City pays $400,000 to woman who says cops groped, stripped her

July 25, 2013

Patrick Smith

WBEZ/File
A Chicago police car outside of a home in Chicago.

The city of Chicago is paying $400,000 to a woman who says a uniformed police officer stripped and groped her while his partner took pictures.

That payment will settle a federal lawsuit filed in 2011.

The city council voted Wednesday to approve the settlement with the woman. The two officers involved in the alleged incident will also contribute an additional $5,000 each.

According to court records, and statements by attorneys for both parties, the alleged victim and the police officers agree on some key facts about the night that led to the lawsuit.

On September 14, 2009, the woman and her two friends were driving home after a night of karaoke and cocktails in Hyde Park when around 1:30 a.m., the driver pulled to the side of the road saying she was too drunk to drive.

While the women debated who to call for a ride, two Chicago police officers, Robert Watson and James Starks, pulled up behind them in a squad car and offered to drive them home. They accepted and the police officers radioed in that they were driving the women to their home.

“We were relieved because we wanted to be safe in getting home so we accepted the ride,” the alleged victim says.

She has asked to be referred to as Jane. She says she is afraid to use her real name because of what happened next.

After the officers dropped off her friends, they offered to drive Jane to her Hyde Park apartment.

Officer Watson drove Jane’s car, while Starks followed in the police vehicle. This time, the police officers did not tell their supervisor where they were going.

That is where Jane’s version of events diverges from the officers’.

Jane says as they were driving, Watson asked her for her name and phone number, and because he was a police officer she told him.

“I was sitting behind the driver’s seat and he started to reach his arm in the backseat and fondle me,” Jane says.

When they got to her apartment, Jane says Watson and Starks escorted her to her door, even though she told them she didn’t want them to. On the way up, in the elevator, Jane says she was shaking with fright, so badly she couldn’t get her key into the lock. So she says Watson took the key from her and opened the door.

And then he allegedly insisted on helping her into bed.

“One officer escorts me to the room, to my bedroom, and undresses me and begins to fondle me and I’m asking this officer to, you know, please stop, please stop. And I have my arms crossed and I’m just asking please stop please just give me my keys and go, and he didn’t stop, he didn’t stop,” Jane says.

According to an emergency order of protection Jane got against the two officers three months after the alleged incident, Watson licked and fondled her breasts and grabbed her vagina. After Jane asked him to stop again, according to court records Watson allegedly asked her where she kept her condoms.

While this was happening she says Starks was in the bathroom. Then she heard the toilet flush, and he came into her room.

“And this one (Starks) comes in ... with his camera phone and he is taking pictures of me,” Jane says.

Then Jane says she got a phone call from her girlfriend who was outside of her apartment. Jane begged her to come up, but she was afraid to say more.

“I couldn’t say ‘there are police officers in my apartment assaulting me,’” she says.

When she told Watson and Starks that her friend was on her way up, they left. But before leaving she says Watson leaned over her and said, “I’ll be back.”

“And I believed him,” Jane says.

After the officers left Jane says she “showered and I cried myself to sleep.”

Jane’s girlfriend wanted to call the police but Jane wouldn’t let her.

“For me it was like OK, how do you tell the police on the police. I felt like ‘Who am I calling? They did this to me,’” Jane says.

Leslie Darling, who is an attorney for the city of Chicago, told the city council finance committee that Jane’s girlfriend was ready to testify about her condition when she got there.

The next day Jane got two phone calls from a number she didn’t recognize. She didn’t answer because she was sure it was one of the officers.

Jane says she was so traumatized by the event - so certain there would be retribution - she was afraid to report the incident.

Eventually her friend convinced her to tell her mother and then the police.

Jane filed a report online with the Chicago Police Department. Detectives interviewed her and she picked Watson and Starks out of a photo lineup.

No criminal charges were filed and an internal investigation by the police found no evidence of sexual assault.

Both officer Watson and officer Starks got 30-day suspensions for not telling their supervisor where they were when they gave Jane a ride home that night.

After requesting, and getting, an emergency order of protection against the two officers in December of 2009, Jane filed her federal lawsuit two years later.

She says the $410,000 won’t do much to help with the trauma she still suffers, but she says it was important to her to make the city and the officer pay for what they did.

Attorneys for Watson and Starks directed all questions to the city’s law department.

The city and the officers deny any wrongdoing, and it is important to note that a lawsuit settlement is not an admission of guilt.

But Darling told the finance committee that Jane’s story is backed up by evidence and that one of the reasons the city settled is because a jury is more likely to believe Jane than Watson and Starks.

Darling said while Watson and Starks deny any sexual misconduct, “they are unable to explain several inconsistencies between some of their sworn testimony and the objective evidence.”

For instance, she said, while Watson denies ever asking for Jane’s number, he did call her twice the next day.

“Cell phone records indicate that the number was, in fact, officer Watson’s cell phone,” Darling said.

She also explained to the committee that it was clear Jane had suffered some emotional trauma after that night.

“(Jane) moving in with her mother, taking a leave of absence from work, and receiving counseling would also likely lead a jury to believe that she suffered an emotional trauma as a result of her encounter with these officers,” Darling said.

A spokesman for the Chicago Police Department declined to comment on the case except to confirm that officer Watson and officer Starks are still active patrol officers in Chicago.

“It’s not fair that they can do this to me and live a happy productive life while I still suffer, it’s not fair,” Jane says.

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ reporter. Follow him on twitter @pksmid.