Police Board Defies Lightfoot, Refuses To Explain Why It Didn’t Fire Sergeant Who Shot Unarmed Autistic Teen
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is calling on the city’s Police Board to explain its decision to keep Sgt. Khalil Muhammad on the force despite finding that his off-duty shooting of an unarmed teenager with autism had no lawful justification.
But the Police Board is refusing to clarify the reasons for its decision to suspend Muhammad rather than fire him — a decision blasted by police-accountability advocates. A board official says the law does not allow board members to talk about it.
A WBEZ investigation found that the Police Board failed to review evidence gathered by city investigators that raises doubts about Muhammad’s explanation for chasing and shooting Ricardo “Ricky” Hayes, 18, near the sergeant’s South Side home in 2017. Instead, in December, the board accepted a plea agreement in which the sergeant admitted guilt in exchange for a 180-day suspension.
Lightfoot, interviewed last week by WBEZ, said she would not “second-guess the decision of the Police Board because they obviously were privy to a range of information that I didn’t have.”
But Lightfoot, who was the board’s president until launching her mayoral campaign in 2018, said “it’s critically important that there is accountability — that there is legitimacy — and questions clearly have been raised about the Police Board’s decision which they’re going to have to respond to and answer.”
Presented with Lightfoot’s comments, neither Police Board President Ghian Foreman nor Vice President Paula Wolff responded to requests for an explanation of how allowing the sergeant to keep his badge and gun served city residents.
Commenting would be illegal?
Police Board Executive Director Max Caproni, in emailed statements, said the board provided sufficient explanation in the case’s written “findings and decision.”
He also contended that individual board members cannot comment on any of the board’s disciplinary decisions. He gave a range of reasons.
Caproni said first that it would be illegal.
“If individual board members commented further about a case or discussed it in public, it would be a violation of the municipal code,” he said, referring to a section of the Municipal Code of Chicago establishing the Police Board’s powers and duties.
Despite repeated requests, however, Caproni could not point to any part of the code that expressly prohibits board members from making statements about decisions.
He said, rather, that the prohibition stemmed from the code’s requirements that the board make its decisions by majority vote and come up with a written explanation for each decision.
“Having an individual board member, who does not speak for the majority, comment on a case beyond the majority’s written findings and decision would contradict the code’s requirements,” Caproni said.
Caproni likened the Police Board’s nine members — all civilian appointees of the mayor — to judges.
The Police Board is “like a court, which issues a written opinion or opinions to make its collective reasoning fully available to all the parties to the case and to the public,” Caproni said. “The municipal code mandates this process.”
Northwestern University Law School Professor Sheila Bedi, a police-accountability advocate, did not buy Caproni’s reasoning.
“There’s nothing in the municipal code that prohibits Police Board members from making statements that would educate the public about either what it does or its decisions,” Bedi said.
Potential litigation issues
Caproni also said the ban on board members speaking individually about disciplinary decisions was an unwritten “operating principle” that is “consistent with” the code.
He said that the speech prohibition helped the board avoid being “misinterpreted or misunderstood.”
“In a process in which the board’s opinions can be (and have been) challenged in court, having informal interpretation of the opinion by any board member could create potential issues in litigation,” Caproni said.
In Muhammad’s case, however, the board’s acceptance of the plea agreement removed his ability to challenge the discipline.
The litigation stemming from the incident includes, rather, a wrongful-shooting lawsuit brought by Hayes and a whistleblower lawsuit brought by Sgt. Isaac Lambert, who claims his superiors pressured him to help cover up the truth of the shooting and retaliated against him when he refused.
Bedi said banning comment by individual board members because of “potential issues in litigation” shows that the Police Board lacks independence from City Hall and the Police Department.
“It suggests that this Police Board is operating just like police boards in the past and isn’t committed to the principles of fairness, accountability and transparency,” she said.
Unnecessary use of a weapon
Muhammad fired two rounds at Hayes on Aug. 13, 2017. The teen suffered gunshot wounds in the shooting, which was recorded on a home-security video. He survived.
The city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability investigated the shooting. On September 24, 2018, COPA issued a 30-page summary that challenged the sergeant’s credibility about the incident’s key moments. COPA found that Muhammad did not have cause to believe that Hayes had committed a crime, that the sergeant was not readily identifiable as a cop, and that he lacked reason to believe the teen was armed and dangerous.
In its summary, COPA concluded that Muhammad violated four Police Department rules, including one that bars unlawful or unnecessary use of a weapon.
But the penalty recommended by COPA Chief Administrator Sydney Roberts was just a 90-day suspension. That recommendation fueled dissention within COPA and led a group of nine aldermen to sign a City Council resolution questioning Roberts’ “leadership and effectiveness.”
Then-Superintendent of Police Eddie Johnson doubled the suspension recommendation to 180 days — a penalty that might be too lenient, Lightfoot suggested in a WBEZ interview last March during her mayoral campaign.
“When people hear that a shooting is unjustified under these kinds of circumstances and a six-month suspension as opposed to termination is given, it has the potential to undermine the police-reform efforts that are still underway,” Lightfoot said at that time. “That’s the concerning part to me.”
After Lightfoot took office, however, her administration negotiated the plea agreement with the sergeant.
That deal, filed this past October as a “stipulation” in the Police Board case, includes a narrative of the incident that sticks closely to Muhammad’s story about what took place. The agreement’s 11 exhibits include one of Muhammad’s statements to COPA investigators but not the agency’s summary raising the doubts about his story — an analysis that city officials characterize as inadmissible hearsay.
In a closed-door meeting, the board decided to accept the plea agreement instead of holding an evidentiary hearing — a public proceeding that would have resembled a trial and could have surfaced the evidence that was the basis of COPA’s summary.
The formal vote, 7-0, took place during the Police Board’s public meeting this past Dec. 12. There was no discussion.