The Untouchables: An Investigation into the Violence of the Chicago Police

Usually, that kid clomping down his mother’s porch is a tractor beam of charm. On the South Side of Chicago, where Gangster Disciples shoot the Black Disciples over slights and side-eyed infractions, nobody seems to hassle Calvin Cross — he’s too much fun to be around. He does a thousand voices, and all of them are funny, from 50 Cent impressions to Dave Chappelle to the cast of Diff’rent Strokes. Every night, he calls his girlfriend, Tunoka Jett, to tell her he loves and misses her — and to sometimes sing to her that dopey song from Dirty Dancing. “You can’t never be down when you’re around him,” Tunoka says. “He’ll just keep at you and at you till you laugh.” Tonight, though, Calvin’s high beams are dimmed a bit: It’s the day after Memorial Day, and he’s stuffed on BBQ. He’s on the couch drowsing through a Mavs-Heat game when his homie wakes him up to go hang out. Calvin doesn’t have friends so much as eager wingmen. “My craziest times with females happened offa him,” says Myles Gardner, his day-one bestie at Harlan High School. “Once he showed that smile five weeks, and all he talks about is how he’s going to spoil him. But Tunoka is a dean’s-list student headed for college, and Calvin’s 19 and, frankly, feeling himself. He’s got too much game to settle down.

And so now he’s off to kick it with his pal Ryan, a guy he befriended at Job Corps. The two teens walk up to 124th Street, headed around the corner to meet some girls. But about halfway between Parnell and Wallace streets, a police car suddenly screams to a halt beside them. Three cops pour out of it, dressed head to toe in black and pointing semi-automatics at them. Put your hands up, they scream; it’s dark; there’s a streetlight on the corner, but it’s broken. Ryan stops and raises his hands. Calvin takes off running. No one knows why he does this, though it’s easy enough to guess: He thinks he’s about to be killed.

The first shot, from a cop named Matilde Ocampo, rings out close but doesn’t hit him. (Ocampo and the other cops would later claim that the teen had a gun.) Calvin is fast and built low to the ground, a tank of a former tailback at Harlan High. He hits the corner hard and turns it at a gallop, crossing westbound on Wallace toward a church. The cops reach the corner and unleash a barrage of bullets, peppering the ground with casings, at their fleeing target. There are people out and about still, after half-past 10:00. But these cops just keep blasting down the block. (One, a patrolman named Macario Chavez, is firing an assault rifle and emptying his clip, which holds 28 steel-piercing rounds.) In total, they’ll put down 45 shells, endangering anyone walking within a half-mile range of their shooting stances.

It’s not clear when Calvin Cross was struck the first time. He’d reached the cyclone fence in a lot behind the church and was presumably about to jump it when he fell. As patrolmen Chavez and Mohammed Ali enter the weed-gone lot, Calvin is on the ground. There is blood pooled at the bottom of the fence; Calvin is badly wounded but alive. Though he represents no threat to them, the cops open fire again. From a distance of 15 feet, they empty their clips, then reload and fire some more. One of those bullets hits Calvin between the eyes. It makes a tiny incision just below his right eyebrow, carves a huge lane through the center of his brain, then shatters into tiny shards throughout his skull. A postmortem performed the following day will find mass “destruction of brain tissue” around the bullet path and “extensive fracturing of the [frontal] skull.” For all of that, it’s likely Calvin was still breathing as the two cops handcuffed the dying teen.

But the slaughter of Calvin Cross is not the end of this horror; rather, it is just the beginning. Because suddenly the block is aswarm with cops: 70-something policemen, by neighbor’s counts. According to veteran cops who spoke to Rolling Stone on the record, their job was to do what is all too often done in the wake of wrongful shootings by their colleagues: “Make it right for the copper,” says Sgt. Isaac Lambert, a whistleblower who once earned the highest award for valor that the Chicago Police Department hands out. “Gotta protect our officers,” says ex-commander Lorenzo Davis, who ran his own district before joining the review board that investigates wrongful shootings. In all, four former and current officers came forward — each of them black — to tell me how cops in Chicago “fix” the shootings of unarmed black and brown citizens.

Calvin Cross was gunned down fleeing the police, who claimed he shot at them. But the gun at the scene was inoperable and tests proved Cross had not fired a shot. The officers remain on the force.

Courtesy of the Cross Family

As residents peek out windows, cops search under cars: Everyone is looking for a gun. Sure enough, a patrolman retrieves one on the sidewalk and calls it in to the dispatcher. The cop tells the two witnesses standing closest to him, “You saw this was lying here, right? You saw me find it here, right?”

The next day, a statement is taken from the three cops involved in the deadly shooting of Cross. Two, Ali and Chavez, tell investigators from IPRA — the so-called Independent Police Review Authority, now defunct — that Cross produced a pistol and fired at them. “Bang, bang, bang,” says Ali three years later, when he’s deposed by Torreya Hamilton, one of the lawyers for Cross’ family who filed a wrongful-death suit on their behalf. “Cross fired his weapon in our direction,” says Chavez to Hamilton’s partner, Tony Thedford, and was “still shooting” as he fled down Wallace Street.

