Sergio Herrera, a Chicago police officer, was accused in a 2010 lawsuit of teaming up with another officer to mace and beat a black man for no reason. The man was sitting in his parked car when Herrera’s colleague approached the vehicle. As the man went to retrieve his identification, the officer told him to “cuff up,” at which point Herrera entered the fray, spraying the man with mace according to the lawsuit. Both officers then allegedly proceeded to throw the man to the ground, strike him in the head with handcuffs, and dig their knees into his back. When the man asked for medical assistance, his pleas were ignored. Instead, the police took him to the station.
The lawsuit charges that the man’s ribs were fractured, and that he was left with permanent injuries as a result of the incident. The city of Chicago ended up paying the victim a settlement of $75,000, without admitting wrongdoing. Out-of-court settlements for civil rights violations are a common outcome for the department, which is plagued by lawsuits.
The trainings are part of Chicago’s efforts to reform its notoriously abusive police force, but the trainings have in many cases been overseen by the alleged abusers themselves.
Now, Herrera has a new assignment: to be one of several officers who oversee the Chicago Police Department’s “implicit bias” trainings, a program intended to curb incidents of racist police violence.
Herrera’s role is part of a troubling pattern: The trainings are a key part of the city’s efforts to reform its notoriously abusive police force, but revamped trainings that debuted in 2017 have in many cases been overseen by some of the alleged abusers themselves.
Sixteen of the 17 police officers — excluding only Officer Angela McLaurin — who have provided instruction for the procedural justice training program since the start of 2017 have together garnered a total of 111 misconduct complaints, according to police documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The misconduct complaints range from false arrests to illegal searches and include use of excessive force, often against people of color in Chicago. One officer who provided training has faced seven accusations of mistreating black people since 2011. Six other officers have together been accused of abuses in at least ten civil rights lawsuits, with at least half of those cases resulting in settlements or payments to the plaintiffs.
“Over the past two years, the Chicago Police Department has aggressively marched forward on expanding the quantity and quality of in-service training available to officers,” said Sergeant Cindy Guerra of the Chicago police’s Office of the Superintendent, in a statement to The Intercept. “By incorporating national best practices, CPD’s revised training supports officers’ abilities to be successful in the performance of their duties, and ensures sustainable reform.” Guerra, who declined to speak to the outcomes of legal cases, added, “All allegations made against a Chicago Police Officer are taken seriously and thoroughly investigated.”
For activists working on policing issues in Chicago, the track records of police officers who have or are giving trainings underscore the problems with pushing for “improved training” as the solution for police violence. “The urgency around policing is valid and real, but the insistence that what we need is better training is leading to massive amounts of money to an already over-inflated arsenal and budget of CPD,” Page May, co-founder of Assata’s Daughters, a collective of black women in Chicago who identify their work as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, told The Intercept.
The trainings were instituted in the wake of a massive public relations crisis for the Chicago Police Department and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The 2014 police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and subsequent cover-up by city officials pushed policing issues to the fore in the city, leading to protests and, eventually, a damning 2017 Department of Justice investigation. In response, the police department pledged to reform itself, in part by providing better internal trainings with an emphasis on addressing implicit bias.
The Chicago Police Department followed up with a report last April outlining its “Next Steps for Reform.” The department — which has a pattern of racist harassment, civil rights violations, and “unreasonable killings,” according to the Department of Justice — trumpeted its plan as a solution to public concerns. “The 2018 Next Steps for Reform framework is our continued promise to the communities we serve that CPD is serious about addressing the historical challenges we face,” Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at the time.
The police plan emphasized its “procedural justice” training program as a key component of its reform strategy. One of the courses in the training program will focus on implicit bias, or the pervasive and deep-seated prejudices that shape behavior, the police report says. While the department has shared little public information about the content of these trainings, a sympathetic article in the Chicago Sun-Times billed it as a “sensitivity-training course,” noting that the term “procedural justice” is a popular buzzword among police departments under scrutiny for patterns of racist violence. According to the Chicago Police Department report, all officers are mandated to complete the entire training series by the end of 2020.
“Stomping” a Black Man
Many of the instructors who have taught their fellow police officers how to deal with biases, however, are trailed by a litany of civilian complaints. Eleven of the 17 officers who have provided procedural justice trainings since the start of 2017 have been accused of violating the rights of black people, and nine have been accused two times or more of mistreating black people, according to public information collected by the Citizens Police Data Project, a project of the journalism nonprofit Invisible Institute and the University of Chicago Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. The number may be low: Many of the civilian complaints against these officers did not note the race of the complainants.
Only three of the 111 complaints of misconduct were sustained in the processes that adjudicate these complaints, but that comes amid a system that infrequently holds cops to account. Fewer than 2 percent of misconduct accusations against Chicago police officers are sustained — a “low” rate, according to the Department of Justice. Responding to a question from The Intercept about the complaints against four of the officers who have provided trainings, Guerra, the police spokesperson, said, “In reference to the four officers you mentioned, none of these officers have any sustained allegations against them.” (The Intercept requested comment on and interviews with the five officers named in this story for having participated in trainings while also having records of civilian complains or civil rights lawsuits.)
