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Committee OKs $700,000 in police abuse settlements amid questions

Chicago Police at the scene of a fatal shooting by an officer earlier this year. The City-Council's Finance Committee on Monday approved a settlement in a fatal shooting by police and another case involving a man injured while in custody. | Sun-Times file photo

A City Council committee on Monday signed off on $700,000 in settlements triggered by two more cases of alleged police abuse amid concern the city was too quick to open taxpayers’ wallets and that at least one of the cases was “weak.”

The largest of the two settlements — for $500,000 — will go the family of Ontario Billups, who was shot to death on Dec. 4, 2010 while allegedly dealing drugs on the South Side by a police officer who claims the 30-year-old Billups made an “aggressive movement” toward her.

The “dark object” the officer thought was a gun turned out to be a plastic bag filled with marijuana. Billups was unarmed.

Although the Independent Police Review Authority ruled the shooting justified and took no action against the officer who fired the deadly shot, First Deputy Corporation Counsel Jane Notz nevertheless advised the Finance Committee to cut the city’s losses and settle the case.

Ontario Billups was allegedly dealing drugs when he was shot to death by a Chicago Police officer in 2010. | Provided photo

That’s even though the city’s own forensic expert supported the officer’s claim that the shooting was justified because the officer “reasonably feared” Billups was “turning toward her with a gun in his hand.”

“The plaintiff could claim, relying on their own forensic expert, that the location of the gun wounds suggest Billups was preparing to flee and did not pose a threat. The plaintiff also could claim that Billups was merely complying with the officer’s order that he show his hands rather than turning toward her in a threatening manner and that, because the area was well lit, the officer should not have mistaken a plastic bag of drugs for a handgun,” Notz said.

Aldermen questioned why a grieving family that originally demanded $3.9 million was willing to settle so cheaply.

“If they’re willing to settle for $500,000 on something that was, your words, [worth] multi-multi-millions, that at least begs the question that maybe their case was pretty weak,” said Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st).

Notz countered, “Our assessment of the case is not that it was weak. It was that it could have gone either way and, if the jury had credited the plaintiff’s version of events, our exposure would be very significant.”

Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th) was not satisfied.

“Isn’t it somewhat ironic that IPRA finds the shooting justified but we’re going to pay out half a million dollars?” the chairman said.

“How are you able to settle these two matters for such a small amount of money, given the history of cases like this against the city of Chicago. And don’t just tell me good lawyering.”

Notz countered, “I can’t speak specifically to why IPRA differed in its conclusions about this case as compared to the conclusions reached by the plaintiff’s expert. What I can say is that there is sufficient evidence here that, if the case were to go to a jury, the jury could reach an adverse verdict. Those verdicts can result in multi-, multi- million dollar damage awards. … We believe the $500,000 is a substantial discount over the verdict we could face.”

The second settlement goes to Maurice Waller, who suffered facial fractures during an altercation with a police detention aide while in the 11th District lock-up after a 2013 arrest for criminal trespass to a vehicle.

According to the arrest report, Waller suffered from “mental issues” and took medication for it.

“While detained, he became agitated and disruptive, leading to an incident where he was struck by a detention aide,” Notz said. “Waller was then released without being provided medical care. A sergeant found him outside the station needing medical assistance and arranged for him to be transported to the hospital and accompanied him.”

IPRA recommended that three charges be sustained against the detention aide and the police officer on duty. Disciplinary action is pending.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) wasn’t satisfied after being told that Waller’s attorneys had made an initial demand of $600,000 plus attorney’s fees.

“Most cases settle. I understand that. But, settlements also breed more lawsuits if they know that the city is going to settle, they’re not going to try cases,” Thompson said.

“If we have a pretty thorough examination and determination that our officer was correct, we need to make sure we’re not settling cases which is breeding more lawsuits and that we’re standing behind our officers so they know that the city is going to be behind them in the work that they’re doing. Not that I want to blindly go into a case and support a police officer and lose because that hurts everybody. But on some of these cases, we seem to be settling quite a bit. ”

Notz stressed that Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton has worked hard over the last four years to do just that.

“He’s taking cases to trial that really can and should be tried,” she said, arguing that the Waller case is not one of them.