Fate of cops on gang video now up to Police Board

February 13, 2013

The fate of two Chicago cops recommended for dismissal because of their conduct in a gang video is now up to the city’s Police Board, which will review a trial-like hearing about the case that ended Wednesday afternoon.

In closing arguments, an attorney for Chicago police Supt. Garry McCarthy said officers Susana La Casa, 49, and Luis Contreras, 44, illegally held and transported a young man, Miguel “Mikey” Castillo, and violated six police department rules.

The attorney, James P. Lynch, disputed testimony by La Casa and Contreras that they had simply tried to give Castillo a ride home in 2011, when a 90-second video captured the officers with the youth in the backseat of their marked SUV on the city’s Northwest Side. The video shows onlookers converging on the vehicle and flashing signs of the gang that claims the area.

“These officers could not testify that they offered to serve as an escort or protection for him,” Lynch said. “Nor do we see any attempts by these officers to offer assistance or take him up to any home on that block. What you see are both of these officers opening the doors and allowing known Latin King gang members to approach with camera cell phones in the air and videotape their taunts.”

Lynch pointed to a moment in the video when La Casa tells Castillo, “Put your fucking hand down,” as the young man tries to cover his face.

“One of the scariest aspects of this video is how much worse this could have been for the officers, their families and the Chicago Police Department,” Lynch said. “Any one of these Latin Kings could have had a gun.”

The officers’ attorney, William N. Fahy, said neither La Casa nor Contreras knew they were being recorded. Fahy insisted that Castillo “was never in any kind of danger.”

Fahy pointed out that Castillo was inside a squad car and that La Casa and Contreras — two armed police officers — were nearby. The attorney said the onlookers had “no weapons and there were no threats.”

Fahy said it was “not unusual” for police officers to give a young person a ride home. He said La Casa and Contreras did not inform dispatchers about the trip because it was just a few blocks and the cops “didn’t want to tie up the radio.”

Across Gang Lines

La Casa and Contreras testified they had never met Castillo and knew nothing about him when they arrived the afternoon of March 19, 2011, on the 3500 block of West McLean Avenue, part of the Logan Square neighborhood. The officers, assigned to patrol housing projects in the police department’s Shakespeare District, were assisting two beat cops on a call that a dispatcher had identified as a “gang disturbance.”

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

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.

It was well known in the area that the Imperial Gangsters and Latin Kings did not get along but La Casa and Contreras testified they did not think Edens was joking about the Spaulding address.

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

La Casa and Contreras brought Castillo to the Spaulding block, where an onlooker shot the video. The officers stayed there about 10 minutes, witnesses told WBEZ, before driving the youth away. The officers said they dropped him off back on McLean.

WBEZ spotted the video on YouTube within days of the incident. The department stripped La Casa and Contreras of their police powers and began an Internal Affairs investigation. Interim police Supt. Terry Hillard called the incident “not professional” and said “scared straight” tactics were always inappropriate.

Some Logan Square homeowners, meanwhile, praised the efforts of La Casa and Contreras to combat gang activity and called for their return to duty. Other community members expressed sympathy for Castillo and recalled similar alleged police mistreatment.

Castillo did not suffer physical harm but received $33,000 from the city as part of a settlement in a civil suit over the incident, according to an attorney 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 but declined to bring a criminal case.

McCarthy filed the dismissal charges with the board in September, almost 18 months after the incident. The charges triggered an unpaid suspension of the officers, who had been assigned to administrative duties since losing their police powers.

Among other charges, McCarthy accused La Casa and Contreras of unlawfully restraining the youth, bringing “discredit upon the department,” and making a “false oral statement” about the incident to an Internal Affairs detective.

Character Witnesses

At the hearing Wednesday, the officers brought in neighborhood residents and former co-workers as character witnesses. Those included Janette Gilmartin, a behavioral health clinician at Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center.

La Casa, an Illinois-licensed clinical counselor, worked with Gilmartin for more than three years before joining the police department in 1999. While suspended from the department, La Casa has returned to the hospital full-time, Gilmartin said.

Gilmartin, who now supervises La Casa, called her an honest and fearless professional who displays unrelenting compassion for people with severe mental illnesses. “She’s the only one I trust with complicated patients,” Gilmartin said, “and many of these are ex-gang members.”

Fahy pointed out the two cops are both immigrants. La Casa grew up in Seville, a city in southern Spain, and moved to California at age 25 before settling in Chicago two years later. Contreras, born in Mexico City, came to the Chicago area with his family at age 12 and graduated from Morton East High School in Cicero.

The Police Board hearing lasted two days. The board’s nine members, who did not attend, will receive a transcript and video recording of the proceedings. Hearing officer Thomas E. Johnson, who presided on both days, will eventually present the case to the board in a closed-door session. The board will vote on both the charges and punishment.

Regarding the charges, the board must decide whether the police department showed “a preponderance of the evidence,” a standard less rigorous than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt measure used in criminal courtrooms.

The officers have more than a glimmer of hope the board will reject McCarthy’s dismissal recommendation and return them to duty. In 2012, according to a board summary, the panel fired just 10 of 48 officers the police department had recommended for dismissal.

In 22 cases, the board either found the officer not guilty of the charges or decided the fitting punishment was a suspension. In 14 cases, the department withdrew the charges after the officer resigned or the sides reached a settlement. In 2 cases, the board dismissed the charges.

Under Illinois law, either the superintendent or the officers can appeal a Police Board decision to Cook County Circuit Court.