Their testimony to IPRA and, later, to Hamilton and IPRA’s successor, is a masterpiece of fantasy and obfuscation. Ali disputes himself so often that his lawyer calls three timeouts in 40 minutes. Chavez’s answer to more than 100 questions is “I don’t recall,” which, at least when it comes to keeping his story straight, has the ring of truth. He tells IPRA that Cross was moving when he shot him the final time, only to admit later in a deposition that he wasn’t moving.

In the end, their self-entrapment is beside the point. Ballistics tests performed shortly after the shooting revealed that the gun Cross purportedly fired was a relic that proved inoperable. More damning still were the tests of Cross’ remains: no gunshot residue anywhere on his person. These facts so repudiated the cops’ stories that the city rushed to settle the civil suit. It quietly cut a check for $2 million to a trust for Calvin Cross Jr., the baby born almost exactly a month after his father died. Calvin Sr.’s mother and three siblings received nothing, however. Worse, they were never notified of his death by the Chicago Police Department. Had it not been for an honest cop who tipped them that the shoot was bad, Dana says, they might never have hired Hamilton and fought for three years to learn the truth about his killing. “The night they shot Calvin, the officer came in my house broke up pretty bad” by what he’d seen, says Calvin’s mother, Dana, nine years later. That cop, who’s still on active duty and whose name can’t be revealed, declined to say that her son was dead: “He just told me straight up, ‘Get a lawyer.’” This was in 2011, before everyone had smartphones and the ability to film misconduct as it happens. Almost a decade later, though, the dismal fact persists: We almost never learn the full truth about a cop-shooting unless a righteous cop breaks the silence.

The next morning, the Cross family went down to the morgue to identify Calvin’s body. There, they were accosted by two detectives, asking about Calvin’s ink. “He had a tattoo of praying hands wrapped around a rosary, and you ask me if that’s a gang sign?” says Dana. “To see him on that table — they shot my baby in the face! — that’ll never leave me,” she says, sobbing. “When they killed George Floyd and he cried out for his mama? … It’s like Calvin was crying out for me from heaven.”

As for the cops who took his life and tried to brazenly justify it? Chicago saw fit neither to fire nor suspend them, let alone charge them with murder. Instead, its police department issued commendation awards to those officers a year and a half later, citing them for bravery “above and beyond [their] obligation to duty.”

In a 2020 audit of American cities, the municipal monitor Truth in Accounting gave Chicago an F for fiscal health. It called the town a “sinkhole” that’s $36 billion in the red and owes more per citizen — roughly $40,000 apiece — than any metropolis save New York. It borrows huge sums to meet its obligations, routinely raises taxes on property owners, and claws back millions from teachers’ pensions to float its annual budget. What it doesn’t do is face down the ruinous costs of police misconduct against its people. Chicagoans pay more to the victims of cop violence than the residents of any U.S. city per capita. In 2018, the last year for which there are records, the city spent about $100 million on claims, and tens of millions more in legal fees to the lawyers who brought the cases.

Those numbers track squarely with previous years. Between 2010 and 2017, the city issued more than $700 million in “police brutality bonds,” as civic watchdogs call them. Per a 2018 study by the Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE), Chicago leaned on entities like Goldman Sachs to raise the $700 million it needed. But because the city’s credit rating is junk-adjacent, it had to agree to loan-shark terms with its corporate lenders. Accordingly, the city will shell out $800 million simply to service the debt on that loan. And who gets the tab for the $1.5 billion? The taxpayers — specifically, the poor ones.

In 2012, after the city went to Wall Street for those bonds, it closed dozens of schools in low-income neighborhoods; shut half of the mental health clinics in those sections; and gutted its lead-paint-removal program, leaving children untested and untreated. The ACRE study quotes an unnamed attorney on the city’s payroll: “When you had to budget more for [police] tort liability, you had less to do lead-poisoning screening for the children of Chicago. We had a terrible lead-poisoning problem [in the city], and there was a direct relationship between the two. Those kids [are] paying those judgments, not the police officers.”

But the deep story here is not fiscal injustice and a city’s refusal to face it. Instead, it is the state of policing in America, embodied by the town that gave its cops a charter to put their knees on the necks of black citizens. It began with the first wave of the Great Migration, that African American exodus from the Jim Crow South to the industrial cities of the North. In 1916, sharecroppers by the thousands boarded trains in Mississippi for Union Station in Chicago, drawn by the promise of ready jobs in the stockyards and steel mills. The barons of those outfits were not ardent lefties integrating the workforce; they were ruthless misers out to undercut wages and break the backs of white unions. And so they sent recruiters, called labor agents, to lure unskilled blacks off of the farms. At the time, people of color constituted two percent of the census in Chicago. By 1970, they were a third of the population of the then-second-largest metropolis in America.

