When a $1 million police lawsuit settlement is about more than money

The arguments are convincing against approving a $1 million settlement to the family of an armed man who was killed by Chicago police. But when public trust in police is fractured, is it surprising that city lawyers would recommend paying out the $1 million?

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A screengrab of a video released by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability that shows the moments before police shot and killed Sharell Brown.

A screengrab of a video released by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability that shows the moments before police shot and killed Sharell Brown.

Civilian Office of Police Accountability

Some City Council members are understandably frustrated and unwilling to approve a $1 million settlement to the mother of an armed man who was shot and killed by Chicago police officers.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability did not sustain allegations that “excessive and inappropriate deadly force” was applied in the 2019 incident on the West Side.

And according to Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), Sharell Brown, 26, had “a gun pointed at the cop” after a pair of officers stopped him because he matched the description of an armed robber. 

The settlement vote was taken off the Finance Committee’s agenda at Tuesday’s meeting. But the irked alderpersons were fuming over last week’s closed door session with city lawyers, who suggested that paying out the $1 million settlement was “fiscally prudent” and less cumbersome than taking the wrongful death lawsuit to trial.

Editorial

Editorial

The arguments against approving the settlement are convincing. Taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook to pay for the shooting of a man that COPA determined was a threat.

But that’s where we are, as a city and as a nation: The city lawyers’ position makes sense at a time when public trust in police, in many communities, is broken.

The latest example is the brutal beating and death of Tyre Nichols, who was laid to rest Wednesday in Memphis. The video images of five Memphis police officers brutally beating Nichols has been seared in the minds of many Americans, including in Chicago, where hundreds marched this week to protest Nichols’ murder.

Chicagoans, as well, are weary of news about officer misconduct, how some officers have ties to right-wing extremist groups and how court-mandated police reform is moving at a snail’s pace.

Is it surprising, then, that city lawyers might fear risking an even more expensive award, as well as the cost of going to trial, if the Brown family’s wrongful death lawsuit went to a jury?

Officer Joseph Lisciandrello, who fired the bullets that killed Brown, failed “to completely record the incident” on his body-worn camera, per COPA’s 2021 summary report. He was given a five-day suspension. A juror might find Lisciandrello’s excuses weak, concluding that the portion of his interaction with Brown that wasn’t captured on camera might have told another story of how the shooting unfolded.

The city is not willing to put up the “slightest of fights,” an exasperated Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) told Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman.

Alderpersons will eventually decide whether to fight or make the payout. The city has paid out hundreds of millions for police misconduct over the years.

But the real fight is this: To rebuild public trust in our police.

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