By Becky Z. Dernbach
Peter Mendez, age 9, thought he was about to watch his father die. He regularly has flashbacks to police pointing guns at his dad, Gilbert. His 5-year-old brother Jack developed behavioral problems and had to be removed from school. When he hears a siren, he asks, “They’re not coming here, right Daddy?”
The Mendezes’ legal complaint, filed Aug. 15 in federal court, alleges that Chicago police pointed guns at the children and their parents in a raid of the wrong apartment in November 2017, causing the children severe emotional and psychological trauma. The lawsuit comes as consent decree negotiations to reform the Chicago Police Department are reaching their final stages.
The only remaining sticking point between Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Mayor Rahm Emanuel is whether the consent decree should require officers to document every time they point a gun. Many police-reform advocates and Chicago residents say this proposed requirement is common sense and a critical tool for de-escalation.
“There’s a lot of really good things in the draft consent decree about de-escalation,” said Kathy Hunt Muse, an attorney with the ACLU of Illinois. But, she said, “pointing guns at people is one of the ways that escalation happens really quickly.”
Hunt Muse noted that many federal consent decrees with police departments, including those in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, and Newark, have included this requirement. Chicago and the Justice Department began consent decree negotiations after a scathing federal report following the police killing of teenager Laquan McDonald. Negotiations stalled when President Trump took office. In the absence of Justice Department action, Madigan’s office sued the city seeking a consent decree to be overseen by a judge. The next hearing in the case is Aug. 30.
Hunt Muse said requiring police to document gun-pointing incidents is “critical” to assessing whether de-escalation is working.
“Our concern is there is no framework for accountability to know how often officers are doing this, no framework to assess whether they’re doing it appropriately or not,” she said.
A 2017 peer-reviewed study examined various policing practices to see which correlate with higher or lower rates of fatal shootings by officers. The only policy they found that reduced the number of deaths was requiring officers to document when they draw their firearms. The study’s authors, Jay T. Jennings and Meghan E. Rubado, estimated that 40 fewer people nationwide would have been killed by police if the 10 departments with the highest death rates, including Chicago, had required officers to document every time they drew a weapon between 2000 and 2015.
Navy veteran Robert Jackson, 57, said it’s important that the onus is on police to document when they point guns, as opposed to relying on citizen complaints. He has personal experience with the deficiencies of the citizen complaint process, since he made a complaint that was never followed up on, he said.
“Accountability is everything,” said Jackson, an entrepreneur in the South Side Bronzeville neighborhood whose father was a Chicago police officer for three decades. “When you draw your gun on someone you’re not serving or protecting. If you have to protect your life I understand that. I’m a military veteran. But you have to observe before you react.”
Nanette Frank, a jazz vocalist, says the proposed requirement does not go far enough; she wants stricter prohibitions on when police use force in the first place, since people of color are disproportionately targeted. “I think they shouldn’t point guns,” said Frank. “They have rubber bullets I’ve seen them use on other races.”
Al Hofeld Jr., the Mendezes’ attorney, said documentation “should absolutely be required,” but he was “highly skeptical” police would report accurately. Hofeld previously represented the family of 3-year-old Davianna Simmons, who received a $2.5 million settlement from the city after police pointed a gun to her chest.
“There’s no possible justification for pointing a gun at a 3- or a 5-year-old,” he said. “It’s a crazy thing to even do.”
Featured photo: Left to right, Hester, Peter, Jack and Gilbert Mendez. The Mendez family has filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging Chicago police officers pointed guns at the children and their parents in a raid of the wrong apartment, causing severe emotional and psychological trauma. Photo courtesy of Law Offices of Al Hofeld, Jr.