that the council draft an ordinance that would require more transparency and oversight for the city when it tries to enter into risky financial agreements with banks. According to Ald. Arena, that official ordinance is set to be introduced Wednesday. The resolution called for a hearing, but after three hours of testimony on the settlements, hardly anyone was in the chambers by the time it was called up. Ald. Arena and the rest of the Progressive Caucus has been meeting with the administration for “several weeks” to draft the language, beginning when the caucus objected to a $200 water revenue bond deal that included so-called toxic swaps.
A Loan Modification agreement for LMR United Inc. This project is in the 24th Ward and Ald. Michael Scott, Jr. (24) testified in favor. When it was voted on and approved, Burke abstained.
Amendment to a redevelopment agreement with Devon, NJ. This item passed in committee, but Chairman Burke said he would hold it, pending the resolution of an issue involving unpaid taxes that the Department of Planning Development is scheduled to settle this week. This amendment transfers ownership of a city-supported mixed-use housing development at 6401-6415 N Rockwell Ave. in the city’s 50th Ward. It’s a 30-unit, approximately 24,800-square-foot building with 232 parking stalls. According to Mary Bonome, a deputy commissioner with DPD, the development company that previously bought the land from the city, ASAT, Inc., went bankrupt and illegally sold the land in a short sale before the project was complete. ASAT, Inc. had bought the land worth $915k from the city for $1 in 2011 and got TIF funds to support construction. This ordinance transfers the project over to Devon, NJ LLC, a developer who completed the project, eliminates the TIF assistance, and designated 195 parking spaces for public use. But there is an issue over taxes on the project due to the city, which Bonome said DPD is in the process of recouping through legal channels.