Some of these alleged acts were violent. According to one civilian complaint obtained through a FOIA request, one of the officers who has provided trainings, Officer Daniel Goetz, allegedly “stomped” a black man while he was prostrate on the ground outside a Shell gas station in October 2015. The man had attracted the police’s attention simply for urinating outdoors after he was turned away from the gas station bathroom; when the police asked the man to approach their car, he fled.
The officers who were with Goetz threatened bystanders for attempting to document the alleged injustice, according to the complaint. Witnesses approached to film the police’s actions but were allegedly “warned by the accused officer that if they video recorded anything,” the man would be punished more severely. (In Illinois, it is legal to record most police interactions with the public.) A medical report “noted bruising to [the victim’s] left side,” and that he sought medical care on two separate occasions as a result. The Independent Police Review Authority investigator noted the witnesses declined to testify and, after fellow police officers denied the accusations against Goetz, the complaint process halted, with the evidence deemed insufficient to prove or disprove the allegations. (In its statement, the Chicago police indicated that Goetz is not currently giving procedural justice trainings, though he was listed in a FOIA document as one of the individuals who had done so since the start of 2017.)
In another civilian complaint, also obtained through a FOIA request, Goetz was accused of grabbing a black man by the arm before another officer allegedly said, “I will lock your black fucking ass up.” That complaint also was not sustained after the officers who were present denied the allegations.
The civil rights lawsuits against six of the officers who have provided training are even more harrowing.
The civil rights lawsuits against six of the officers who have provided training are even more harrowing, particularly those involving Wasim Said, a Chicago police officer since 2002 who has been employed in the department’s education and training division. (Like Goetz, the police indicated in their statement to The Intercept that Said was not currently giving procedural justice trainings.) In one suit from 2008, Said was accused of participating in a police raid on a home in which officers pointed their guns at the heads of an adult with a heart condition, a 6-year-old child, and a 4-month-old infant. The 6-year-old “began to vomit as a result of defendants’ actions,” the lawsuit alleges, noting that no criminal charges were ultimately filed. The case settled with $35,000 awarded to the plaintiffs.
According to a separate lawsuit filed the same year, Said and another officer responded violently to an alleged physical assault of a young girl by an adult woman. The suit charges that the officers slammed the girl’s head “extremely hard” onto the hood of a car and held her there despite pleas from her mother that she was only 10 years old. The following morning, the child received treatment at a hospital for “neck strain and head trauma,” alleges the lawsuit, which resulted in a dismissal.
Said is not alone. In 2007, Officer Reginald Weatherly was sued for his alleged participation in a group beating. “One or more of Defendant Officers repeatedly struck Plaintiff in the leg with a blackjack club, breaking his ankle and causing Plaintiff severe pain and suffering,” according to the suit. The suit, which resulted in settlement and dismissal, states that the other officers named in the suit “had the opportunity to intervene to prevent it, but failed to do so.” (In its statement to The Intercept, the Chicago Police Department indicated that Weatherly was not currently giving procedural justice trainings.)
Beyond formal charges, the social media conduct of at least one of the police trainers raises further cause for concern. An officer named Phil Visor, who also serves as an instructor of the procedural justice training, published Facebook posts that include images and rhetoric associated with Blue Lives Matter, a reactionary movement that arose in opposition to Black Lives Matter. One of his profile photos, uploaded on December 23, 2015 — when Chicago was in the grips of protests responding to the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video — shows an image of a group of officers in riot gear that reads, “Sometimes There’s Justice. Sometimes There’s Just Us.” This image, along with other profile photos depicting the “thin blue line” — the mantra that police are the only thing separating society from chaos — demonstrates an affinity with precisely the “us versus them” mentality Visor has been tasked with eradicating.
Guerra, the Chicago police spokesperson, told The Intercept: “[A]s part of our commitment to improved and expanded in-service training under the consent decree, impartial policing concepts, to include proper use of social media, will be provided for all officers, including supervisors and command staff.”
Yet the promise of improved trainings given by police — despite the fact that most of the officers who have given trainings faced formal accusations of troubling misconduct — is being used to justify the funneling of public funds into the police department. In his budget for 2018, Emanuel cited the need for “best practice training for officers and supervisors.” He called for “$103.5 million worth of new investments in police and first responders.”
Joey Mogul, a partner at the People’s Law Office who represents victims of police torture, told The Intercept that the troubling track records of these police officers show that the department cannot train its way out of a crisis of public legitimacy. “The issues we have with the CPD and several municipal police departments are not only willful and egregious violations of the law, but officers coming together to cover those things up,” Mogul said.
Mogul cited the case of Jason Van Dyke, the officer who was convicted last October of second-degree murder for killing McDonald. Notably, Van Dyke was trained at the police academy and had been awarded 22 Honorable Mentions over his career — in addition to having a long list of misconduct complaints.
“In the case of Van Dyke, what additional training did that officer need in order to not go out and shoot and kill someone like Laquan McDonald the way he did?” Mogul said. “Look at the officers who went out of their way and made false statements. They could tell from looking at the video that they were false statements. What training did those officers need to tell them you can’t lie?”