Police Board fires cops for conduct captured on gang video

May 11, 2013

The Chicago Police Board has fired two officers for conduct captured on a 2011 gang video (above) discovered by WBEZ.

The board found patrol officers Susana La Casa, 49, and Luis Contreras, 44, guilty of numerous administrative charges and decided the fitting punishment was dismissal, according to James P. Lynch, the attorney who represented the police department in the case.

The guilty charges, Lynch said, included unlawfully restraining a youth, transporting him without a valid police purpose to the turf of a gang that would threaten him, and making a false statement about the incident to an Internal Affairs detective.

La Casa and Contreras arrived March 19, 2011, on a Logan Square block to assist two officers who had handcuffed a gang member named Miguel “Mikey” Castillo. The youth ended up in the backseat of the SUV that La Casa and Contreras were driving. They drove him to a block of nearby Humboldt Park that a rival gang claimed as its territory.

A 90-second amateur video shot there shows La Casa and Contreras outside the SUV, a Chevrolet Tahoe with standard police markings. Three of the doors are open as onlookers converge, peer in on Castillo, taunt him and flash their gang’s hand signal. As Castillo tries to cover his face, La Casa tells him, “Put your fucking hand down.”

The video appeared briefly on YouTube, where WBEZ spotted it. The department quickly stripped La Casa and Contreras of their police powers and began an investigation. Interim police Supt. Terry Hillard called the incident “not professional” and said “scared straight” tactics were always inappropriate.

Supt. Garry McCarthy, Hillard’s successor, recommended last September that the board dismiss the officers. At the board’s evidentiary hearing, which lasted two days in February, La Casa and Contreras insisted they were just trying to give the young man a ride home and he never faced danger.

La Casa declined to comment about the dismissal. Contreras and attorney William N. Fahy, who represented the officers, did not return calls.

Neighborhood reactions varied. Eric Hudson, a homeowner who worked with La Casa and Contreras against Logan Square gang activity, said the dismissal stemmed from a police department culture “weighted to Irish male cops.”

Hudson called La Casa, an Illinois-licensed clinical counselor, a hard worker who did not deserve to be branded as abusive. “This woman is a social worker, not Jon Burge,” Hudson said, referring to the notorious Chicago detective imprisoned in connection to police torture cases.

But Rev. Kenny Ruiz, the former head of a gang-intervention program at the McCormick Tribune YMCA, hopes the dismissal sends a message to other officers. “Do what the side of the police car says: ‘Serve and Protect.’ That means everyone,” Ruiz said. “They can be the conduit for something positive for the young people and the challenges that they face.”

The board, a nine-member panel appointed by the mayor, does not usually dismiss officers recommended for that punishment. During this year’s first three months, the board fired just three of 13 officers that either the police department or the Independent Police Review Authority had recommended for discharge. In eight of those cases, the board ruled that the fitting punishment was a suspension or reprimand. In another case, the respondent resigned. In another, the department withdrew the charges.

Under Illinois law, officers can appeal their dismissals to Cook County Circuit Court.

Castillo, who did not suffer physical harm, 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.

Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud, and connect with him through Facebook and LinkedIn.