The arrival of this vast new cohort of families wasn’t met with balloons and cake. Black residents were forced into the South Side’s slums and beaten by mobs when they tried to test the boundaries of what quickly became known as the Black Belt. During the annus horribilus of 1919 — the Red Summer of race riots in America’s cities — huge mobs of whites tore through the South Side, burning down homes and pulling black people out of streetcars and stoning them to death. Three-quarters of Chicago’s police force was sent to the scene to establish a hard perimeter. Instead, they stood and watched or escorted gangs of white goons into and out of harm’s way. One member of those gangs: a teenage Richard Daley, who would rise to become the mayor of Chicago and rule it like a crime boss until his death.

“This was domestic terrorism, plain and simple — aided and abetted by the CPD,” says Simon Balto, an assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa, whose Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago From Red Summer to Black Power is the essential text on the subject. “Two-times-more blacks died by violence than whites — [and] two-times-more blacks were arrested.”

Despite their baptism of blood in Chicago, families of color continued pouring north, growing a culture and an economy in apartheid. Churches and blues clubs and restaurants sprang up, seeding the “Chicago Renaissance” of the 1930s. That first generation birthed a black middle class of doctors, managers, and union stewards, and served as a beacon for hesitant blacks still trying to eke by in the South. But the second great wave, of the Forties and Fifties, sparked new rounds of racist reprisal. Pushed to their breaking point, black communities rose up, staging marches on City Hall. Daley, the former-rioter-turned-dynast-czar of the Democratic machine in Chicago, responded by hiring Orlando Wilson to run the CPD. It was Wilson who turned the city’s police force into a numbers-driven dreadnought of racial suppression.

Instead of standing sentry at the South Side’s borders, his cops surged in by the thousands each day to harass and bust at will: stop-and-frisk mandates; summonses for small infractions; arrests and ticket quotas for patrolmen. Their job was to take back territory, says Balto, under the banner of law and order. It bears noting that violence soared under Wilson. Murders rose by a third during his watch.

Though Wilson retired in 1967, the fruit of his labor was on view the following year, when the city went up in smoke not once but twice. If you Google “Chicago riots” and “1968,” the top results link you to the Democratic Convention, when Daley’s cops beat and arrested hippies for peacefully picketing outside. But four months earlier, when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and black kids took to the streets, the police swarmed in and shot down dozens of them, 11 fatally. That wasn’t enough blood to suit Daley, however. “Shoot to kill arsonists!” he ordered his cops, and, “Shoot to maim the looters!”

Dana Cross, Calvin’s mom, says, “When they killed George Floyd and he cried out for his mama? . . . It’s like Calvin was crying out for me from heaven.”

Andrew Nelles/The New York Times/Redux

In December of the following year, 14 heavily armed cops stormed the apartment of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. Hampton was sound asleep beside his nine-months-pregnant wife when the CPD burst in blazing. They killed his bodyguard, Mark Clark, shot several of Hampton’s friends, then made their way to the bedroom. Hampton, who’d been drugged by an FBI mole, may or may not have roused before cops killed him. He’d been gravely wounded in the initial barrage; then one of the cops coolly finished him off, shooting him twice in the head.

We know these facts because a neophyte lawyer fought to make them known. G. Flint Taylor, the twentysomething founder of the People’s Law Office in Chicago, sued for 13 years on behalf of Clark and Hampton before settling in 1983 for $1.85 million, then a record sum for a civil rights case. Taylor, still practicing law at 74, is a walking passcode to CPD misconduct. It was Taylor and his colleagues who unearthed the crimes committed by the “Midnight Crew,” a squad of racist cops who tortured blacks to extract their false confessions. Once again, a tip from an anonymous cop — Taylor calls him “Deep Badge” in his memoir, The Torture Machine — launched a probe into the CPD’s worst actors. Headed by Jon Burge, who climbed from beat cop to commander faster than anyone in department history, the Midnight Crew deployed a device with clamps and electrodes to wring information from detainees. “He rigged a generator up and attached clips to people’s genitals, then shocked and burned and beat and choked them till they told him what he wanted,” says Taylor.

