A Chicago police officer has been indicted on federal civil rights charges after a video captured him firing at a car as it was backing away from him, wounding two teens inside.
Federal authorities said Officer Marco Proano, 41, was charged with two counts of deprivation of rights under the color of law for using unreasonable force with a dangerous weapon while on-duty during the December 2013 incident.
The city agreed to a $360,000 settlement with the mothers of three teens injured during the incident, including the two who were shot.
It marked the second controversial shooting in Proano’s 10-year career with the department. Just two weeks before the release of the video in the Laquan McDonald shooting thrust the issue of Chicago police brutality into the national spotlight, a Cook County jury found that Proano had killed 19-year-old Niko Husband without justification, awarding his mother $3.5 million in damages.
But in a controversial decision, Associate Judge Elizabeth Budzinski instead found in favor of the city, negating the damages
The video of the shooting of the teens in 2013 was first aired last year by The Chicago Reporter after it said it obtained the footage from former Cook County Judge Andrew Berman, who heard a criminal case involving one of the teens before he retired. The publication said Berman called the officer’s actions the most disturbing he’d seen in his legal career.
The Tribune reported in June 2015 that the shooting was the subject of a criminal investigation by the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office, citing a source.
At the time of the shooting, Pat Camden, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file officers, defended the shooting by saying the officer opened fire out of concern over a passenger who was being dragged by the vehicle as he tried to get out.
Chicago police have said the officer involved in the shooting was immediately taken off the street and assigned to paid desk duty. According to city payroll records, Proano is paid $81,588 a year.
Proano, who has been with the department since 2006, received nine complaints during a four-year period ending in mid-December 2014, police records show. He was never disciplined for any of the complaints, which included allegations of illegal searches and excessive force.
According to a lawsuit filed by the mothers, several teens were riding in a car that was stopped by two officers near 95th and LaSalle streets when one passenger fled the scene. Proano then arrived.
In the nearly three-minute video, taken by a camera mounted on a squad car, Proano is seen walking quickly toward the teens’ car with his gun pointed sideways at them in his left hand. He then backs away briefly as the car goes into reverse, away from the officer. Proano then raises his gun with both hands and opens fire, the video shows.
The suit alleged that Proano fired more than a dozen shots into the vehicle.
One of the teens was shot in the shoulder and grazed on his forehead and cheek, according to the lawsuit. Another teen was shot in his left hip and right heel. A third teen was forcibly taken to the ground by one of the officers, causing an injury to his right eye, the suit alleged.
The suit alleged that officers removed the teens from hospitals without authorization and took them to a Far South Side police station for questioning. During interviews with police, one of the teens was in “extreme anguish” from his gunshot wounds, at times crying in pain, according to the suit. The other wounded teen had to be taken back to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn because his shoulder began to bleed profusely, according to the suit.
To Read the Indictment click Here: Officer Marco Proano Indictment
But at the time of the shooting, the Police Department and police union spokesman Camden gave much different accounts.
According to a statement released at the time by the Police Department’s Office of News Affairs, the car’s driver ran off and someone else jumped in the driver’s seat and put the car into reverse. The officer then opened fire, the statement said.
The FOP’s Camden said officers initially stopped the car because they thought it was stolen. He said the driver put the car in reverse toward officers who were approaching it. The driver then drove forward, dragging the passenger in the back seat, he said. An officer then opened fire, “worried about the safety of the individual trying to get out of the car,” Camden said.
In the fatal shooting of Husband, the jury had found Proano had used unjustified force, but in answering “yes” to a written question as part of their decision, jurors contradicted the verdict by indicating Proano had a reasonable belief that his life was in danger when he opened fire.
In asking Budzinski to reinstate the $3.5 million award, lawyers for Husband’s mother, Priscilla Price, had argued the wording of the question was confusing.
But in May, Budzinski found that even though several jurors signed sworn affidavits that their intent was to find the officer liable of excessive force, there was no “reasonable hypothesis” to reconcile their verdict with their answer to the question, known in legal terms as a “special interrogatory.”
The judge held that the use of juror affidavits was “improper and may not be considered.”
Lawyers for Price have appealed Budzinski’s decision to the Illinois Appellate Court.
The Tribune detailed the controversy surrounding the judge’s decision in a front-page story in December at the height of the fallout over the video of 17-year-old McDonald being shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer.
The foreman of the jury in Price’s case told the Tribune he was stunned by Budzinski’s sudden reversal of their ruling, especially after jurors had inquired by written note if their answer to the special interrogatory would affect the outcome of the verdict.
The judge didn’t directly answer, instead telling jurors to use their best judgment, he said.
“My face was on fire,” said the foreman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We put so much into this. … I thought it was a really odd thing to go from $3.5 million to nothing because of wording on a piece of paper.”
Husband was shot on a sweltering night in July 2011 as police, responding to a call of a person with a gun, encountered dozens of teens and young adults packed into a South Side storefront for an underground dance party.
As Gresham District officers arrived at the scene near 80th Street and Ashland Avenue, they tried to pat down partygoers as they left and gain control of the crowd. Meanwhile, Husband came out of the building and appeared to be struggling with a young woman, court records show.
The Independent Police Review Authority, the city agency that investigates police shootings, ruled Husband’s shooting justified in 2013.
Proano testified at the Daley Center trial that he and two other officers grabbed Husband by the arms and tried to free the girl from his grip. As they wrestled with him, Proano told jurors, he felt the butt of a gun in Husband’s waistband. He said he yelled out “Gun! Gun!” a transcript of his testimony shows. Proano said he tried to wrest the weapon from Husband but was afraid it would go off and wound the young woman or someone else.
After another officer tried unsuccessfully to deploy a Taser, Proano drew his gun and fired three times. A statement from the police news affairs office that night said Husband had reached for his gun and pointed it at the officers, prompting Proano to shoot Husband in fear of his life.
An autopsy report showed that Husband had been shot three times in the chest. The first two shots came from about two feet away, but the third shot was a “contact” wound — an indication from burn marks on the skin that Proano had pressed his gun directly against Husband’s chest before pulling the trigger, the autopsy found. The trajectory of that bullet suggested Husband was already on the ground when it was fired.
Husband, who weighed just 135 pounds, had no drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of his death, the autopsy found.
The young woman turned out to be a friend of his from a dance troupe they had participated in when they were in grammar school. She testified at trial that she and Husband had been dancing together at the party, and that while she did yell, “Get off of me!” as he had his hands on her, she was actually talking to one of the officers.
Court records show Husband had a criminal record, including two convictions for gun possession in 2009 and 2010 that landed him in the Cook County sheriff’s boot camp program.
But the attorney representing Husband’s family, Donald Shapiro, argued at trial that the gun had been planted by officers. He said it had only one bullet in it, making implausible any story that Husband was trying to aim it at three burly police officers who were wrestling with him.
Proano was not only cleared by the city’s police oversight agency but also awarded a department commendation for valor, records show.
It wasn’t until two years later, when the police dashboard camera caught Proano cocking his gun sideways and unloading a dozen shots at the carload of unarmed teenagers, that he was taken off the streets while an investigation unfolded.
Chicago Tribune’s Dan Hinkel contributed
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