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Aldermen sign off on $4.72M in police-abuse settlements

Chicago has settled the last of 25 police abuse lawsuits filed over the actions of former Special Operations Section kingpin Jerome Finnigan. | Getty Images

With frustration and resignation, the City Council’s Finance Committee on Tuesday signed off on three more police misconduct settlements totaling $4.72 million, including the last of 25 lawsuits stemming from the dirty work of former Special Operations Section kingpin Jerome Finnigan.

The settlements bring this year’s total to $18.6 million and the tab for settling police abuse cases over the last decade to well over $500 million.

The largest of the three settlements, for $3.75 million, will go to the three teenage children of Esau Castellanos-Bernal. The intoxicated man was fatally shot by police after crashing his car in 2013. The case involves an alleged cover-up by Chicago Police officers. It’s the subject of an ongoing investigation by the FBI and the soon-to-be-disbanded Independent Police Review Authority.

Police officers Shawn Lawryn and Juan Martinez contend Castellanos-Bernal, a pizza deliveryman, opened fire on them after crashing his car in the Albany Park neighborhood.

The two officers began following Castellanos-Bernal after noticing him speeding, and said they had to dodge bullets — and were hit by gunfire — when Castellanos-Bernal shot at them after crashing near the intersection of Wilson Avenue and Pulaski Road.

But First Deputy Corporation Counsel Jenny Notz told aldermen Tuesday that the victim’s family had hard evidence to back up its claim of a police whitewash.

“Both officers suffered minor injuries from falling. One officer was bleeding from his head. But neither officer had been shot. No gun was recovered. And the only bullets at the scene were from the officers’ guns,” Notz said.

“Given the lack of physical evidence, a jury is likely to credit the plaintiffs’ theory that the officers heard a tire from Castellanos’ car ‘pop,’ believed it was a gunshot, and overreacted or, worse, that the officers lied to cover up an unjustified shooting.”

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, was disgusted by Notz’ account of the facts.

“I can see why we’re settling. Nobody is going to believe these [police] reports anymore and the officers’ testimony as to how things developed,” Cardenas said.

“It’s just hard that we’re sitting here. The city is now beset by losses because everybody is suing the city because they know there’s money to be had. We don’t have any credibility any longer.”

Similar claims of a “code of silence” are a standard feature of most police misconduct lawsuits against the city. They got a big boost by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to openly acknowledge that the code of silence exists in the wake of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

The second-largest settlement approved Tuesday, for $550,000, goes to Chicago firefighter Robert Cook.

Cook said officers in the Chicago Police Department’s scandal-plagued and now-defunct Special Operations Section beat him in his home in front of his girlfriend and her children in 2002.

The officers threatened to plant drugs on Cook if he told anyone about the abuse. Cook alleged when he went to the officers’ supervisor, Ken Abels, Abels accused him of making a bogus complaint and that Cook would lose his job as a firefighter if he pressed his case further.

Finnigan was one of the officers who stormed Cook’s home. He was charged in 2007 for plotting to kill another SOS officer whom Finnigan believed was cooperating with an investigation of the unit. Cook’s lawyers have said Cook filed his lawsuit — four years after his encounter with police — only because he feared Finnigan and other SOS officers would make good on their threats.

Notz told aldermen the case would be “difficult to defend at trial.” She noted that the two officers took the Fifth Amendment during discovery and that a federal judge rules they will not be allowed to testify.

Finnigan is willing to tesify but his “credibility will be impeached by evidence that he participated in other similar acts of misconduct and, in addition, that he is currently serving a 12-year sentence for his participation in a murder-for-hire scheme,” the deputy corporation counsel said.

Under questioning by Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), Notz disclosed the $550,000 payout is the last of 25 settlements stemming from Finnigan’s reign of terror. There are no other pending lawsuits.

“That’s one good thing,” Sposato said.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) asked for the “grand total” of settlements triggered by Finnigan’s actions. He was surprised to learn that the total — not including $550,000 to Cook — was $1.38 million.

“Both this administration and the prior administration, given the large number of cases, I think did pretty well with settling many of them for a small amount of money,” Notz said.

Reilly replied, “I’ll give the Law Department the credit deserved for that. I just wanted to underscore the point that this one man has cost the taxpayers a tremendous amount of money for gross misconduct and breaching the public trust.”

Aldermen also signed off on a $425,000 settlement to Gentila Mitchell, whose teenage daughter and son were injured in 2011 by a car fleeing from Chicago Police squad cars. One of the teens was struck by the car being chased. The car crashed into a light pole, which fell and struck the other child.