Burge’s cops produced a hundred wrongfully obtained convictions and sent a dozen men to death row. Then, Taylor and his colleagues stepped in. Beginning in 1987, when they repped a cop-killer named Andrew Wilson, Taylor et al. worked continuously for more than two decades to dredge up the truth about Burge. Here is Taylor’s recap of the crimes done to Wilson, a cognitively-disabled man with seizure disorders, in a law-review piece from 2012:

Burge and his longtime associate, John Yucaitis, subjected Andrew to a [15-hour] regimen that included bagging him, beating him, and burning him. … They handcuffed him across a ribbed steam radiator and shocked him on the nose, ears, lips, and genitals with Burge’s shock-box, jolting him against the radiator and leaving serious burns on his face, chest, and leg …

Though he never won Wilson’s release from prison, Taylor sued the city for Wilson’s pain and suffering and got a judgment of $1.1 million. The truths adduced in court led to Burge’s firing in 1993 — and eventually, to his imprisonment in 2010. But still the city had Burge’s back, paying him a pension and defending his convictions. So Taylor continued to sue repeatedly for the freedom of Burge’s victims, then made the city pay for their years in prison. To date, Chicago has written $90 million in checks to the victims of the Midnight Crew, and at least one-third of that in lawyers’ fees. Included in that sum is a reparations award for the victims who weren’t exonerated. In 2015, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel grudgingly agreed to compensate Burge survivors with credible claims of abuse. With that $5.5 million ordinance, Chicago became the only city in the world to make public reparations for police torture.

Now, surely, a town that comes to terms with its epic cruelty will take some instruction from the past. But this is Chicago, the city that never learns, no matter how sharp the lash. Because hard on Burge’s heels came Detective Reynaldo Guevara, who allegedly beat and framed dozens of men for murders they didn’t commit. From the late 1980s to the early aughts, Guevara and his crew allegedly pinned body after body on people of color on the West Side. Even when those crimes came to light in 2006, the city went on shielding Guevara and the others and pushed back on all attempts to free their victims.

“Twenty verdicts reversed and more to come, but we’ve had to win each one by one,” says Josh Tepfer, a partner at Loevy and Loevy, one of the largest civil rights firms in the country. Says its founder, Jon Loevy, the king of bad-cop torts — he’s personally thrashed Chicago for $250 million in verdicts and settlements on behalf of his clients of color — “This town hires expensive law firms to drag out every motion and deposition. Their thinking seems to be, ‘If we just stall, maybe they’ll drop the case and go away.’” Loevy doesn’t go away: He beats the city’s brains in. He’s won 12 jury verdicts of at least $5 million (five of which exceeded $20 million), and is among the state’s leaders for most judgments of $5 million-plus.

Guevara retired in 2005, and Ronald Watts picked up the bad-cop baton. Sgt. Watts’ crew spat on Guevara’s numbers. They allegedly beat, framed, and robbed untold numbers of people in the Ida B. Wells projects for a decade. Operating in plain sight of Internal Affairs, they treated each day like Training Day, running their own gang in the hood. Watts was so brazen he actually got caught, but left behind hundreds of broken families. Tepfer, who won a mass exoneration for Watts defendants, says, “By the time the city’s done paying Watts’ victims, the amount could be astronomical.” Indeed, the sum may end up dwarfing what Chicago paid on Burge.

Ricky Hayes lucked out the day life brought him to Shirley Johnson: She’s the foster mom you’d want if fate took you from your mother and placed you, at the age of seven, in a stranger’s home. Shirley’s a tough cookie who’s both sweet and salty, the optimal disposition for special kids. A former hairdresser, she’s been doing this work for 14 years, and at 54, has seen it all from the young men who shared her house. (She currently has two youths, both autistic.) Ricky was a handful when he started with her, a child on the spectrum who was minimally verbal and maximally prone to meltdowns. “He’d rev his little toy car back and forth, then bawl because his arm started to hurt,” she says. “Then he’d jump up and throw the car at me, and start crying and laughing and carrying on.”

But Shirley had the skill set to decipher behaviors and to teach him how to manage his moods. By 10, Shirley says, he was chipping in around the house, helping her sweep floors and wash windows. He learned to write his name and ask for his obsessions: a cellphone to listen to Drake and Kanye West; the peanut-butter cookies that his grandma bought him; and his favorite show, My Babysitter’s a Vampire. By his mid-teens, Ricky was a joy to have around, the closest thing to a child she’d birthed herself. “He was always smiling and being his sweet self, except when I asked him to make his bed,” Shirley says. “He loved going to block parties and talking to girls. He always had a crush on one or the other, and liked sneaking out to try and see them.”

Ricky Hayes, an unarmed autistic teen, was shot during a late-night walk, and the cop remains on the force.

Courtesy of Shirley Johnson

That was Ricky’s superpower: defeating her front-door locks. Late one night in August 2017, he stole out of the house in search of a girl on the block. He had just turned 18 but looked six years younger: a short, slight kid with an oversize head and a big, inquisitive grin. Off he went, skipping down the street and whistling to himself around 1:30 a.m. Porch cams tracked him for a couple of hours, loping and stopping and peering like a deer into the cars and windows of houses. Then, at 3:46, a Chevy Tahoe rolled up. At the wheel was an off-duty cop named Khalil Muhammad; Ricky took off running down the block. Muhammad pursued him for more than an hour, driving his SUV down alleys and streets. Finally, a few minutes before 5 a.m., Ricky stopped in front of a house on Hermosa Avenue. The cop lowered his window, barked something at Ricky — then pulled his Glock 19 and shot him twice.

