by Steve Bogira
IPRA closed its investigation in late April. I learned of the finding and recommendation in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Since its inception in 2007, IPRA has investigated at least 231 officer-involved shootings and found only a handful to have been unjustified. Previously, the most severe penalty IPRA had ever recommended for a shooting by an officer was a 20-day suspension.
Perez's fate is now in the hands of police superintendent Garry McCarthy and the Chicago Police Board. If McCarthy proposes a discipline less than separation or disputes IPRA's findings, a police board panel may review the case. If the superintendent concurs with IPRA, Officer Perez can get a hearing before the full police board.
Perez joined the force in 1999, and only one other misconduct complaint has been made against him. I sought to talk with him, but Jennifer Rottner, assistant director of CPD's Office of News Affairs, said he was "unable to speak with you." Rottner said Perez was reassigned to desk duty in April.
The desk is getting crowded with officers who have shooting cases pending. They include detective Dante Servin, who in March 2012 shot into a group of people near an alley on the west side, killing 22-year-old Rekia Boyd. Servin said he thought someone else in the group had a gun, but no gun was found. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but in April a judge acquitted him, ruling that he should have been charged instead with murder. IPRA's investigation of Servin is continuing.
Also on desk duty is the unnamed officer who fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on the southwest side last October. McDonald had a knife and was acting erratically, but video from a police car dashboard camera reportedly shows one of the six officers firing all 16 shots that struck McDonald. After the city's corporation counsel viewed the video, which hasn't been released publicly, he recommended in April that the City Council pay a $5 million settlement to McDonald's family. The council approved that settlement unanimously. The FBI, the state's attorney's office, and IPRA are conducting a joint probe of the shooting.
Officer Marco Proano is on desk duty while IPRA continues investigating his December 2013 shooting into a car filled with teens, at 95th and LaSalle. Two of the teens were wounded. The car had been curbed for speeding, and Proano started shooting when the car began backing up.
Two weeks ago the Chicago Reporter published a dashboard camera video of the shooting, which had been given to the Reporter by a retired juvenile court judge who had access to it. The judge, Andrew Berman, said he released the video because he was so disturbed by the officer's actions. "You don't start firing into a car full of unarmed people," he told the Reporter. In March the city settled a federal lawsuit on behalf of three of the teens for $360,000.
I asked Rottner if any other officers were on desk duty while their shootings are being investigated. She's looking into it.
The shooting that Officer Perez was involved in occurred in the early morning hours of November 5, 2011. La Pasadita, a restaurant at 1140 N. Ashland, had just closed for the night, and several employees and a few other people were standing on the sidewalk out front. A blue Chrysler 300 was double-parked nearby, in the right, southbound lane, with a La Pasadita employee in the front passenger seat, and a man who was about to give him a ride home in the driver's seat.
According to the report summarizing IPRA's investigation, at 3:47 AM, a red Mitsubishi Galant drove past the Chrysler, on its left, and the Mitsubishi’s driver fired several shots at the people on the sidewalk. Nineteen-year-old Juan Sanchez was struck in the face; he died at a hospital. Sanchez's brother suffered a graze wound to the side of his chest, and another man was shot in the hand.
The Mitsubishi continued southbound and left the scene, but the episode wasn't over. Officer Perez, working security for La Pasadita, had been standing near his car, parked a short distance north of the restaurant, when the shots were fired from the Mitsubishi. According to IPRA's summary report, video footage from a La Pasadita surveillance camera shows Officer Perez shooting repeatedly at the double-parked Chrysler.
(IPRA's summary report, which is now on its website, refers to the shooting officer as "Officer A," but the agency's FOIA disclosure to me identified him as Perez.)
The two men in the front seat of the Chrysler told IPRA they ducked down when the shots were fired from the Mitsubishi. They'd barely sat up again when more gunfire rang out, this time from behind their car. The second volley shattered the Chrysler's rear window, and the man in the driver's seat, 28-year-old Juan Coronado, realized he'd been shot in the back. Coronado sped off south on Ashland, turned left a block down, and ultimately parked near Augusta and Milwaukee, five blocks from where he'd been wounded. He then called 911 for an ambulance. The bullet that struck him was removed in surgery at Stroger Hospital; it had narrowly missed Coronado's heart.
A breath test given to Officer Perez showed a blood alcohol content of zero.
Perez told detectives after the shooting that he was standing on the sidewalk, just north of La Pasadita, when he heard gunshots south of him. He said he saw muzzle flashes from a dark midsize car in the left southbound lane, and fired at the car. A preliminary police report said that he ran after the red car and fired at it 16 times.
