A city of Chicago effort to crack down on a police “code of silence” has led to a trial-like proceeding this week about whether to fire an officer accused of choking a handcuffed man in 2019 — and whether to fire the cop’s partner and two police bosses for allegedly failing to report the truth about what took place.
The city’s Police Board, which will make the final decision, is holding a week-long hearing about a recommendation by police Supt. David Brown to discharge Louis Garcia, the officer accused of excessive force, as well as fellow patrol officer Manuel Giron and their supervisors Sgt. Kevin Rake and Lt. Charles Daly.
The attempt to fire the four officers marks a significant departure from Chicago’s historically feeble police accountability apparatus.
“We are trying to make sure that we’re holding supervisors accountable too,” Andrea Kersten, the chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, told WBEZ in February. COPA investigated the case and recommended the firings in a report completed more than a year ago.
Kersten said COPA’s new focus on holding police bosses accountable partly explains why her agency last year recommended 59 CPD members for discharge, nearly double the number the agency recommended for firing in the prior four years combined.
The alleged choking took place May 31, 2019, in the South Chicago neighborhood. Alfonso Cazares, 42, told city investigators he had been drinking beer and was walking to the liquor store for more alcohol, according to COPA.
Garcia and Giron, on patrol in a police SUV, said they encountered Cazares in the middle of a busy avenue, blocking traffic and giving the middle finger to vehicles.
Garcia handcuffed Cazares and tried to put him into the back seat. “A struggle ensued” and Cazares called him a “n----- lover,” according to COPA.
“Officer Garcia places both of his hands around the front of [Cazares’] neck area as he repeatedly asks [Cazares], ‘I’m a what lover?’ ” the report says.
Giron’s body-worn camera, according to COPA, “captures Officer Garcia with one or both hands on [Cazares’] neck for a total of 16 seconds.”
During that span, the report says, Cazares “makes gurgling noises and appears to be struggling to breathe.”
Before driving Cazares away, Garcia and Giron did not secure him in a seatbelt, according to COPA.
As they drove, they said, Cazares allegedly leaned forward between the two officers in the front seat and tried to bite Garcia, the COPA report says.
In response, according to the report, Garcia elbowed Cazares in the face, a blow that left a cut that required stitches.
The disciplinary charges accuse Garcia of committing battery and violating numerous CPD rules, including using profanity, failing to record the incident on his body camera, and failing to properly report the incident.
The charges against Giron include searching Cazares without justification, failing to record the entire incident on his body camera and failing to report Garcia for using excessive force.
Rake and Daly, the supervisors, are accused of failing to report that Garcia used excessive force and failing to adequately review “and/or failed to resolve” Garcia’s incomplete tactical response report — a form that CPD officers must file when they use force.
COPA was especially critical of the supervisors.
“The gross act of misconduct in this case was clear and obvious, and Sgt. Rake’s failure to address it as such is a cause for great concern,” the report says.
“It is unacceptable that Lt. Daly either refused to provide an honest account of seeing Officer Garcia choke [Cazares] on [the video] or, worse, he did not understand Officer Garcia’s actions were unnecessary, disproportionate, and blatant misconduct.”
A CPD spokesperson on Friday said all four officers are in “no-pay status.”
Criminal case ends in acquittal
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office initially declined to bring criminal charges in the case, according to COPA.
In January 2021, however, Foxx’s office charged Garcia with two counts of official misconduct, a felony. But Foxx found out she employed a Garcia relative, so she turned over the prosecution to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office.
Garcia waived his right to a jury trial, leaving the verdict to Cook County Judge Diana Kenworthy. After a one-day trial, Kenworthy acquitted the officer of both counts this past April.
In the disciplinary case, the city’s lawyers will have to prove that the officers are guilty by a “preponderance of evidence” — more likely than not — a lower standard than criminal trials, which require proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Attorneys for Garcia and Rake, the sergeant, did not return messages seeking comment about this week’s Police Board hearing.
The COPA report says Garcia denied choking Cazares.
The report says Rake, after viewing the video, refused to admit that Garcia’s hands were on Cazares’ neck and that Cazares was struggling to breathe.
Giron’s attorney declined to comment about the hearing.
The COPA report says Giron denied the allegations against him and said he did not see Garcia choke Cazares and did not believe he needed to complete a report about the use of force.
An attorney for Daly last year issued a statement that called Brown’s push to fire the lieutenant “illogical and baseless.”
“Lt. Daly made a decision in the middle of the night based on the facts he had available to him at the time,” the attorney, Thomas Needham, told the Chicago Tribune in a written statement. “People sitting in the comfort of an office at CPD headquarters disagreed with his decision and overruled Daly.”
“The superintendent then took this disagreement and somehow twisted it into a violation of the department’s rules,” Needham wrote. “If the superintendent were making a conscious effort to destroy the morale on the Chicago Police Department, he could not be doing a better job.”
Cazares last year brought a federal lawsuit against the city as well as Garcia, Giron and Rake, claiming those officers and others “agreed to fabricate evidence to cover up their use of excessive force.”
The suit claims that the officers’ actions are part of a decades-old “code of silence” that U.S. Justice Department investigators found in a year-long investigation of CPD following the fatal shooting by police of teenager Laquan McDonald.
In its written answer to the lawsuit, the city said it “denies that any code of silence within the CPD is pervasive, widespread or a well-settled custom or practice to which the city’s final policymakers have been deliberately indifferent.”
Cazares’ attorney in the lawsuit praised city investigators for focusing on police bosses.
“I’m hopeful that COPA taking discipline and supervision more seriously will have a positive impact,” the attorney, Mariah Esperanza Garcia, said. “COPA and other police accountability organizations have promised change to the Chicago Police Department [but] it hasn’t been seen or felt by residents of Chicago.”