Oak Lawn chief defends officers after viral video shows beating of teen during arrest
Police say the 17-year-old had an illegal firearm when he took off on foot; a bystander says the teen did not appear to resist.
Oak Lawn’s police chief defended the conduct of officers seen on video repeatedly punching a 17-year-old who fled from a traffic stop in the southwest suburb Wednesday.
At a news conference Thursday that began after several hundred protesters accused police of brutalizing the teen during the arrest, Chief Daniel Vittorio broke down the action filmed by squad-mounted cameras during the encounter.
The footage of three officers holding the teen — identified by family as Hadi Abuatelah of Palos Hills — on the ground and repeatedly punching him in the head and legs was much the same as in a phone-camera video filmed by a bystander that had gone viral in the hours after the arrest, but Vittorio said officers’ actions were in line with their training.
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Abuatelah, Vittorio alleged, continued reaching for a shoulder bag as he struggled with officers, a bag that held a loaded semi-automatic pistol. The teen did not stop reaching for the bag until a third officer shocked him with a “drive stun” from his Taser, which causes severe pain, the chief said.
“Had the offender drawn the weapon, he could have shot him,” Vittorio told reporters. “Were they supposed to wait for him to pull it out?”
Vittorio said the department was conducting an internal investigation of the arrest and that it intended to seek charges against Abuatelah.
“What concerns me is a 16-year-old running around with a gun,” Vittorio said, misstating the teen’s age.
None of the three officers involved have been suspended or moved off active duty, though two of the officers have not returned to work after suffering injuries themselves during the arrest, the chief said. One of the officers in the video was among the police handling crowd control during the rally Thursday.
Video of the arrest outraged many in the large Arab American community in Oak Lawn and neighboring suburbs, who joined a rally Wednesday outside the Village Hall.
Nena Alayan, a longtime resident of neighboring Bridgeview, said she had seen similar videos of traffic stops that turned violent but had never joined a demonstration until Thursday.
“I don’t have a problem with police,” she said as she stood between a row of demonstrators holding handmade signs that read “Justice for Hadi.” He “had a gun? You arrest him. You put the cuffs on him and you put him in a car.
“But all that punching him in the head? All that extra beating? That was unconscionable.”
Vittorio released video from squad car dashboard cameras that began minutes before Abuatelah was tackled near the intersection of 95th Street and McVicker Avenue. Officers are seen alongside an Infiniti sedan that had stopped in an apartment parking lot. Vittorio said officers smelled marijuana smoke coming from the vehicle and followed it as it made a U-turn into the lot.
The driver gets out and Abuatelah gets out of the back seat, then bolts as the officer asks him, “You got anything crazy on you?” and reaches to pat a black bag hitched across the teen’s chest. Oak Lawn officers do not have body-worn cameras, so the ensuing foot chase is shown only in snippets, with the arrest captured by a car that arrived after Abuatelah was on the ground.
Thursday afternoon, Abuatelah’s mother, Dena Natour, and attorneys held a news conference at the intersection where the arrest took place. The teen remains hospitalized and suffered fractures to his face, skull and pelvis and has swelling of his brain, they said. At the time, Natour had only seen video filmed by a bystander who was a few feet away during the arrest.
“When I saw the video, my stomach was in knots,” Natour said. “You feel so helpless, watching your child, seeing three oversized men just beating him.”
Natour said she did not know her son to own or carry a gun, and that he had not had any previous run-ins with police.
Witness Myriah Deal spotted police chasing the teen as she pumped gas at a station a few yards away and began filming with the camera on her phone once officers had the teen on the ground. Her video, posted to Snapchat, has since gone viral. Deal said she did not see the teen reach for a weapon or resist officers, and that while he ran from officers, he had stopped running before police threw him down.
“I didn’t see him grab nothing” when police caught the teen, Deal said. “After that, I thought they would put some handcuffs on him and put him in a car. But they just started beating on him.”
The 17-year-old driver of the car told the Sun-Times he was ticketed for having a cracked windshield, displaying his license plate on the dashboard instead of the front bumper and having too many passengers in the car since he is under 18.
Protesters called for the department to fire the three officers.
Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Chicago, said Arab American residents of Oak Lawn have long complained of disrespect by police.
“There was no danger to their lives” once the teen was on the ground, Rehab said. “He was subdued.”