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Chicago police officer Marco Proano plead not guilty Thursday to charges of civil rights violations leveled at him by the U.S. attorney's office for allegedly shooting more than a dozen rounds into a car full of teenagers in 2013. At the time of the shooting (a video of which was leaked to the Chicago Reporter last year) the family of Niko Husband, a 19-year-old who Proano killed in 2011, was already suing the officer and the Chicago Police Department over Proano's use of force.
In February, the Reader published an extensive account of Husband's family's lawsuit, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Though the jury decided in favor of the family, Judge Elizabeth Budzinski nullified the verdict (and the $3.5 million in damages) over a technicality that is now being appealed.
Meanwhile, the families of two teens wounded when Proano shot at the car in 2013 won a $360,000 settlement from the city. Proano has been on desk duty and stripped of police powers since that shooting.
"The charges announced are serious and the Chicago Police Department will have zero tolerance for proven misconduct," CPD news affairs said in a statement. "CPD is fully cooperating with the US Attorney's Office."
A report from the Independent Police Review Authority released in August found that Proano's "use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable."
Civil rights attorney Flint Taylor of the People's Law Office has represented victims of Chicago police violence since the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. He also represented the torture victims of former CPD commander Jon Burge. Taylor says that in cases of police misconduct there are essentially three legal avenues to pursue against individual cops and the department as a whole: "State prosecutions, which we see have not happened with the Daley machine in power all these decades; federal prosecutions, which unfortunately have been very infrequent; and 'pattern and practice' investigations, which the city of Chicago is now under."
Between the federal indictment of Proano, the Department of Justice probe of the department, and Officer Jason Van Dyke's pending murder trial for the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, CPD is being taken to court in every possible way.
Taylor is cautiously optimistic that Proano's prosecution will add a new pressure point in the ongoing fight to get CPD to change its ways.
"The government is very selective about when it indicts," says Taylor, explaining that Proano's indictment means that the U.S. attorney's office must believe it has a very strong case.
Taylor adds that the charges of "deprivation of rights under color of law"—which covers unreasonable searches, arrests, and extrajudicial killings—have led to successful prosecutions of police officers in the past. This federal civil rights statute was created to protect the due-process rights of newly freed slaves during Reconstruction. In recent times it has mostly been used in police brutality cases, leading to the convictions of Los Angeles officers who beat Rodney King and New Orleans cops who shot at unarmed people fleeing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Proano's case is the first time since 2014 that the "color of law" statute has been used to indict a Chicago cop. The last officer to be prosecuted for misconduct under this statute, Aldo Brown, was convicted and sentenced last March to two years in prison for beating a man in a south-side convenience store.
In the past 15 years, the DOJ has successfully prosecuted at least five officers under the statute for other violations, though DOJ spokesman Joseph Fitzpatrick said Proano's was the first shooting case "in quite some time."
Though the department's legal problems may lead to more accountability, Taylor adds that pressure from protesters and organizations like Black Lives Matter is more important now than ever.
"I've seen similar situations in the past for almost five decades now, and I've seen the powers that be in this city put up a good show that they're doing fundamental changes when in fact they're not," he says. "I think there's a moment here, and I think it's important for people not to concede to the powers that be and to actually demand the radical reform that's necessary."