By Jason Meisner
A veteran Chicago police officer was sentenced to five years in prison Monday for firing 16 times into a moving vehicle filled with teens, wounding two.
Marco Proano, 42, who was the first Chicago cop in memory to be convicted in federal court of criminal charges stemming from an on-duty shooting, said he continues to feel strongly he did nothing wrong.
Before the sentence was handed down, Proano told the judge in a brief statement that he was just trying "to protect human life" when he fired on the car.
U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman called Proano's lack of acceptance that he committed a crime "troubling."
"This was not a close call," the judge said. "Mr. Proano engaged in criminal armed violence."
Proano's attorney sought probation, arguing the officer should not be punished for alleged systemic problems in the department and calling him a scapegoat "sacrificed to the furor" over police misconduct.
Prosecutors, however, asked for up to eight years in prison, saying Proano could have killed the six teens when he fired indiscriminately into a reportedly stolen Toyota.
The 11-year department veteran was convicted by a jury in August of two felony counts of using excessive force in violation of the victims' civil rights. The December 2013 shooting was captured on video by a police dashboard camera.
In asking Feinerman for probation, Proano's attorney, Daniel Herbert, said in a recent court filing that Proano had a decorated career before it was derailed amid protests of police violence and a civil rights probe by the U.S. Department of Justice _ all sparked by the court-ordered release in November 2015 of video of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014.
The timing of Proano's September 2016 indictment "could not have been worse for him," Herbert wrote, adding that he should not have to "shoulder the blame" for a Police Department that the Justice Department, in its scathing report earlier this year, said has a decadeslong history of mistreating citizens.
"It would be naive to ignore the facts here and fail to recognize that Mr. Proano served as somewhat of a scapegoat in this case," Herbert said. "The situation was at a boiling point, and Mr. Proano was sacrificed to the furor."
But prosecutors said Proano's actions that night, as well as his attempts to later justify the shooting, were egregious violations of his training that further undermined public trust in the police.
"(Proano) gave the community reason to doubt law enforcement's intentions and reason to believe that it cannot have faith that law enforcement will serve all citizens equally," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Georgia Alexakis and Erika Csicsila wrote in their sentencing memo. His actions "impugned the integrity" of other officers, according to the filing.
Proano was the first officer to go to trial in a shooting case since the release of the McDonald video sparked protests and promises of systemic change from Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The department is seeking to fire Proano, who was placed on unpaid suspension after he was charged more than a year ago.
During Proano's trial, prosecutors said the dashcam video of the shooting _ which unfolded in about nine seconds _ showed Proano violated all the training he received at the police academy, including to never fire into a crowd, only fire if you can clearly see your target and stop shooting once the threat has been eliminated.
The video, played several times for jurors, showed Proano walking quickly toward the stolen Toyota within seconds of arriving at the scene while he held his gun pointed sideways in his left hand. Proano can be seen backing away briefly as the car went in reverse, away from the officer. He then raised his gun with both hands and opened fire as he walked toward the car, continuing to fire even after the car had rolled into a light pole and stopped.
Proano did not testify in his own defense. Herbert, however, argued that the officer did exactly as he was trained to stop the threat and also protect the life of one of the teens, who he said was hanging from a passenger window as the car reversed.
In their recent court filing, prosecutors said Proano has shown no remorse for his actions. In fact, the officer told court officials in a presentence interview that he sees himself as the victim, saying he felt "a sense of 'betrayal' " because he'd served the community for many years and "is now 'left out in the cold,'" prosecutors wrote.
Records show the 2013 incident was Proano's third on-duty shooting in three years. In 2010, he was one of five officers who opened fire on a car after a chase and crash. The driver _ 32-year-old Garfield King, a convicted felon _ was killed, according to a database of police-involved shootings compiled by the Chicago Tribune. Proano, meanwhile, fired five rounds into the vehicle, wounding a 19-year old woman riding in the passenger seat of King's car.
Less than a year later, in July 2011, Proano fatally shot 19-year-old Niko Husband at close range during a struggle as police tried to break up an unruly dance party on the South Side. Proano said Husband had tried to pull a gun. Proano was cleared in both shootings by the now-defunct Independent Police Review Authority, records show. He was also given a superintendent's award of valor for Husband's shooting, which Herbert said in his filing is granted for acts of "outstanding bravery or heroism."
A Cook County jury later ruled the shooting of Husband was unjustified and awarded his mother $3.5 million in damages. But the judge overseeing the case set aside the jury's verdict, a ruling that's being appealed.
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