A Chicago panel is letting a cop keep his job after a ‘clearly unreasonable and unnecessary’ shooting

a Chicago police officer wears a vest that says police
Chicago's Police Board voted Thursday to allow an officer who violated department policy by shooting into a moving vehicle to keep his job. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
a Chicago police officer wears a vest that says police
Chicago's Police Board voted Thursday to allow an officer who violated department policy by shooting into a moving vehicle to keep his job. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

A Chicago panel is letting a cop keep his job after a ‘clearly unreasonable and unnecessary’ shooting

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After finding a patrol officer guilty of violating a Chicago Police Department policy that generally bars shooting at a moving vehicle, the city’s Police Board on Thursday night rejected a recommendation to fire the cop and instead ordered a two-year suspension.

The board decision paves the way for officer Luigi Sarli, a 16-year CPD veteran when he was removed from the city payroll last February, to return to his job early next year. The nine-page decision found Sarli’s shooting to be “clearly unreasonable and unnecessary” but said the officer’s actions would not warrant firing him.

“He was mistaken about nearly every relevant fact surrounding the shooting,” the board concluded, adding that “there is no evidence that [he] lied or attempted to cover up his misconduct.”

Sarli’s attorney, Tim Grace, praised the decision.

“We’re happy that the Police Board recognized how difficult it is to be a police officer,” Grace told WBEZ, saying Sarli is “glad he is able to keep his job because he loves being a police officer.”

The board’s written findings describe what took place the afternoon of Oct. 4, 2018, when Sarli and two other officers on a North Side tactical team heard over the police radio that a Jeep had been stolen and that the owner was tracking the vehicle’s location using GPS.

Sarli testified he did not hear a dispatcher’s statement that it was a “straight theft,” not an armed or violent carjacking, according to the board.

The officers found the Jeep in the Uptown neighborhood. Sarli was in the back of an unmarked police SUV with the two other cops in front.

Sarli kicked his door open with his gun drawn and was about to exit when the Jeep turned and hit that door, shutting it on the officer, according to the board findings.

Sarli testified he thought the Jeep was ramming into the CPD vehicle and that he felt his leg was being crushed outside of the car. Instead, the board concluded, the Jeep just “bumped” Sarli’s open door while slowly driving away, and Sarli’s leg was inside the car, wedged between the door and his seat.

Sarli opened fire, his body camera recording his window shattering and glass flying into the back seat around him.

“I shot the back window,” Sarli says on the video.

Sarli fired four rounds in about five seconds, according to the board. The third shot went through the rear of the Jeep and the fourth shattered the Jeep’s back window as the suspect drove away.

“As further evidence that [Sarli] reacted unreasonably, the board notes that [he] was the only officer present who even drew his weapon, which [he] did before he had a chance to assess the circumstances,” the board’s findings say.

“Even if the facts had been as [Sarli] believed, and the Jeep was in fact moving forward into his car, the expert witnesses from both sides agreed that shooting into an oncoming vehicle is highly unlikely to stop its forward progress,” the findings add. “By firing his weapon from the inside of his own closed window, [Sarli] caused far more risk of harm to himself and his fellow officers than the Jeep ever presented.”

Grace, the officer’s attorney, said Sarli testified the point of his gunfire “was to stop the car” and that attorneys for the city argued that the officer should have “pulled back into the car and hoped for the best — that he didn’t have to use his weapon.”

The shooting, the board said, took place next to a park and bicycle path, putting innocent civilians at risk.

The Jeep was later found abandoned.

In 2020, the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability recommended that Sarli be fired for violating a CPD policy that generally bars shooting at a moving vehicle.

But police Supt. David Brown “did not concur with certain findings” by COPA, according to a Police Board record. The top cop recommended a 180-day suspension instead.

Police Board member Steve Flores, a partner at the law firm Winston & Strawn, was tasked with reviewing the case and making a decision on the recommendation. He sided with COPA that the officer should be fired and the case proceeded to the full board.

A trial-like evidentiary proceeding on charges that Sarli’s shooting violated four CPD rules took place on three days this past November before Police Board hearing officer April Perry.

The board reviewed video of the hearing and discussed the evidence with Perry behind closed doors before appearing in Thursday night’s meeting, held online, and voting 6-0 for the guilty finding and two-year suspension. Flores, as required because of his earlier role, recused himself from the vote while two recent appointees to the board, Steven Block and Mareilé Cusack, did not participate in the case.

CPD says it stripped Sarli of police powers in October 2018 and put him in no-pay status last February. The board’s decision says he can return to police duty on Feb. 12, 2023, but required Sarli to undergo training on use of force, including scenario-based training.

Officers shooting at moving vehicles has long been a source of controversy.

In 2015, then-Supt. Garry McCarthy prohibited cops from firing at a moving vehicle “when the vehicle is the only force used against the sworn member or another person” but allowed cops to shoot if people were in imminent danger of being struck.

The policy was later updated to bar firing at a moving vehicle “unless such force is a last resort and necessary, based on the specific circumstances confronting the sworn member, to protect against an imminent threat to life or to prevent great bodily harm.”

The policy has been repeatedly tested. In 2016, officers on Chicago’s South Side tried to stop 18-year-old Paul O’Neal as he drove a Jaguar reported stolen. As they pursued him, O’Neal hit two police SUVs with the car. Officer Michael Coughlin Jr. and his partner, Jose Torres, both shot at the Jaguar, according to city records and body camera footage.

The Jaguar sped down the block and crashed head-on with a police vehicle occupied by a third officer, Jose Diaz, who chased O’Neal on foot through the backyards of several homes before fatally shooting him.

In 2020, the Police Board fired Coughlin and Torres for shooting at the moving vehicle. The officers, according to Police Board data, have appealed the discipline in Cook County Circuit Court.

Chicago police shootings at moving vehicles have also led to criminal charges.

In 2017, a federal judge sentenced officer Marco Proano to five years in prison for firing 16 rounds at a stolen car full of teenagers as it backed away from him and then slowly rolled across the street in 2013. The incident, recorded by a police dashboard camera, wounded two 15-year-olds in the car.

After an off-duty incident this past October, Cook County prosecutors charged Sgt. Oneta Sampson Carney with reckless discharge of a firearm after she allegedly shot at thieves taking her SUV in a crowded Sam’s Club parking lot.

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