A Chicago police officer charged with murder — who prosecutors claim shot an unarmed man in the back — will be released without having to post bail.
Prosecutors on Thursday asked that 57-year-old Lowell Houser be held without bail, but Cook County Judge Donald Panarese Jr. instead ordered the veteran officer released on his own recognizance and be placed on electronic monitoring.
The charges come almost a week after the U.S. Justice Department released a scathing report on misconduct in the Chicago Police Department. The report specifically criticized police misconduct investigations, saying they are often biased toward officers.
The case marks the first time new Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has brought charges against a Chicago police officer. In November, Foxx defeated then-State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who was chastised for how long it took to bring murder charges against a white police officer accused of shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times on the Southwest Side.
Foxx moved swiftly in bringing charges against Houser.
“That was her campaign promise, to go after police officers and to charge police officers with criminal conduct, so we’re not surprised this was something that happened,” said Dean Angelo, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police union. “We’re a little concerned that it happened so quickly. And initially we didn’t believe, without getting into the case itself, that this was a chargeable situation.”
Houser was charged Wednesday with first-degree murder in the Jan. 2 shooting death of 38-year-old Jose Nieves on the Northwest Side, according to a statement from the state’s attorney’s office.
Prosecutors said Houser had been involved in “prior altercations” with Nieves. The most recent dispute happened last month when prosecutors said Houser brandished a handgun and ordered Nieves back into his apartment. Nieves reported the incident to police, and officers made a report.
Outside the courtroom, Nieves’ sister, Angelica Nieves, expressed her frustration that nothing was done after her brother called police.
“I will fight for justice for my brother, and for my parents as well, knowing that he was taken in the most horrible way. And unjustified, because he called for help and was not heard through the system,” she said.
On the day of the shooting, Nieves and a friend were unloading boxes from two vehicles and carrying them up to Nieves’s apartment in the 2500 block of North Lowell Avenue when Houser approached, Assistant State’s Attorney Lynn McCarthy said.
When Nieves went upstairs, Houser asked the friend, “Who are you? Why are you helping him? Are you his mother? And you know he treats women badly?” according to McCarthy.
Nieves returned and got into an argument with Houser, McCarthy said. Nieves’ friend continued to carry boxes into the apartment.
Moments later, a neighbor heard a series of loud bangs, saw Houser standing in the street with a pistol and Nieves “place his hand on his chest and fall backwards to the ground,” McCarthy said.
The neighbor did not report seeing any physical contact prior to the shooting, and said he did not see Nieves with a weapon.
Houser’s lawyer, William Fahy, claimed the off-duty officer acted in self-defense. Fahy alleged Nieves approached Houser, threatened him and made a motion that could have been interpreted as reaching for a weapon.
Fahy added that Houser identified himself as a police officer before shooting, and then immediately called 911 to Nieves help after the shooting.
According to a transcript of a 911 call, Houser allegedly said, “Yeah, this is Officer Houser. I have an emergency. A gentlemen tried to attack me. I had to shoot him.”
Paramedics took Nieves to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center to treat gunshot wounds to the lower back and hand, authorities said, adding he was declared dead less than an hour later. The Cook County medical examiner’s office declared the death a homicide.
Houser, who has been with the Chicago Police Department since 1988, was relieved of his police powers and reassigned to administrative duties after the shooting, McCarthy said.
Fahy said Houser has been on medical leave since being diagnosed with cancer in March 2016. Houser previously attended University of Illinois at Chicago and has served in the National Guard for 22 years.
The Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates all police shootings, and the FBI are investigating.
Dan Weissmann is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him at @danweissmann.