Neighborhood leader to testify for cops caught on gang video

February 12, 2013

Two Chicago police officers facing dismissal charges for an incident caught on a gang video could get a boost Wednesday from a character witness who once trained young people how to file reports on abusive cops.

Eric Hudson, who staffed a youth program for Amnesty International in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood years ago, is scheduled to testify on behalf of officers Susana La Casa and Luis Contreras, who allegedly brought a young gang member to the turf of a rival gang to be threatened there.

“I’m going to go down there, speaking as a black homeowner,” said Hudson, who leads his condominium association in Logan Square and worked with La Casa and Contreras for years to sweep gangs from streets near the building. “They hustled, they got out of their police cars, they made this community safer.”

La Casa and Contreras, represented by attorney William N. Fahy, are planning to call Hudson to the stand as they present their defense during the second day of a Police Board hearing that began last Wednesday.

On the hearing’s first day, the officers testified they merely tried to give Miguel “Mikey” Castillo a ride home the afternoon of March 19, 2011. After they arrived on the 1600 block of North Spaulding Avenue, an onlooker recorded a 90-second video that showed the officers outside their marked SUV with the doors open as other onlookers converged on the vehicle, flashed gang signs and taunted Castillo, who was in the backseat trying to cover his face.

A YouTube user whose alias was “King-Dubb” posted the video that weekend. WBEZ copied the recording shortly before it disappeared from YouTube. A WBEZ reposting led to a storm of accusations that such police conduct was a Chicago tradition.

Within days, the department had stripped La Casa and Contreras of their police powers and assigned them to the city’s non-emergency call center. Interim police Supt. Terry Hillard called the incident “not professional” and said “scared straight” tactics were always inappropriate.

But Hudson, joined by other Northwest Side residents and some business owners, circulated a petition that called for the return of the officers to street duty.

Nearly two years later, Hudson still has their backs. “Especially now, with bodies in the street, we need police officers that care,” he said. “And these police officers care.”

James P. Lynch, an attorney representing police Supt. Garry McCarthy in the dismissal case, says the officers unlawfully restrained the youth in Logan Square, transported him “against his will” to Latin Kings turf in nearby Humboldt Park without a valid police purpose, and allowed suspected members of that gang to threaten him there.

In his opening statement last Wednesday, Lynch called the conduct of La Casa, 49, and Contreras, 44, a “travesty captured on video.” He later questioned the officers about dozens of moments in the recording, projected on a wall near the witness stand.

La Casa, despite working in the department’s Shakespeare District for almost 12 years, claimed to be unfamiliar with the hand gesture used by the Latin Kings to identify membership in the gang. On the video, many of the onlookers make that gesture and vocally identify themselves as “kings.”

The officers testified they didn’t understand those statements, even when played during the hearing. La Casa said she couldn’t understand because, as a native of Spain, English was her second language.

Contreras, who grew up in Cicero and worked in the district for eight years, testified that Castillo never faced any danger in the SUV. “I felt we had the whole situation under control,” Contreras said.

Fahy, the officers’ attorney, said it was not uncommon for cops to give people a ride home.

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

The dismissal charges, signed by McCarthy and filed with the board in September, 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.

After the defense calls its witnesses, the sides will give closing arguments. A hearing officer, Thomas E. Johnson, will present the case to the board at a meeting this spring. The board, a nine-member panel, will rule on the charges and punishment.

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