The first round tore a chunk from Ricky’s flank, but mercifully missed his heart. The second shot shanked his left arm. Ricky fled a short ways before Muhammad caught him. Between sobs and wails, he moaned something about his cellphone, which went missing while he ran in terror. Muhammad, dressed in street clothes, had no handcuffs, so he held Ricky down while dialing 911. When a dispatcher came on, Muhammad told his first lie: “The guy pulled, like he was going to pull a gun on me,” he babbled. “He walked up to the car, and I had to shoot.”

Sgt. Isaac Lambert was at his desk that night, when a call came in about a cop-shoot. He sent two detectives to take a statement and went to the scene himself a short time later. A commander, a captain, and several sergeants surrounded Muhammad, ringed by five or six beat cops. Lambert, who had two decades-plus on the job, says he immediately sensed something was off. “I talked to my lead detective, who had problems with Muhammad’s story,” Lambert says. Key details kept changing, and he gave no cause for shooting Ricky. Then, according to Lambert, Muhammad stopped speaking altogether, waiting on his union rep. (The CPD did not make Muhammad or any other current officers named in this story available for comment.)

Back at the station, the pieces clicked together. Lambert saw a missing-persons report on Ricky and connected it to the teen Muhammad shot. Lambert told his detectives, who’d joined Ricky at the hospital, to bring him into the station uncuffed. He fed Ricky a snack and says he was about to release him, when the sergeant on the next shift intervened. “He wanted his detectives to interview Ricky, which I thought was ridiculous and said so. How’re you going to sweat this kid when he can’t even answer your questions?”

But the other sergeant pressed the issue, siding with Muhammad, the shooter-cop. He ordered his men to take a statement from Ricky, which is when Lambert walked away. “I wasn’t getting caught up in their bullshit, on the heels of the [Jason] Van Dyke thing.” (Van Dyke was the cop who shot teenager Laquan McDonald and was about to stand trial for his murder. For more on that killing, see below.)

Now, Lambert loved being a cop; he treated the job as a calling, “bringing resolution to cases in my community that don’t get closure from this department,” he says. “Just look up the statistics of whose cases get closed: It ain’t people on the South Side, I’ll tell you that.” Indeed not. Per a 2019 report, the solve rate for white victims of homicide in Chicago is 47 percent; for blacks, it’s 22 percent. Lambert’s rate pushed 70 percent because he was a different kind of cop, the sort who makes connections on the street. As a young patrolman, he went out of his way to cultivate the corner boys. When he caught them slinging weed or lighting a stem, he gave them a warning to move along. “My thing was always, clip the dealer, not the user. The user will do you solids for years to come.”

While a patrolman, Lambert won an exalted honor from the city (the Carter H. Harrison Award), when he chased down and caught a carjacker who’d snatched a hostage. Years later, as a detective, he earned a Distinguished Service Award for taking down a leader of a biker gang. His most durable triumph, however, happened off the job. In 2003, he founded a youth football program in a South Side section with no team sports. In months, his Hayes Park Blitz fielded squads in three age groups and traveled to tournaments citywide. Over the years, Lambert’s mentored dozens of kids, and sent one of them, Kenny Golladay, to the NFL, where he’s a Pro Bowl receiver for the Detroit Lions. “I’d pack as many Pee Wees as would fit in my Yukon and take ’em to watch high school games. My thing is, ‘You gotta see it to be it,’ and I needed ’em to know that they could do this.” A number of those kids played varsity in high school and got scholarships to D-1 schools. They’re now teachers and tradesmen and master electricians; a few of them even joined the Chicago Police Department.

Like all the black cops featured in this piece, Lambert’s big on schooling. He carved out time to earn a master’s in public administration while working crazy hours as a detective. “That’s how we gotta do,” says his friend Joe Moseley, a sergeant detective for more than 30 years, who retired and became an adjunct professor. “If you’re black and you’re honest, you gotta go that extra mile to make your rank in this town.” Says Sgt. Don Hoard, another friend of Lambert’s who earned a master’s degree, “What this department lacks is leaders like Ike, dudes that don’t play that hoop-dee-do. If a cop comes up wrong, Ike’s gonna call it like he sees it, not cover for these simple motherfuckers.”

Like Lambert and Hoard, Moseley’s been to many cop-shoots, though rarely as a member of hand-picked “shoot teams.” “That’s pretty much all they do — [white] detectives that ‘work’ a scene and make it come out right.” Moseley lists the tricks those shoot teams deploy while assembling reports for the brass: “coaching up” the shooter before he makes his formal statement; massaging key details to give him cover in their write-up — the cellphone or belt buckle that “looked like a gun”; and “burying” witness statements and video footage. “The bosses don’t give bad shoots to good cops,” says Moseley. “They give ’em to the same crews over and over to clean up the mess that bad cops make.”

