Most large police departments have “early intervention” systems designed to detect troubled young officers; they either retrain them or release them. Chicago has one, but the 19 citizen complaints Officer Patrick Kelly racked up in his first six years on the streets did not result in any action against him.
Then came the morning of Jan. 12, 2010, when the off-duty Kelly dialed 911 from his home to report his longtime friend Mike LaPorta had just committed suicide. Except LaPorta, with a gunshot through his brain, lived. He spent months in a coma and now uses a wheelchair, unable to read and speaking only with difficulty. Kelly was arrested at the scene for drunkenly assaulting one of the responding officers, though that case was later dismissed, according to court records. LaPorta and his family would later contend it was Kelly who fired the gun.
Although no criminal charges were ever filed against Kelly in the LaPorta case, a federal jury in Chicago found last month that he shot LaPorta, that Chicago police failed to implement an early warning system for its officers, and that the city should pay LaPorta $44.7 million. Then on Friday, the lawyers who represented LaPorta sued Chicago and Kelly again, for an on-duty shooting in 2014 in which Kelly and another officer shot a man eight times in the back and buttocks, killing him, according to the lawsuit.
Kelly, 36, remains a Chicago police officer. He was on the street until last month, when his decision on the witness stand to invoke the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself convinced the Chicago police to investigate him for possible truthfulness violations, a police spokesman said.
“There is not an adequate early warning system that exists in the city of Chicago,” said Antonio Romanucci, who tried the case for LaPorta and is suing on behalf of the family of Hector Hernandez, killed by Kelly and Officer Antonio Corral in April 2014. “The city does have a behavioral intervention system, however the system is not disciplinary in nature,” Romanucci said, noting it frequently provides only counseling or minimal retraining for miscreants, “as opposed to discipline, which would bring consequences for bad behavior. That’s why we went after the city of Chicago, for not having an early warning system which could flag patterns of misconduct, such as the violent conduct Patrick Kelly showed both on-and off-duty.”
Two jurors who spoke to Chicago reporters after the verdict said the $44.7 million award was meant to send a message to the city. “They can’t get away with this,” juror Andrea Diven told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s something that’s embedded and it needs to change.”
The verdict is believed to be the largest ever against the embattled Chicago Police Department. The department also has absorbed a sharply critical Justice Department report that the city intends to use in shaping a consent decree for federal oversight, and another harsh analysis from a police accountability task force formed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“It’s part of a larger issue we’ve been trying to address,” Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. “We haven’t had a robust early intervention system. We’ve had pieces.” He said the police were working with the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab to create a new intervention program for police officers, though he declined to discuss the Kelly cases specifically. The city has indicated its intention to appeal.
Officials with the city’s law department and the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police union declined to comment. After the verdict, city law department spokesman Bill McCaffrey issued a statement saying, “We are disappointed in the jury’s verdict, and, as we argued in this case, taxpayers should not be responsible for an off-duty officer’s purely private actions.” But LaPorta’s lawyers said taxpayers won’t have to pay the verdict because the city’s insurance will cover it.
“The challenge is,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which studies and advises big city departments on tough issues, “how do you measure whether someone is a problem employee? What are the warning signs, what do you do about it? I don’t know that departments have perfected the intervention.” He said some departments try to fire officers, but appeal boards and arbitration proceedings “tend to be supportive of the police officer.” Wexler also said officers who work in tougher neighborhoods may draw more complaints, which might be unfounded, while officers in easier areas attract less attention.
In Chicago, the police do not investigate complaints against officers. They were, until recently, referred to the Independent Police Review Authority, or IPRA, recently replaced by a new board, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA. But officers often are witnesses in cases of police abuse, leading to allegations of a police “code of silence,” and not one of the complaints against Kelly was ruled “sustained,” including an off-duty assault on his girlfriend and another on her brother. City statistics showed only 17 percent of domestic violence complaints lodged against Chicago officers over an eight-year period were sustained.
Kelly had a lot of complaints against him, often involving booze. “The facts of this case lend themselves to an Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet,” wrote the judge in the LaPorta case, U.S. District Court Judge Harry D. Leinenweber, in a 71-page pretrial order. Leinenweber also created a chart in his order listing the dates, allegations and outcomes of 18 complaints against Kelly between January 2005 and July 2009, including five for using excessive force, as well as a 19th case involving five officers abusing an arrestee. Kelly was not disciplined in any of the 19 cases.
