$1.9M settlement to family of unarmed man shot by off-duty Chicago police officer

Two years ago, Chicago Police Officer Lowell Houser was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in the 2017 shooting of Jose Nieves.

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Chicago Police Officer Lowell Houser walks into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Friday morning, Dec. 20, 2019.

Chicago Police Officer Lowell Houser (center) was convicted of killing an unarmed Jose Nieves during an off-duty argument in 2017.

Sun-Times file

Chicago taxpayers will spend $1.9 million to compensate surviving relatives of a man murdered by an off-duty Chicago police officer in 2017.

The settlement is the smaller of two tied to alleged police misconduct — totaling $16.14 million — on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting of the City Council’s Finance Committee.

Also on the agenda is a $14.25 million settlement with Daniel Taylor, who spent 20 years in prison for a double-murder he could not have committed because he was in police custody on an unrelated disorderly conduct charge at the time of the killings. His lawsuit against the city accused Chicago police officers of hiding that fact, and also of beating Taylor into a false confession.

The $1.9 million settlement involves former Chicago Police Officer Lowell Houser, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2020 after being convicted of second-degree murder in connection with the 2017 shooting of Jose Nieves.

Judge William Gamboney handed down the sentence after acknowledging Houser’s role in escalating an argument with Nieves that culminated in the fatal shooting. 

In fact, prosecutors alleged the off-duty officer pulled his gun on Nieves during an argument a few weeks before the fatal shooting.

“Mr. Houser had a multitude of alternatives during his interaction with Mr. Nieves,” Gamboney said during the sentencing hearing.

“We can sit here and debate what he could have done ... but Mr. Houser chose probably the most extreme [option] in that list of circumstances, and as a result, we have a 37-year-old man ... Jose Nieves, who is dead.”

Houser spoke briefly during the sentencing hearing, stopping short of an apology.

“I sincerely send my condolences to the Nieves family,” he said. “Many times I went over in my mind if there was something I could have done to prevent this, but, unfortunately, I can only look at this in hindsight.”

There was no dispute at Houser’s trial that he shot Nieves outside a Northwest Side apartment building where both Nieves and a female friend of Houser’s lived. Houser called 911, reported he was a police officer and “a gentleman tried to attack me. I had to shoot him.”

When police arrived, Houser turned over his .40-caliber pistol and told officers Nieves shouted threats at him and appeared to be reaching for a gun when Houser opened fire. Houser’s pistol was the only weapon found at the scene.

Nieves’ longtime girlfriend, Michelle Malkowski, testified Houser pulled up next to her in his car as she and Nieves carried boxes up to the apartment. The veteran officer asked Malkowski why she was helping Nieves, saying Nieves was “no good to women.”

Nieves took issue with the remark, touching off an argument that continued as Malkowski went to Nieves’ apartment. Moments later, Malkowski heard shots and found Nieves bleeding on the street.

A neighbor said he heard the men shouting and looked out his window, then looked away. He heard shots, looked again and saw Nieves clutching his chest and Houser pointing a gun at him.

Houser did not testify at his trial — unusual for a defense built on a claim of self-defense.

Nieves, hit in the wrist and back, was unarmed.

After his arrest, Houser resigned from the Chicago Police Department after 28 years on the force. He was on medical leave from the department at the time of the shooting and had planned to retire in a few months after treatment for cancer, according to his attorney William Fahy. 

Houser had never shot anyone in the line of duty.

“He made that split-second decision out of fear,” Fahy said at sentencing. “Never in a million years would he have expected his career to have ended this way.”

Nieves’ family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Houser and the city, alleging CPD failed to take action after Nieves reported previous misconduct by Houser.

The charges against Houser came just weeks after Kim Foxx took office as state’s attorney, having made a campaign issue out of incumbent Anita Alvarez’s handling of criminal cases against police officers — a hot-button topic in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by then-CPD Officer Jason Van Dyke.

Nieves’ sister and mother attended the sentencing hearing, wearing teal T-shirts with his face printed on them.

“[Houser], you didn’t use your judgment that day. I think you only have remorse because you got locked up,” said Nieves’ sister, Angelica Nieves, who said she and her family wanted a longer sentence for Houser.

The day Houser was convicted, Angelica Nieves told reporters she was satisfied, even though the charge was not first-degree murder.

“All that matters to me that is that he’s convicted, in some form or manner,” she said. “His name is put as a murderer, because he was a murderer. He is a murderer.”

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