Once written, the “official story” is hard to change; it becomes the master narrative of the case. But every now and then, the story falls apart — and when it does, the dark machinery is exposed. The most famous example is the Laquan McDonald slaying in the fall of 2014. Every trick in the bad-cop playbook was deployed for Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald in cold blood. The full truth only surfaced after a year of devoted digging by several public servants in Chicago. One is Jamie Kalven, an independent reporter in the tradition of Mike Royko and H.L. Mencken. In the 1990s, Kalven embedded with the poor and got stories that the dailies wouldn’t touch. Building a tranche of contacts in the streets and housing projects, he’s broken huge scandals about bad cops, successfully sued the department for evidence it concealed, and built the first database of disciplinary records for every sworn policeman in his city. That database — the Citizens Police Data Project — is remarkable for its ease of use. During the George Floyd protests, marchers filmed violent cops, then posted their names and priors on Twitter, using CPDP’s info.

Shirley Johnson, with her foster son Ricky, says, “It gives me chills to think of that man still out there, maybe looking for the next kid to shoot.”

Patricia Evans

It was Kalven who got a tip from an anonymous source who’d seen the dash-cam footage of McDonald’s murder, and who knew of a witness who might talk. Kalven produced that witness and got hold of the autopsy report: 16 shots, front and back. His shoe-leather reporting triggered an avalanche: months of angry marches; Freedom of Information Act filings to release the tape; and a yearlong suit brought by two of Kalven’s colleagues, civil rights lawyers Matt Topic and Craig Futterman. Topic and Futterman fought the city’s lawyers, who kept spouting the standard trope — “ongoing investigation” — to keep the video hidden. The court saw through their ruse and ruled the tape in the public interest. It ran on nightly newscasts across America.

Everything changed in Chicago when it aired — everything but the way cops do their business. Van Dyke was arraigned for killing McDonald. He’d be convicted of 17 crimes but punished for only one, and slink away with a sentence of six years. Emanuel, whose administration had suppressed the tape, was a dead man walking in public service. He fired his police chief, served out his term, then stepped aside before voters could roundly thrash him. Anita Alvarez, the state’s attorney for Cook County, was avidly booted out in the next primary. And in 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a probe of the CPD. For 13 months it put the department under a scope, interrogating cops, combing their use-of-force reports, and auditing civilian complaints. What it found was a police force poisoned to its core: racist and predatory and brazenly lawless, a corps accountable only to itself. Chicago spends 40 percent of its annual budget to fund the CPD. Here is what the city gets for its money, per the Justice Department’s final report:

  • Officers engage in a pattern or practice of … deadly force that is unreasonable. [They] engage in … pursuits that too often end in officers … shooting someone, including unarmed individuals.
  • We found many … circumstances in which officers’ accounts of force incidents were later discredited … by video evidence. Given the numerous use-of-force incidents without video evidence … the pattern of unreasonable force is likely even more widespread than we were able to discern.
  • CPD uses force almost 10 times more often against blacks than whites, [and] has tolerated racially discriminatory conduct. Black youth told us that they are routinely called “nigger,” “animal,” or “pieces of shit” by CPD.

The report concluded that the department was so broken that it couldn’t be fixed by the city. It pressed upon the mayor a consent decree, essentially a federal takeover of the CPD. Under President Obama, 14 cities agreed to such terms, giving a judge and a panel of experts the power to remake departments. These third-party rebuilds have been a boon for cities like Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Cleveland. They saw significant drops in police-related shootings and civil rights suits against their departments. Alas, the DOJ filed its Chicago report on January 13th, 2017. Seven days later, Donald Trump took office and named Jeff Sessions attorney general. And there, in the blink of an election, went Chicago’s best chance to fix its police force. The city’s voters persisted, putting progressive Mayor Lori Lightfoot in charge. Among her first acts, Lightfoot hired a reformer, David Brown, to be her new police chief. But under his direction, very little has changed. Brutal cops have kept their jobs and the dark machine keeps churning lies. For proof, look no further than Ricky Hayes.

Ike Lambert was overruled by the other sergeant: Ricky did give a statement to detectives. But whatever they hoped to squeeze from a kid who barely spoke was beyond his power to grant, and so the only version on the official record was Sgt. Khalil Muhammad’s. After huddling with the brass and his union lawyer, Muhammad gave a statement with some striking emendations. Suddenly, he remembered fearing for his life because Ricky groped behind him for … well, something. “As he’s turning toward me, he reaches back with his right hand,” said Muhammad, “and he starts to pull a dark object out of his waistband, which to me, was consistent with someone pulling a weapon.” Muhammad further recalled now that an officer in the area had her gun and wallet stolen from her vehicle, and that a black male in his early twenties might have had something to do with that. Given those “facts,” he believed Ricky was going to kill him, and was justified in shooting him first.