All that was before the near-fatal shooting of LaPorta, Kelly’s best friend for years, inside Kelly’s home. The two men had been drinking for hours, first in two bars and then at Kelly’s home, and LaPorta testified he remembered Kelly abusing his dog so LaPorta got up to leave. Around 4:30 a.m., LaPorta was shot once in the back of the head. Kelly reported his friend had shot himself, though the entry wound was on LaPorta’s left side and LaPorta shot right-handed, and other aspects of LaPorta’s location, blood spatter and gunshot residue didn’t match with a self-inflicted wound, his lawyers said.
After paramedics arrived, Kelly tried to climb in the ambulance with LaPorta, both “highly intoxicated and belligerent” according to police reports. He took swings at a police sergeant, tried to kick out the rear window of the police cruiser and was arrested for assault. His blood alcohol content wasn’t measured for eight hours and was still .093, well above the legal limit of intoxication, and Illinois State Police extrapolated his blood alcohol content was between .169 and .246 at the time of the shooting. His criminal assault case went away, but he was suspended for 60 days and initially found “unfit for duty,” although that finding was soon reversed.
“The only time he was ever disciplined,” Romanucci said, “was when he assaulted one of his own brethren. In all of the other occasions, including when Patrick Kelly literally beat his girlfriend, literally beat his girlfriend’s brother, none of them resulted in any charges or discipline.” Romanucci said a former city prosecutor named Tisa Morris headed the civilian review authority when many of Kelly’s initial complaints rolled in. At trial, when Romanucci asked her what she knew about a “code of silence,” she replied it was a Chuck Norris movie.
Judge Leinenweber noted in his pretrial order that police participation in behavioral intervention programs plummeted after 2007, when 276 officers were involved in one of two such programs. “By 2013,” the judge wrote, “no officers were being actively managed through either program.” He said Morris “testified that she does not know what a behavioral intervention system is.”
LaPorta was in a coma during the time that his shooting was investigated. Kelly was not questioned until a year after the shooting, LaPorta’s lawyers said, during which Kelly made conflicting statements about the location of the shooting and his own intoxication. One of the lead investigators in the shooting testified that his conclusion the shot was self-inflicted was based solely on Kelly’s version of events, though he said “no evidence supports” the claim that LaPorta shot himself.
LaPorta testified at trial that he remembered most of the night, including Kelly abusing his dog, and that he heard a clicking sound, but did not remember the actual gunfire. “He shot me. I know he shot me,” LaPorta said.
The jury deliberated for two days before reaching its verdict on Oct. 26. The jury was required to determine if Kelly shot LaPorta, and jurors told reporters it took them less than 20 minutes to decide he had. The jurors said they spent the rest of the time arguing about the amount of damages to award.
Insurance will cover the entire verdict, Romanucci said: The city self-insures itself for up to $15 million per case, and has an excess insurance policy to cover the remaining $30 million. Romanucci said the fact that Chicago “chose to indemnify their officers for misconduct” probably leads to far fewer findings of misconduct for city officers, knowing that such a finding would enhance the liability in a lawsuit. “If the city doesn’t have to indemnify its officers, I think you’d see different findings,” Romanucci said. He said the indemnification was part of a collective bargaining agreement with the police union.
Since the shooting of LaPorta, Kelly has had at least eight more complaints filed against him, the new lawsuit states, for a total of 27, as well as six civil lawsuits. In 2013, Kelly used a Taser on a pregnant woman who had a miscarriage soon after. Chicago paid the woman a $500,000 settlement earlier this year.
In the latest suit, the family of Hector Hernandez claims he was visiting his girlfriend and their two children on April 7, 2014, when the couple got into a “nonviolent verbal argument.” Officers arrived and cornered Hernandez in the kitchen, with some wielding Tasers, the lawsuit states. Hernandez, 21, had a knife and was threatening suicide, according to news reports. Kelly and Corral fired 21 shots, hitting Hernandez 13 times, including eight in the rear.
The lawsuit alleges the city’s failure to investigate and fire Kelly caused the officer “to act with impunity and to feel and act as though his acts of misconduct would go unpunished and uninvestigated.”
Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said most early intervention systems “don’t do a good job of predicting which officers are going to get themselves in trouble, and not providing good support.” His group is working with the city “to have a really data-driven early intervention system that will prioritize officers for support,” though the city will still have to provide sufficient resources to make it work. Ludwig said they have been studying such programs, “and we’re doing our very best to get the best thinking from around the country to inform” Chicago’s new program.