After Off-Duty Sergeant Shot Autistic Teen, Police Board Failed To Review Key Evidence

COPA screengrab
A home security camera records Ricardo Hayes, 18, standing on a South Side sidewalk moments before Chicago Police Sgt. Khalil Muhammad shot him in 2017. Video still / Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability
COPA screengrab
A home security camera records Ricardo Hayes, 18, standing on a South Side sidewalk moments before Chicago Police Sgt. Khalil Muhammad shot him in 2017. Video still / Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability

After Off-Duty Sergeant Shot Autistic Teen, Police Board Failed To Review Key Evidence

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Chicago Police Board members did not review key evidence about Sgt. Khalil Muhammad’s off-duty shooting of an unarmed teenager with autism before they decided in December to keep him on the force, a WBEZ investigation has found.

The evidence the board failed to review raises one doubt after another about Muhammad’s explanations for chasing Ricardo “Ricky” Hayes, 18, down a South Side block and firing two rounds at the teen, who suffered gunshot wounds but survived.

Police Board Executive Director Max A. Caproni, responding to WBEZ questions, wrote that the nine-member panel was “required to base its decision only on the record of proceedings.”

That record included a plea agreement in which the sergeant admitted that the 2017 shooting was “without lawful justification” in exchange for a 180-day suspension.

The agreement, signed by a city attorney representing then-Superintendent of Police Eddie Johnson, hews closely to Muhammad’s story about what took place. It excludes much of the evidence gathered by city investigators.

Police Board members have refused to explain why they decided against firing Muhammad despite finding that his use of deadly force was unjustified. The board has also refused to answer WBEZ’s questions about why it made that decision without reviewing more of the evidence.

Police-accountability advocates blasted the process.

University of Chicago Law Professor Craig Futterman called the plea agreement “a deal between a superintendent and a sergeant — two police officers — so that a sergeant, who shot a disabled child without any justification whatsoever, can keep his gun and CPD badge.”

“That shouldn’t make anyone in the city sleep well,” Futterman said.

Evidence not reviewed

Around 5 a.m. on Aug. 13, 2017, Muhammad was getting home after working through the night. Driving alone in his girlfriend’s SUV with Indiana plates and wearing a hoodie, the sergeant reached his Morgan Park block and encountered Hayes.

The Police Board had a transcript of a Muhammad statement about what happened next. What the board did not have was the analysis of that statement by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the city agency that investigated the shooting. That analysis appeared in a 30-page summary of the investigation and referred to evidence at odds with key points of Muhammad’s story.

Muhammad said he saw Hayes standing by a neighbor’s vehicle and worried the teen could be responsible for recent car break-ins in the area. COPA found that Muhammad spoke of only one break-in and did not provide specifics about it. COPA also found that the alleged offense happened nearly a mile away and that it did not give the sergeant reason to believe Hayes had committed any crime.

Muhammad, who was driving the civilian vehicle and wearing the civilian clothes, told investigators he announced his office to Hayes: “I pull up on him and say, ‘Hey, I’m the police. What are you doing?’ ”

But, according to the COPA summary, a surveillance video shows Muhammad driving past the teen without stopping, making it difficult to believe the sergeant announced his office at that point.

Muhammad also said that, after chasing and catching up to Hayes, he thought the teen was pulling out a gun — a “dark object” that “flipped up in the air” after Hayes was shot.

The sergeant said he did not find out until later that the object was Hayes’s cell phone.

COPA investigators called Muhammad in for a second statement and repeatedly questioned why he kept pursuing Hayes after the shooting instead of looking on the ground to secure what he believed to be the gun.

A video that the Chicago Police Board reviewed shows Sgt. Khalil Muhammad shooting Ricardo Hayes, 18, in the Morgan Park neighborhood on Aug. 13, 2017. (Civilian Office of Police Accountability)

The COPA summary, completed in 2018, ripped Muhammad’s credibility. The summary, which redacted Hayes’s name, found:

  • Muhammad did not have probable cause to believe that Hayes “had committed any crime, let alone a violent crime.”
  • The sergeant was not “readily identifiable as a law enforcement official.”
  • He lacked “an adequate basis to believe that [Hayes] was armed and dangerous.”
  • Hayes approached Muhammad’s vehicle only after the sergeant “attempted to engage [the teen] in conversation.”