In Chicago, police shootings are subject to two probes: an internal investigation by senior detectives, and an out-of-house review by a civilian board. That board’s had several names and a fraught reputation as a law-enforcement monitor with no power. In the five-year span preceding the DOJ investigation, there were 409 police-involved shootings of civilians; exactly two were deemed unjustified by the board. Once called the Office of Professional Standards, then the Independent Police Review Authority, it is now known, after the Laquan McDonald debacle, as the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA. The latest iteration began in the fall of 2017, with a new boss and bold intentions. “I hired strong people to do the investigations, including defense lawyers who’ve dealt with policemen,” says Sharon Fairley, an ex-deputy inspector general who aimed to build the review board into a watchdog with real teeth. Its job is immensely difficult to do: oversee a department — and its patrolman’s union — that fights to the death for the worst offenders.

It is nearly impossible to fire a cop in Chicago for excessive use of force. The city has bargained away most of its rights in contract after contract with the Fraternal Order of Police, making huge concessions to the union. By rule, COPA can’t require a statement from a cop who’s shot a kid until 48 hours have passed. And COPA can’t keep that cop from speaking to other cops and potentially syncing up his story with theirs. By rule, the department can’t discipline a cop who’s shot a kid until an arbitrator says it can; can’t carry out that discipline while the cop makes his appeals; and can’t stop paying the cop’s salary until he’s exhausted those appeals. The result: Only two cops have lost their jobs in the past decade over wrongful shoots. Meanwhile, cops involved in multiple shootings remain on the force in good standing.

Fairley spent only two years at the board — “It felt like six,” she says — but enacted changes before she left. She created a six-week training program for all its new employees; produced a manual of guidelines and values; and implemented rules to broadcast tapes of police misconduct in the first 60 days of a probe. Her insistence on transparency has been a promise kept. In the past three years, COPA has posted video of 300 incidents of excessive force by cops. Before Fairley, that number was zero.

But for all its zeal, COPA’s handling of the Hayes shoot failed everyone involved except the cop. First, it didn’t interview Sgt. Muhammad until more than a month went by. “We typically take a statement within seven days, but in this case it took five weeks,” says COPA’s chief investigator, Andrea Kersten. Her team had to wait out a decision by the state’s attorney about whether she’d seek charges against the sergeant; that delay would have been more than enough time for Muhammad to concoct and rehearse his story. Then COPA was blocked from airing the video by the mayor’s legal department. It suppressed the tape for 14 months, citing Hayes’ right to “privacy” as a ward of the court. “We didn’t stand in the way of the public seeing it, but the city’s lawyers inform our actions,” says Kersten.

Sgt. Isaac Lambert (left) rang the alarm that the Hayes shooting was being covered up; lawyer Torreya Hamilton won millions for the Cross family from the city; former CPD commander Lorenzo Davis was fired after refusing to “fix” shootings.

Carlos Ortiz

Nonsense: “They could’ve aired the tape without naming Ricky,” says Gabe Hardy, the lawyer who repped the teen. “But this was right in the middle of the Laquan McDonald mess, and they didn’t want the heat of a second scandal.” Hardy, who saw the tape, begged the city to charge Muhammad; he asked COPA and Foxx’s people to come meet Ricky. “They sent investigators to sit with us, but then never called back. Before I knew it, a year went by.” Meanwhile, he negotiated with the city, talking settlement figures with the same legal department that stopped COPA from airing the tape. Asked if that was ethical lawyering by the city, Hardy laughs out loud: “All I’ll tell you is they didn’t release the tape until they got pressure from outside.”

That pressure was brought — again — by Jamie Kalven, the street reporter of bad-cop nightmares. Kalven’s source at COPA told him about the tape and about the city’s legal ploy to quash it. That source, unnamed in the story Kalven filed, has decided to come forward now. “I knew about the tape because I found it,” says Regina Holloway, a public-sector lawyer and ex-supervisor at COPA who went door-to-door days after the shooting. She charmed and cajoled residents until one of them confided that a person down the block had porch-cam footage. Holloway used all of her rhetorical skills to persuade that person to send her the tape. It arrived before dawn as a text link on her phone. She watched it over and over in mounting rage. “This cop shoots a kid who’s smaller than my 12-year-old, then claims it’s self-defense?” she fumes.

Holloway went to work and showed the footage to Fairley. Appalled, says Fairley, “I called the state’s attorney’s office,” hoping for an aggressive investigation. Instead, Foxx’s office dithered for weeks, then declined to file charges against Muhammad. Fairley resigned a few weeks later to run for attorney general of Illinois. She was replaced by Sydney Roberts, a law-enforcement lifer who balked at pushing for Muhammad’s firing. Holloway quit COPA a short time after Fairley left, gutted by her departure. She’s now vice president of community impact at a security firm. “I took the [COPA] job because I believed in the mission, and because I was tired of seeing dead black kids,” she says. Once Fairley left, “I could see where this was going.” COPA was going to “give that cop a pass.”

