By late last week, Panzy Edwards was beginning to feel hopeful that the Chicago police officer who fatally shot her 15-year-old son would not be returning to duty.
Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority (now known as the Civilian Office of Police Accountability or COPA) had investigated the shooting and found it “unjustified.” Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson ended up mounting a case to fire the officer, Brandon Ternand. And, in a different and very public case, a Cook County jury had recently found another CPD officer, Jason Van Dyke, guilty of second-Degree Murder for fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, also a black teenager.
But last Thursday, the Chicago Police Board, an appointed civilian panel that rules on police discipline, voted 5-3 to overturn the investigation’s findings on Officer Brandon Ternand and return the him to the force.
“It came as a shock,” Edwards said Friday, standing near the spot where her son was killed. “I wasn’t even notified that a decision was being made. I received calls from the news last night to let me know the decision. I was at a loss for words. All I could do was break down.”
The decision is not an outlier. The Chicago Police Board regularly overturns the findings of an investigation and, as in this case, a written filing for dismissal by the police superintendent. Records indicate that between 2005 and 2015, the board voted about 58 percent of the time to allow an officer to keep his or her job even though the police superintendent was seeking to fire them. The board either found the officer not guilty or reduced the punishment.
In 2016 and 2017, that number plunged to just 20 percent, a phenomenon an expert said might be due to the release of the Laquan McDonald video. But so far this year, the board has returned to trend, voting to retain officers about 64 percent of the time. Residents and experts say that could be a roadblock in improving police-community relations.
“Other young men in this city, they should not establish a relationship with the police,” Edwards said. “You have no rights, you are nothing when it comes to the police. You will never be treated justly.”
‘Reputation for honesty’
In November 2012, Edwards’ son, Dakota Bright, was walking near his grandmother’s house in Chicago’s Park Manor neighborhood when he was spotted by Officer Brandon Ternand and his partner. Ternand said he saw Bright holding a gun and began pursuing him. After a short foot chase, Ternand shot Bright once through the back of the head, killing him.
Ternand said he saw Bright reaching for his side and believed he had a gun. But the only gun found on the scene was close to a block away. In its report, the police board wrote that it found Ternand’s claim that he was afraid Bright was about to shoot him to be “credible and persuasive.” The board said Ternand’s credibility was bolstered by his “reputation for honesty.”
The three police board members who voted against retaining officer Ternand wrote in a dissent that there was “no evidence” the gun found on the scene belonged to Dakota Bright. They also agreed with an expert who suggested that, because Bright was shot in the back of head, he was likely facing away from the officer when he was shot.
In his 10 years as an officer, Ternand racked up 28 complaints against him, according to the Citizens Police Data Project. None of those complaints, besides the Dakota shooting, were sustained.
Ternand will now have his police powers restored. He’s also owed about $80,000 in back pay.
Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who initially did not want Ternand to be fired, had a muted reaction to the board’s decision.
“You know, we have a process in place,” he said. “We aren’t going to agree all the time. But my job as the superintendent is to honor the process that we have in place.”
‘Due process run amok’
The nine members of Chicago’s police board are civilians, appointed by the mayor of Chicago and approved by the City Council (three of them are up for reappointment Tuesday morning). The Board generally considers between 15 and 50 cases a year where the superintendent recommends dismissal. In those cases, an investigatory agency — either the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), or the Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs (BIA) — has sustained allegations of misconduct, and the police superintendent has agreed and filed paperwork to fire the officer. The board can agree that the officer should be fired, impose a lesser punishment like suspension instead, dismiss the case, or find the officer not guilty.
Between 2005 and 2015, the police board has reached a finding of “not guilty” in 24 percent of the cases it had considered where the superintendent had filed charges to discharge the officer. In that same time, the board voted for a lesser punishment like suspension about 34 percent of the time.
In 2016 and 2017, those numbers plunged. The board voted to allow officers to keep their job in just 3 of the 15 total cases it considered.
University of Chicago Law Professor Craig Futterman suggested that might have been caused, at least in part, by the release of a video showing CPD Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald, and the subsequent public pressure to hold more police officers accountable.
But so far this year, the board’s voting record has been more in line with its historical average, voting to allow an officer to keep the job in 7 of the 11 discharge cases that have come before it.
“Have we begun to see a return to the way things have always been?” Futterman said. “Where the police board has insulated and protected officers … from discipline or firing?”
Police Board Executive Director Max Caproni said police board members do not talk with the public about their decisions, and he wouldn’t speak to whether the release of the McDonald shooting video affected the board. But he said one reason the board differs from investigatory agencies and the police superintendent so frequently is that it considers different evidence. At a police board hearing, the accused officer gets to call his or her own witnesses and cross-examine others. “It’s like apples and oranges,” Caproni said. He also pointed out that officers regularly resign before facing a police board hearing.
Some people are calling for the police board to be completely redesigned.
“In short, it's due process run amok,” said Sheila Bedi, a clinical law professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center.
Bedi said the current disciplinary system is irredeemably stacked in favor of police officers. She supports efforts to make police board members elected, rather than appointed.
“An elected police board is one of the changes that could ensure true accountability. And it's one of the changes that could ensure that the police themselves are accountable to the people they are supposed to protect and serve,” Bedi said.
Chicago elected officials are currently considering a number of reforms to police oversight, including some options that that would replace the police board with an elected body.
‘Just a way to pass time’
For Panzy Edwards, grief over her son's death is now compounded by anger that the officer who killed him will be returning to the police department.
“My son, the people of Chicago — nobody means nothing,” she said, her voice hoarse from crying.
“They send their lynchmen to kill us and they stand behind them.”