“It appears that, at least immediately after shooting [Hayes], Sergeant Muhammad himself did not believe the dark object was a firearm because Sergeant Muhammad did not secure the dark object despite admitting that he saw [Hayes] drop the dark object to the ground,” the summary said. “The evidence demonstrates that an officer with similar training and experience as Sergeant Muhammad would not have reasonably believed that [Hayes] posed an immediate threat.”

But the COPA summary and much of the evidence supporting it — the information about the car break-in, the surveillance video, the second Muhammad statement — never made it to the Police Board.

Instead, the board signed off on the plea agreement, which was negotiated by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration and filed as a “stipulation” in October. The stipulation included 11 exhibits — only a portion of the case’s evidence — and claimed there was no “additional pertinent video.”

“The parties wish to avoid the expense, inconvenience, and burden of holding a full hearing on the undisputed charges, while still providing the Police Board with sufficient facts for it to resolve this matter,” the stipulation said.

“I did my due diligence”

It was up to the Police Board, whose members are civilians appointed by Lightfoot, to decide whether Muhammad was guilty of the charges and, if so, to order the fitting punishment.

Handed the plea agreement, the board had two choices, according to experts. It could accept the deal or hold a trial-like hearing aimed at gathering more evidence. The evidentiary hearing would have been open to the public and would have provided the sergeant an opportunity to present a defense and confront witnesses.

In a closed-door meeting, the board decided to accept the plea deal. The formal vote, 7-0, took place without any discussion during the board’s public meeting on Dec. 12.

“Because a full evidentiary hearing before the board will not result in a materially more complete record on which to decide this case, the board accepts the stipulation entered into by the superintendent and Sergeant Muhammad,” the Police Board said in its written “Findings and Decision.”

The seven votes were cast by board President Ghian Foreman and Vice President Paula Wolff as well as Matthew C. Crowl, Eva-Dina Delgado, Steve Flores, John P. O’Malley Jr. and Andrea L. Zopp. Two other members, Rev. Michael Eaddy and Rhoda D. Sweeney, participated in the meeting but did not cast votes about the sergeant.

Police Board President Ghian Foreman (left) and Vice President Paula Wolff have refused to explain why they decided to keep Sgt. Khalil Muhammad on the force after finding that his 2017 shooting had no lawful justification. Manuel Martinez, WBEZ / M. Spencer Green, Associated Press

“We reviewed the case and the board agreed with the superintendent’s recommendation [for the 180-day suspension] based on the facts of the case,” Foreman said after that board meeting, refusing to specify those facts.

Wolff, a longtime political insider who founded the nonprofit Illinois Justice Project, refused as well.

“The decision speaks for itself,” Wolff said. “I did my due diligence.”

Wolff declined to say whether she had read COPA’s investigation summary.

Police Board officials also declined to say whether the board members received any information about the credibility of Muhammad’s version of events.

The board acknowledged that its meetings are recorded but denied a WBEZ request for that tape and other records that might shed light on what the board considered in its decision.

Bureaucratic rubber stamp?

A 2016 ruling by an Illinois appellate panel affirmed that the Police Board can impose punishment tougher than what the police superintendent recommends.

That ruling concluded that the board is not merely a “bureaucratic rubber stamp” or “procedural extension of the superintendent’s authority.”

The court found that the Illinois and Chicago codes that created the board “put an end to dealing with police misconduct as solely an internal police function.”

The Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving the appellate ruling in place.

To punish Muhammad, civil rights advocates said, the Police Board did not have to accept the proposed suspension.

“If it finds that that plea deal is contrary to the public interest, is contrary to justice, it’s supposed to reject it,” Futterman said.

University of Chicago Law Professor Sharon Fairley, a former federal prosecutor who last month finished a survey of police oversight in the nation’s 100 most populous cities, said the “whole point of having a separate civilian entity to be involved in making these decisions is so that that entity can make independent judgment about what should happen in these matters.”

“When you have a stipulation and there’s literally no [evidentiary] hearing, then the board is less able to exercise its independent judgment with regard to what the appropriate penalty should be,” said Fairley, who stepped down as COPA chief administrator in October 2017 as she began campaigning for Illinois attorney general.

WBEZ asked Mayor Lightfoot whether the board’s decision to keep Muhammad on the force shows a lack of independence from the police.

Lightfoot was Police Board president when she launched her campaign for mayor. She had gained prominence by criticizing Chicago’s lack of accountability for police officers. As mayor, she appoints the Police Board’s members as well as the police superintendent.

Her office did not respond.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.