By David Heinzmann
Last week a Cook County jury found a man named Devaris Perry not guilty of attempting to murder a Chicago police officer. Perry had been charged after police said he struggled for the cop’s gun, it went off, and wounded the officer in the arm.
Officer Bartell Keithley and his partner had been checking unused apartments in the Ida B. Wells housing project when they came across Perry and a woman with crack cocaine in a vacant unit. Keithley chased Perry up a stairwell, shots were fired and the officer was hit in the arm and Perry was seriously injured in the back.
But the case unraveled in court when the emergency room doctor who treated the officer stated twice—in his original medical report and in an affidavit signed just before the trial started—that the officer told him he’d accidentally shot himself in the arm. At the actual trial, the doctor backtracked a little on the stand and said he merely meant that Keithley had told him he’d been injured by his own weapon, and he wasn’t sure whether it was an accident.
There were other forensic details that defense lawyers said cast doubt on a struggle for the gun, however. And there was no question that after Keithley was injured by his own .357-magnum, he shot Perry in the buttocks. The jury said the evidence didn’t add up to attempted murder. Perry walked away with some fresh ammunition for a lawsuit against the city.
It’s hard to say what exactly happened in the housing project hallway, but the case’s unraveling reminded me of dozens of secret police investigation files I read a couple years ago when I and two other reporters at the Tribune took a year to investigate what happens when the Chicago police shoot people.
Nearly always, the person who got shot is charged with some degree of an attack on the officer. Usually, the evidence justifies such charges. In the neighborhoods where most of this city’s violence is concentrated, every day circumstances are wildly unpredictable and deadly. Guns are everywhere and the rules by which street gangs operate produce between 400 and 600 corpses a year. Cops have to make split-second decisions that sometimes involving pulling a trigger in the middle of the night, in some dark alley or stairwell. This is often overlooked, but the homicide rate in Chicago is much higher than it is in Los Angeles, which many assume to be the gold standard for street gang violence.
The problem that the Chicago Police Department and City Hall have run into, is that not all police shootings are equal. Many are justified. Some, not so much. But we found in our 2007 series that they’re all pretty much treated the same. It didn’t matter if the cop was chasing an armed murderer down an alley at two in the morning, or was off-duty and drinking in a bar at two in the morning. Once the officer’s gun was fired, the person who was shot was almost always deemed the aggressor and charged with a crime. Yes, we uncovered cases in which off-duty cops drinking in bars got in arguments over women, pulled their guns and shot people in the back… and then the shooting was ruled justified and the guy with the bullet in his ass was charged with aggravated battery.
I say it’s a problem that City Hall has gotten into, as well as the police department, because most experts believe that the standards the police use to investigate officer-involved shootings are at least in part driven by city lawyers trying to limit the damage from lawsuits. If you ruled that a shooting was unjustified, how are you going to defend against the lawsuit that follows? The problem is that, fairly often, the screw-ups come out in the wash: evidence doesn’t quite add up and is discovered by plaintiffs’ lawyers in lawsuits, or by defense lawyers in criminal cases.
Our reporting made a lot of cops very angry, and those stories are probably the main reason you'll sometimes see guys named "Anonymous" commenting on my blogs claiming I hate cops. I don't. Most of the cops I know are courageous, honest public servants who put up with mountains of bullshit, on the streets and from the bureaucracy they work for. And I know better than most non-cops that many of the parts Chicago--far from the Mag Mile and the architectural boat tours--are brutally dangerous places where people have a complete disregard for law and order. But like any large group, not everybody's a good guy. And it's too easy for the good cops to be marred by the behavior of the bad ones. And like it or not, we need to pay really close attention to the bad ones.
I'm certainly not saying Keithly is a bad one. Who knows. But in court last week the official story of what happened in that hallway broke down a bit. In the long run, trying to cover up the mistakes probably costs the city more money. I was talking to a lawyer the other day about another police shooting case that he believed was full of false statements and bogus evidence. If the department had admitted from the outset that mistakes were made, the lawyer said, the city probably could have settled the suit for about $1 million. If the case goes to trial, and all of the conflicting statements and improbable forensic evidence is aired in open court, a jury will probably award the dead man’s family many times that.