Two eyewitnesses who spoke with an IPRA investigator on the day of the shooting corroborated Perez's account. The son of La Pasadita's owner said he was outside the restaurant at the time of the drive-by, and saw Perez run past the Chrysler yelling, "Police, police, stop," and firing five or six times at the Mitsubishi. The owner of La Pasadita said he rushed outside when he heard the gunfire, and saw Perez fire once at the red car.
But on Perez’s initial radio call, he said: "Blue Chrysler, southbound, came and shot some guys that were standing out front." On the recording, a supervisor told the dispatcher that the officer said he might have shot out the rear window of the suspect car. Later on the tape, someone noted that the suspect car was actually the red Mitsubishi.
A police lieutenant called IPRA the day of the shooting and lodged a complaint against Perez for having fired “without identifying the appropriate target.”
In January 2012 the Illinois State Police determined that the bullet removed from Coronado during his surgery was fired from Officer Perez’s nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol.
Then there was the damning evidence from the video camera at La Pasadita. According to IPRA's report, it shows a handful of people outside the restaurant right before the drive-by, and Perez walking to the rear of his car. The Chrysler pulls up and double-parks near the group on the sidewalk. A few seconds later, the Mitsubishi passes the Chrysler on its left. There are muzzle flashes from the Mitsubishi as it continues southbound on Ashland. Juan Sanchez, the man who was killed, falls to the ground.
"Officer A [Perez] is then seen standing in the street, firing his weapon several times as he moves southbound on Ashland," IPRA's report says. "The video shows that Officer A is shooting at the Chrysler 300. Officer A does not begin firing his weapon until after the Mitsubishi Galant has already driven away. Officer A continues to fire at the Chrysler 300 as he moves up onto the sidewalk behind the Chrysler 300. The Chrysler 300 is seen driving away, at which time Officer A runs toward his vehicle and apparently retrieves his police radio."
In another FOIA request last week, I sought disclosure of the video and police reports, but IPRA maintained that dissemination of those records could interfere with Perez's right to an impartial disciplinary hearing.
IPRA investigators spoke with Perez in November 2013, and twice more this year. Each time, he denied shooting at the Chrysler—even when the video was played for him. He couldn't explain how Coronado had gotten shot. "The video speaks for itself," he told IPRA.
IPRA's report concluded that Perez "fired his weapon 16 times into the rear of a vehicle occupied by an unarmed and innocent witness," causing Coronado "great bodily harm." The video, the radio recordings, and the crime lab findings made it clear that Perez shot only at the Chrysler, the conclusion said, and his claim that he fired at the Mitsubishi was "categorically false."
On May 9, 2014, Jose Perez (no relation to Francisco Perez) was charged with the drive-by shooting. Perez, 31, was identified by four witnesses in a lineup, prosecutors said at his bond hearing. According to the Sun-Times, assistant state’s attorney Jamie Santini also said in the bond hearing that an off-duty officer had shot a witness in the back when he “fired toward the fleeing Mitsubishi.”
Because a person who commits one felony can be liable for other harm stemming from it, Jose Perez is charged not only with the murder of Juan Sanchez and the attempted murder of the other two people he allegedly shot, but also with the attempted murder of Coronado. He's being held without bond.
Officer Perez has not been charged criminally. A person who knowingly or intentionally shoots in the direction of a vehicle he knows or should know is occupied can be charged with aggravated discharge of a firearm, a Class 1 felony. IPRA refers all officer-involved shootings to the state's attorney's office for consideration of criminal charges, but it almost never finds charges against officers in such cases warranted. (The charge against Dante Servin was rare.) The SAO didn't respond to my requests for information about the shootings in front of La Pasadita.
The case involving Officer Perez illustrates how slowly the wheels of administrative justice turn in police shootings in Chicago. It's now more than three and a half years since Officer Perez allegedly lit up the wrong car on Ashland—and his case may be far from resolution. It typically takes six months for the police board to hear and decide a discharge case, and the losing party can appeal to the circuit court, and then to the appellate court.
But Officer Perez's case also illustrates something about police shooting investigations that may be starting to change.
In 2007, the Tribune found that less than 1 percent of the more than 200 police shootings in the previous decade reviewed by the Office of Professional Standards had been ruled unjustified. Cursory investigations of police shootings in Chicago "fuel the fear among some citizens that officers can shoot people with impunity," the Trib said.
OPS was a unit of the police department; critics said officers wouldn't be held accountable for misconduct until an independent agency was scrutinizing their actions. In 2007, OPS was replaced by such an agency—IPRA.
But in police shooting cases, it's usually the word of the shooting officer, and sometimes also that of his colleagues, against the word of the victim, if he survived. And so the shootings have been found to be within policy in case after case under IPRA, as they were under OPS.
That, however, was before video cameras became ubiquitous. One separation recommendation does not a trend make. But in the cases of the shootings by Officer Perez, and by Officer Proano, and by the unnamed officer who killed Laquan McDonald, the key witness is the camera.