Aldermanic opposition stalls two settlements tied to allegations of police wrongdoing

One stalled settlement is with the family of a man who died in police custody in 2015; the other is with a woman who saw a police officer fatally shoot Laquan McDonald and claims she was pressured to change her story.

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Chicago City Hall

A City Council committee on Monday delayed action on two legal settlements.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

The City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday derailed — at least temporarily — two controversial legal settlements tied to allegations of police wrongdoing.

The largest of the two stalled settlements — for $1.2 million — was to go to the family of 26-year-old Heriberto Godinez, who died in police custody in July 2015 after being arrested as he was burglarizing a Brighton Park garage.

“I cannot in good faith go back to my neighborhood and say that I’ve rewarded a gang banger’s family with over $1.2 million in taxpayer funds for the lifestyle of terrorizing our neighborhoods on a coke-fueled binge. Coming from that neighborhood — two blocks away from where this took place — I can’t do it,” said Ald. Ray Lopez (15th).

Lopez stood his ground even after First Deputy Corporation Counsel Renai Rodney told aldermen that Chicago Police officers stood on the upper body of Godinez for more than 90 seconds.

While the medical examiner’s office found evidence of cocaine and ethanol toxicity in Godinez’s system, “physical stress associated with restraint” was a “significant contributing factor” to his death, she said.

“This man was on more cocaine than normally would kill the average person. … He was high as a kite. He was aggressive. He was trying to get away and the cops did what they had to do,” Lopez said.

“They put their knee on his shoulders to restrain him because it took three people to restrain him in his coke-fueled rage. Of course he’s gonna have scrapes and bruises. Of course he’s gonna be injured.”

Heriberto Godinez is seen here in a Facebook photo. He died in police custody in July 2015 at the age of 24. Facebook photo

Heriberto Godinez died in police custody. An autopsy found cocaine in his system.

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Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), a former Chicago firefighter, said 90 seconds with a police officer’s foot on a suspect’s upper body is “nothing” when the suspect is high on drugs.

“I’ve been there. Done it. I’ve tried to pin guys down for five or 10 minutes. … We had many times we’d go somewhere and — between five firemen there and five or six police officers — we had a really, really difficult time getting `em under control a lot of times,” Sposato said.

“They had like super powers. This guy was the 40th most amount of cocaine of the 1,900 cases [handled by the Law Department]. So he was super hyped up. Super high.”

The second stalled settlement — for $125,000 — was intended for a woman who saw the police shooting of Laquan McDonald while the black teenager, knife in hand, walked away from police.

Alma Benitez sued the city, claiming detectives pressured to change her story and told her — erroneously — that the shooting video contradicted her version of events.

“She has PTSD from the incident? She’s scarred for life after witnessing this incident and somebody didn’t treat her nice? I can’t give somebody $125,000 for something like that,” Sposato said.

Police dashcam footage that captured the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.

A woman who saw a police officer fatally shoot Laquan McDonald says Chicago Police pressured her to change her story.

Chicago Police Department/Distributed by the Associated Press

Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) recessed Monday’s meeting until 9 a.m. Wednesday, when he hopes both stalled settlements will be approved after more closed-door briefings with aldermen.

Waguespack agreed with Rodney that rejecting the Godinez settlement would put Chicago taxpayers at risk. The family’s original demand was for $7 million.

A lawsuit by the Godinez family alleged excessive force was used and other officers at the scene failed to intervene. It also alleged a CPD “code of silence” hinders investigations of the deaths of civilians in police custody.

In September 2016, then-State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced no charges would be filed against any officers involved in the Godinez arrest.

In 2017, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability found one officer’s act of stepping on Godinez constituted an improper application of deadly force, even if the force applied did not ultimately cause his death.

COPA also found officers should have sought prompt medical attention for Godinez because “his appearance and behavior made it obvious that Godinez was suffering from physical or mental illness, severe intoxication or a combination” of the two, Rodney said.

The Finance Committee did authorize a $1.3 million settlement to the family of 18-year-old Tevin Jones-Rogers, killed in a crash during a 2017 police pursuit.

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