Jury awards CPD whistleblower nearly $1 million

Isaac Lambert’s lawyers had sought as much as $2 million for veteran detective who was demoted for speaking out about 2017 shooting of an unarmed teen by an off-duty officer.

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A jury awarded Isaac Lambert $910,000. Police supervisors testified that Lambert was demoted for botching an investigation into the shooting of Ricardo Hayes, a teen with autism who had been reported missing by his family.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A Cook County jury on Tuesday awarded nearly $1 million to a Chicago police detective who alleged he was demoted after pushing back when superiors pressed him to alter reports to cover for a fellow officer who shot an unarmed teenager.

Sgt. Isaac Lambert, who took the stand during the first week of the three-week trial, claimed he was “dumped” from his job as a detective supervisor on the South Side after he filed reports on the case nearly two years after off-duty Sgt. Khalil Muhammad shot and wounded 18-year-old Ricardo Hayes.

Lambert had testified during the first week of the trial that he clashed with fellow officers and his supervisors the night of the shooting, even refusing to send officers to interrogate Hayes after learning that the teen had autism and had been reported missing just hours before the shooting.

Seated in the courtroom across from jurors as Judge Thomas Donnelly read the verdict, Lambert bowed his head and whispered to his lawyers, his smile visible even under his surgical mask.

“To get dragged by the city for these last three years is unbelievable,” Lambert said outside the courtroom, as tears ran down his cheeks. “All for looking out for a kid who couldn’t look out for himself, it’s just unreal.”

Jurors needed only about two and half hours to reach a verdict. The award of $910,000 was less than the $1.2 million to $2.5 million that Lambert’s lawyers had suggested, but well above the $143,000 in compensation city attorneys had called for.

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Isaac Lambert with attorney Megan O’Malley. He thanked the judge after the verdict. “Your honor, thank you very much for letting me have my day.” Lawyers for the city had recommended $143,000 in compensation.

Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

During more than two weeks of testimony at the Daley Center, jurors heard from Lambert himself and a parade of Chicago Police Department brass recounting the night Hayes was shot and the reasons it took more than two years for the department to approve final reports on the shooting.

City attorneys, though, said Lambert was fired for mismanaging the case from the moment he sent a pair of inexperienced detectives to the scene to investigate and doing little to complete files in the case in the 18 months that followed.

In closing arguments Tuesday, Lambert’s lawyer said that had it not been for Lambert’s protests, Hayes might have been arrested as Lambert’s colleagues moved quickly to cover for Muhammad by seeking aggravated assault charges against the teen. Those same police supervisors then abandoned the case soon after video surfaced showing Muhammad shooting from his car as the unarmed teen stood on the sidewalk.

“They dropped this investigation like a radioactive hot potato. They knew eventually this video was going to come to light, so whatever efforts they were making to help Khalil Muhammad went out the window,” attorney Torreya Hamilton told jurors.

“The truth is, nobody at the top of CPD really wanted these reports finished until they had to. ... Imagine the thoughts going through the heads of these bosses as they watched this video. Ike was right.”

Muhammad was eventually suspended for six months after the city police board ruled the shooting was unjustified. The city paid more than $2 million to settle a lawsuit filed on Hayes’ behalf.

City attorneys argued there was no coverup, noting that CPD officials had been in contact with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and county prosecutors about the shooting.

Lambert was demoted for botching the case and then refused a job offer that would have kept him out of patrol, city lawyer J.T. Wilson III said. The city’s defense also hinged on a more technical argument that Lambert’s actions didn’t meet the requirements of the state’s whistleblower laws: Lambert hadn’t refused an illegal order or reported any new information about wrongdoing other than what had already been gathered by others.

“Sgt. Lambert told you no one ever instructed him or demanded he do anything,” Wilson said. “He said he felt pressured. No one said or did anything. It’s what he subjectively, emotionally felt.”

Jurors have awarded multimillion-dollar payouts to CPD officers who made similar claims that they were pressured to protect fellow cops who engaged in misconduct.

Seated in the courtroom during several days of the trial was CPD Officer Beth Svec, who sued the city when she was reassigned to a midnight shift in a new district after making complaints about fellow officers on a gun unit. Svec was awarded $4 million by a jury this summer.

A key witness for Lambert was his former area chief of detectives, Rodney Blisset, who has a pending lawsuit against the city, alleging he too was demoted after he refused to say that Lambert was transferred out of the detective bureau for “causing problems in the unit.”

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