A Chicago cop who took a gun off the street gets fired for how she did it

The city’s Police Board finds Officer Rebecca Thuestad lied about detaining a man and then releasing him in exchange for a gun.

Seized guns
Guns seized by the Chicago Police Department are displayed at a police press conference. Robert Wildeboer / WBEZ
Seized guns
Guns seized by the Chicago Police Department are displayed at a police press conference. Robert Wildeboer / WBEZ

A Chicago cop who took a gun off the street gets fired for how she did it

The city’s Police Board finds Officer Rebecca Thuestad lied about detaining a man and then releasing him in exchange for a gun.

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One of the Chicago Police Department’s main anti-violence strategies is to seize firearms. Many of those seizures take place after officers pull over motorists for traffic violations in high-crime neighborhoods.

“Each gun recovered, regardless of how, is a potential life saved,” police Supt. David Brown said at a news conference last month. “Each gun recovered is a result of dangerous work done by our police officers, who serve with courage, each and every day.”

But one cop who recovered a firearm after stopping a car has been fired for discrediting CPD while going about the task and later reporting falsely about it. Critics say those sorts of infractions are inevitable, given the department’s focus on gun seizures. And they say that focus itself risks damage to CPD credibility because of the traffic stops, which seem like pretexts for searching cars for firearms.

Rebecca Thuestad, 40, was found by the Police Board to have engaged in a “scheme to recover a gun under false pretenses” during an incident that began with a traffic stop and led to the motorist’s off-the-books detention in a police station, where he arranged for the firearm to be brought to an alley for police. Thuestad and her partner seized that gun and, after returning to the station, Thuestad released him without charges and later lied about what had taken place, the board found.

“Effective law enforcement depends upon a high degree of cooperation between the police department and the public it serves,” according to the findings, issued May 26. “Conduct such as [Thuestad’s] erodes the public’s trust of and confidence in police officers, thereby impeding the department’s efforts to achieve the important goal of reducing crime.”

Gun for freedom

Thuestad, who is white, and her partner, a Latino, stopped the vehicle Dec. 8, 2015, on the West Side for making a turn without signaling and for lacking a city of Chicago windshield sticker, the findings say.

Using their police vehicle’s data terminal, the officers found out the motorist, a 35-year-old Black man, had a suspended license. They handcuffed him and took him to the department’s Ogden station.

On the way, according to the findings, the motorist told the cops he could get them a gun. The man, taken to a processing room of the station, made a few calls and arranged “to have a gun placed in a designated location by a family member,” the findings say.

The motorist told Thuestad and her partner a gun had been left in the alley near his grandmother’s home less than two miles from the station, the board found. The officers left the man at the station for nearly an hour as they retrieved the gun.

When the cops reached the alley, a male relative of the motorist approached them, according to the board’s findings.

That man had an Illinois Firearm Owners Identification Card and legally owned a gun, a city attorney said in Thuestad’s disciplinary case.

Thuestad and her partner interacted with the relative, took a gun from that location and returned to the station, the board found. Then Thuestad freed the motorist.

“We believe [Thuestad] released [him] without charging him or giving him a citation because he successfully made arrangements for [her] to retrieve a gun,” the board members said in their findings.

Thuestad, a six-year CPD veteran at the time, failed to document having held the motorist on any official police report and failed to notify a boss before releasing him without charges, the board found.

Thuestad also lied in a police report by writing that the motorist, “while on a traffic stop,” told the two officers he “observed an unknown male” put the gun near some CTA train tracks, according to the findings.

Later, Thuestad allegedly made “false and/or misleading” statements to CPD Bureau of Internal Affairs investigators when she denied knowing that the man’s phone calls were to arrange for the gun to be brought to the alley, the board found.

Brown signed the dismissal charges, filed with the board in January 2021, leading to an evidentiary hearing this past February and the findings in May.

Thuestad’s attorney did not reply to messages seeking comment.

Community alienation

During the first six months of 2022, according to the Police Department, officers recovered 6,205 weapons, 5% ahead of the pace of 2021, a year in which the department reportedly recovered a record 12,088 guns.

Stephanie Kollmann, policy director at Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center, said it’s no surprise that CPD’s push for gun seizures leads some officers to “cut corners or invent scenarios on police reports.”

“Stopping and searching vehicles based on very minor pretextual [violations] is leading to a lot of people having very negative, traumatic, dangerous encounters with police,” Kollmann said.

Kollmann also said it’s important to put firearm recovery numbers in context.

CPD’s 6,205 tally compares to nearly 230,000 firearms sold in Illinois during those same six months, according to estimates based on federal data. The estimates do not include private sales or purchases in other states.

“Millions of guns are circulating in Illinois,” Kollmann said. “There are so many that concentrating on the end-user possession doesn’t make mathematical sense.”

But Loyola University Chicago criminologist David E. Olson said the public is demanding that police “do something about the gun violence problem and [the] tools they have are fairly limited.”

One thing CPD can do is take guns off the street in the communities that have the most gun violence, Olson said, “but those are also the poorest communities [with] primarily minority populations.”

Olson said only a small percentage of traffic stops yield a gun.

“A lot of people are stopped, potentially not treated the way that they would want to be treated, and then let go on their way, but it leaves a bad taste in their mouth,” Olson said. “It can potentially create the feeling among those communities that the police are primarily there just to harass and arrest and search.”

Experts said that feeling can discourage the community collaboration that CPD needs to solve violent crimes and tamp down gun violence.

But Olson said “the alternative is [to] take police out of communities with the most crime and put them in Lincoln Park,” a much wealthier and whiter part of Chicago.

“How would that play?” Olson said. “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing, public safety and public health. Follow them at @ChipMitchell1.