Cops on gang video: ‘We were giving youth a ride home’

February 6, 2013

The video, spotted by WBEZ, shows Chicago officers Susana La Casa and Luis Contreras on the 1600 block of North Spaulding Avenue on March 19, 2011.

Updated at 4:30 p.m.

Two Chicago police officers who were caught on a gang video say they were trying to give a young man a ride home, not bringing him to a gang that would threaten him, as police Supt. Garry McCarthy alleges in a recommendation to fire the cops.

Officers Susana La Casa and Luis Contreras took the witness stand Wednesday as the city’s Police Board began its main hearing in a dismissal case that has pitted cop against cop and drawn conflicting reactions from neighborhood residents. The officers had not defended themselves in public since the 2011 incident.

James P. Lynch — an attorney representing McCarthy, who did not attend the hearing — outlined the dismissal charges, which were filed with the board in September. Lynch accused the officers of unlawfully restraining the youth, transporting him “against his will” to Latin Kings turf without a valid police purpose, and allowing suspected members of that gang to threaten him there.

The youth, Miguel “Mikey” Castillo, did not suffer physical harm in the incident, which began in Logan Square, a Northwest Side neighborhood.

La Casa and Contreras testified they had never met Castillo and said they knew nothing about him when they arrived on the 3500 block of West McLean Avenue the afternoon of March 19, 2011. La Casa and Contreras were assisting two officers who had handcuffed Castillo and three other youths there.

One of those officers, Michael Edens, testified that he had encountered the youths many times and called them members of a gang known as the Imperial Gangsters. The officers did not arrest any of the youths the day of the incident.

In the hearing, Edens acknowledged he suggested that La Casa and Contreras bring Castillo to an address on the 1600 block of North Spaulding Avenue, a Latin Kings stronghold in nearby Humboldt Park. But Edens said he was responding to a similar suggestion by Contreras and called it all a joke between the officers.

The three officers all testified they were familiar with the area’s gang territories based on years of experience patrolling their department’s Shakespeare District.

Contreras said he and La Casa did not think Edens was joking about the Spaulding address and said they thought he was asking them to drive Castillo home. “He told us to make the transport,” Contreras said.

Edens had no authority over La Casa or Contreras. The three officers shared the same rank.

Once La Casa and Contreras brought Castillo to the Spaulding block, an onlooker recorded a 90-second video showing the two officers outside their SUV with the doors open as other onlookers converged on the vehicle and taunted the young man inside.

WBEZ spotted the video on YouTube within days of the incident. After the department stripped La Casa and Contreras of their police powers, some Logan Square homeowners praised their efforts to combat gang activity and called for their return to duty. Other community members sympathized with Castillo and told similar stories of alleged Chicago police mistreatment.

At the hearing, Lynch called the conduct of La Casa and Contreras a “travesty captured on video” and questioned them about dozens of moments in the recording, projected on a wall near the witness stand.

La Casa said she regretted yelling, “Put your fucking hand down,” at Castillo as he tried to block his face from view in the backseat of the SUV, a Chevrolet Tahoe with standard police markings. La Casa said she was “frustrated” and “confused” that Castillo did not leave the SUV after she and her partner brought him to the Spaulding block.

La Casa also claimed she was not familiar with the hand gesture Latin Kings use to identify their membership in the gang. On the video, many of the onlookers make that gesture and vocally identify themselves as “kings.”

La Casa and Contreras, represented by attorney William N. Fahy at the hearing, said Castillo never faced any danger in their backseat and said they had the situation under control.

The charges accuse La Casa and Contreras of bringing “discredit upon the department.” The officers later each allegedly “made a false oral statement” about the incident to an Internal Affairs detective.

The board’s nine members did not attend the hearing, an adversarial process resembling a criminal trial. Thomas E. Johnson, a hearing officer, presided. The hearing is scheduled to resume next week.

The board will rule on the charges and punishment. The department must show “a preponderance of the evidence,” a standard less rigorous than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt measure used in criminal courtrooms.

La Casa and Contreras, meanwhile, are suspended without pay.

Castillo received $33,000 from the city as part of a settlement in a civil suit over the incident, according to the law firm representing him. The suit, filed in federal court, alleged false arrest and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office reviewed the incident in 2011 but declined to bring criminal charges.