By Hal Dardick
A Chicago City Council panel on Monday recommended spending $4.95 million to a settle a high-profile, excessive force case in which police officers were caught on video locking up a mentally ill man, repeatedly using a Taser and dragging him from his cell while handcuffed.
The police misconduct settlement vote came after the city's top attorney told aldermen that the parents of Philip Coleman had asked officers to take their son to a hospital instead of jail after he attacked them amid "an acute mental breakdown" in December 2012. Witnesses said the commanding officer told the parents "he doesn't do hospitals, he does jails," city Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton informed the council's Finance Committee.
The chain of events ended in Coleman's death after he was taken to a hospital where staff gave him a shot of a commonly administered anti-psychotic drug, causing a rare allergic reaction that led to his death, Patton said.
During an hourslong hearing, aldermen decried the treatment of Coleman. Ald. Ed Burke, 14th, recalled the case of Christina Eilman, a 21-year-old woman who was left severely disabled after plummeting from the seventh floor of public housing high-rise on the South Side. Police had released Eilman into a high-crime area in 2006 amid the throes of a bipolar episode despite her parents' pleas to get her help.
The city settled a lawsuit filed by Eilman's family for $22.5 million in 2013, and Burke said that should have been "a clarion call" to the Police Department. "Yet here we are 10 years later, with a case that is eerily similar," Burke said.
"At the time, I believe the police bureaucracy failed this young woman, and I think that the police bureaucracy failed this family," said Burke, referring to Coleman. The aldermen said the Coleman case showed a failure to ensure proper treatment for mentally ill arrestees despite police policy meant to ensure they are taken to hospitals.
"There's some cynicism here, because it's almost like deja vu," said Burke, a former cop who described the officers' conduct in the case as "an insult to our profession."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration released the Coleman video in early December, a couple of weeks into a growing crisis over the Chicago Police Department's use of force spurred by the release of footage showing Laquan McDonald being shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke.
Emanuel had fought release of the McDonald video, but a Cook County judge ordered its release. Van Dyke was charged with murder 400 days after the shooting, hours before the video went public. The U.S. Justice Department is now probing the department's use of force, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez lost a re-election bid and the mayor fired his police superintendent and chose a new one.
The spotlight on settlements of police misconduct cases is particularly bright after the City Council agreed last April to pay McDonald's estate $5 million.
Aldermen later took heat from the public for generally not asking enough questions and specifically not asking to see the video first. On Tuesday, discussion went on for nearly three hours.
When Emanuel released the Coleman footage, he issued a statement saying he does not "see how the manner in which Mr. Coleman was physically treated could possibly be acceptable. ... Something is wrong here -- either the actions of the officers who dragged Mr. Coleman, or the policies of the department."
Despite the request by Coleman's parents, police opted to take the 38-year-old University of Chicago graduate to a South Side police station, where he continued to act "deranged and crazy." and a "gaggle of police officers" repeatedly used a Taser on him, with the trigger being pulled three times, according to Patton.
Officers then dragged an unconscious Coleman from a cell while handcuffed, with both the Taser use and dragging captured on a lockup video that the city later released. Patton described the video as "horrific," adding that a judge already had determined cops used excessive force at the police station.
Police took Coleman to have the Taser prongs removed at Roseland Community Hospital, where he became uncooperative and "a melee" ensued, Patton said. During that melee, police deployed the prongs of a Taser 13 times, he added.
Hospital staff then gave Coleman a shot of a commonly administered anti-psychotic drug, to which he had a rare allergic reaction that led to his death, Patton said. Coleman's parents contended in their lawsuit that the treatment of their son, which left him with 50 bruises and scrapes, contributed to his death.
Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, who knew Coleman as a mentor to young people in her ward, decried his treatment, saying she did not know the person Patton described. "Maybe he would be alive today if (responding police officers) just had a heart," she said.
The Independent Police Review Authority, which reopened the Coleman case in December, continues to look into it, officials said.
In what Burke called "another sad story," the committee also endorsed a $1.5 million settlement of a case stemming from the 2014 arrest of Justin Cook, a 29-year-old father of three young children who died of an asthma attack while in police custody after the two arresting officers allegedly denied him use of his inhaler.
Two officers, both of whom had just completed their routine probationary period after being hired, arrested Cook after he allegedly tried to flee when they tried to pull him over for going through a stop sign on the city's West Side. The officers testified that they sprayed the inhaler into his mouth, but six witnesses disputed that, Patton said.
Deputy Police Chief Eddie Welch, who heads up internal affairs, told aldermen that "in this case, there's a clear violation" of police policies on dispensing medicine. A sergeant called to the scene saw that Cook received immediate medical attention, but he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
The full City Council is expected to approve both lawsuit settlements at Wednesday's meeting.
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