A Chicago police officer was indicted by a grand jury this week and charged with federal civil rights violations for a 2013 incident in which he was captured on video opening fire at a car full of teenagers.
These charges come at a time of intense scrutiny for the Chicago Police Department, which is still reeling from the release of video footage last year showing an officer fatally shooting a black teenager. That video drew national attention and helped spark a Justice Department investigation into the department, the country’s second-biggest local law enforcement agency, which is imposing its own reforms while simultaneously trying to combat a staggering surge in gun violence.
In a two-page indictment filed Thursday and made public Friday, Marco Proano, 41, is accused of using unreasonable force with “acts that resulted in bodily injury” to two people. These two people were not named in the indictment.
Proano — who had been commended by the department for an earlier shooting — faces two counts of depriving the rights of these people under color of law during a Dec. 22, 2013, incident in Chicago. He could face up to two decades in prison if convicted on the charges.
The indictment does not elaborate on what use of force occurred in December 2013, but it stems from an incident in which Proano was recorded by a dashboard camera firing at a car with teenagers inside. A spokesman for the police union said at the time that Proano stopped the car because he thought it was stolen.
Two teenagers inside the vehicle were struck by the barrage of gunfire, according to a lawsuit filed over the incident. According to the suit, one was wounded in the shoulder and his forehead and cheek were grazed, and the other was struck in the left hip and right heel.
In the video, released in 2015, Proano is seen pointing his gun sideways at the teens’ vehicle, then gripping it with both hands and firing several shots as it backs up alongside of and away from him. The vehicle eventually swings in a perpendicular direction, coasts forward and hits a lamp post as the officer continues to approach.
Relatives of the teenagers ultimately sued the city and the police department, alleging the use of force came “without provocation, cause or justification of any kind.” The case was ultimately settled out of court for $360,000, records show.
A representative for Proano’s lawyer, Daniel Q. Herbert, declined to comment on the indictment. But the representative said Herbert would make a statement at Proano’s arraignment, which is scheduled for next week.
Abena Andoh, 46, whose son, David Hemmans, was shot and wounded in the encounter, said she was glad to hear news of the charges, which she had “waited too long to see.”
“It means a lot to me, to get one crooked cop off the street,” Andoh said. The police, she said, are “supposed to serve and protect, but they [are] hurting these innocent people.”
Andoh said her son — then 15, now 18 — still has ankle problems and walks with a limp, though she is grateful his injuries weren’t worse.
“That officer could have killed them kids, with my son included,” Andoh said. “It’s a blessing to God that he didn’t kill my baby.”
Andoh said she was particularly horrified by the video of the encounter — which she said shows not only the officer shooting at her son, but also someone throwing him to the ground.
“He could’ve pulled them over and talked to them,” she said. “He went straight shooting.”
“The charges announced today are serious and the Chicago Police Department will have zero tolerance for proven misconduct,” Frank Giancamilli, a spokesman for the Chicago police, said in a statement. He said the department is “fully cooperating” with federal prosecutors.
Proano was relieved of his policing powers last year during the investigation carried out by the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), a city agency that probes allegations of police misconduct, Giancamilli said.
A spokeswoman for IPRA said Friday that the agency had closed its investigation last month and determined that there was police misconduct in the case. Mia Sissac, the spokeswoman, said that Proano’s “actions were outside of policy,” and she said that the findings were sent to the Chicago police superintendent, who has until later this year to make a decision about the officer.
In Chicago, many residents say they are still uneasy with the city’s police force, which is still facing the aftermath of graphic video last year showing Jason Van Dyke, a white police officer, firing 16 rounds at Laquan McDonald, a black teenager.
A task force assembled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) after the McDonald case video was released produced a blistering report saying that a feeling among residents that “the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color” was backed up by the department’s own data.
“When a police officer uses unreasonable force, it has a harmful effect on not only the victims, but also the public, who lose faith and confidence in law enforcement,” Zachary T. Fardon, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said in a statement Friday.
Authorities have vowed to restore the community’s trust after the McDonald video became public, announcing reforms aimed at strengthening misconduct investigations and establishing stronger penalties for officers. Van Dyke was charged with murder the day the video was released, and last month the Chicago police superintendent called for firing him and four other officers for lying about McDonald’s death.
Herbert, Proano’s attorney, is also representing Van Dyke.
An online database of investigations being carried out by IRPA — launched to great fanfare this summer as part of the city’s push to ramp up transparency — lists Hemmans on a case involving an officer’s firearms discharge.
While it contains police reports and recordings from violent or deadly encounters, the case entry for this incident says that because it involved a minor, city officials cannot release any records from that episode.
However, dashboard video was released in 2015 by the Chicago Reporter, which obtained it from a retired judge who said he was disturbed by the case. “He’s just a trigger-happy guy,” the judge told the Chicago Reader in a story published this year.
Proano has had at least eight complaints since joining the force, none of which resulted in discipline, according to the Citizens Police Data Project, an online portal from the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalism group.
A representative for the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police said the organization’s president had no immediate comment.
The December 2013 incident was also not Proano’s only on-the-job shooting. He was given an award for a 2011 incident in which he shot and killed a 19-year-old who he claimed appeared to have taken a woman hostage.
A jury awarded the family of Niko Husband, the man who had been killed, $3.5 million in a civil case stemming from that incident, though a judge ultimately set aside the verdict after deciding jurors, in response to a written question, had found the officer feared for his life, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Federal civil rights charges against officers are relatively rare. In an investigation earlier this year, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review found that the Justice Department has declined to bring federal charges in 96 percent of the more than 13,000 federal civil rights complaints against police officers it has received since 1995.
In May, the former South Carolina police officer who fatally shot Walter Scott as he ran from a traffic stop was charged with a federal civil rights violation. And earlier this week, a federal grand jury also indicted a former police officer in the greater Chicago region on a similar count.
In that case, Thomas O’Connor, a former officer in Joliet, a city outside Chicago, was accused of using unreasonable forced that caused a bodily injury in 2012. An attorney who has represented O’Connor told the Chicago Tribune the indictment related to an incident for which O’Connor was charged with battery and misconduct and later found not guilty.
Gillian Brockell contributed to this report.