Indeed, Roberts recommended that Muhammad be suspended for shooting a disabled child. There, the matter would have sunk from sight, another kid’s suffering gone unheeded. But Holloway’s indignation brought her to Kalven, and Kalven pressured COPA to see the tape. The video, aired days after the Laquan McDonald verdict, sparked another hellscape for the department. Ricky appears in the frame at about the one-minute mark, when he stops in front of the house on Hermosa Avenue. Muhammad pulls up, grunts something at him, then pumps two slugs into Ricky. Hayes, an unarmed teenager, is not doing anything remotely threatening when he’s shot.

Instantly, the statement by Muhammad collapsed — although at that point, no one had heard it. For 14 months, both COPA and the CPD had been silent about the shooting. Now, under fire to tell the public something, each outfit lumbered into gear. COPA sent its findings to the CPD, where the outgoing superintendent did something rare: He doubled the length of Muhammad’s suspension from 90 to 180 days. Meanwhile, Sgt. Lambert, he says, was suddenly on the spot, ordered to review his detective’s report. “I’m like, ‘What report?’ I had nothing to do with that case since the day it happened,” he says.

Nonetheless, Lambert and one of his detectives turned in a draft to their lieutenant. The lieutenant kicked it back to them with a suggestion: “Couldn’t this be an aggravated assault [by Ricky Hayes]?” wrote the lieutenant in the margin. Repulsed, Lambert says, he signed the report as written and passed it up the line. Five days later, he was dumped from sergeant to the patrol division, riding in a squad car like a rookie. When his commander, Rodney Blisset, gave him the news, Lambert stood there speechless, disbelieving.

“Twenty-six years I do my job with honor, and y’all turn around and treat me like trash?” says Lambert. He’s sitting in the office of Torreya Hamilton, the lawyer who won millions in the Calvin Cross case. Hamilton is suddenly in steep demand, the first call for whistle-blowing cops. The blond daughter of a police-officer mother, she’s counterintuitive casting for the role. But she won a huge sum on behalf of Lorenzo Davis, a black CPD commander who became an investigator for IPRA (COPA’s forerunner) and was fired for uncovering excessive violence by bad cops. Since that verdict in 2018, she’s been fielding requests from practically every officer who’s been punished by Chicago for stepping forward and telling the truth. “I started out working for the other team: I was a prosecutor, then a lawyer for the city,” Hamilton says. “But the city wasn’t interested in finding the truth. It only cared about protecting its police officers.”

Davis, a commander who became an attorney while climbing the ranks, was that rare commodity in his eight years at IPRA: a consummately thorough detective. He investigated cop shoots that violated procedure and turned in reports so buttressed by the facts that any honest force would have fired the shooters. Instead, says Davis, his boss at IPRA, Scott Ando, “ordered me to change my findings, make them come out right” for the cops. When Davis refused, he was fired by Ando and escorted off the premises. He hired Hamilton in 2015 and sued the city. The city, per usual, fought the lawsuit for years before deciding to go to trial. The jury came back — in under an hour — with a whopping verdict for Davis: almost $3 million in damages. Alas, he hasn’t seen a cent in the two years since he won. The city appealed and has him penned in court, perhaps hoping that Davis, a man of 71, will die before the process plays out. If so, he isn’t prepared to oblige. “I was in a shootout where my partner was killed and the bullets went right past my ear,” he says. “It’s gonna take more than waiting to finish me off.”

Sgt. Lambert hired Hamilton after his shock wore off: They held a press conference in her office to announce their suit. It is a very rare thing when a cop in Chicago refuses to bend the rules for a colleague. It is another order of rarity — call it martyrdom — for a cop to blow the whistle in public. But Lambert was past caring about his career: Someone had to speak up for the truth. “I wanted every cop to know that you have to stand for something. That poor kid didn’t deserve being shot for some bullshit, and the cop that did it doesn’t deserve to be a cop.”

Muhammad, who shot an autistic child and spun a story to save his hide, served out his suspension, then returned to duty — at full rank and pay as a sergeant.

Hamilton filed Lambert’s suit in March 2019. As she expected, the city’s lawyers have stalled and stiffed her, “fighting over every scrap of paper.” What she didn’t expect was a second cop to sue in connection with her case. Roughly a year after Lambert was dumped back to patrol, his commander, Rodney Blisset, was demoted to captain, he alleges, after refusing to lie for the department. Blisset, an officer with a sterling reputation, says he had been ordered by his bosses to transfer Lambert. “I couldn’t fathom why they’d dumped him, and when I asked about it, [they] wouldn’t give a reason,” says Blisset. Seven months later, the city’s lawyers sat him down to prep for Lambert’s lawsuit. “They told me, ‘We heard that Ike Lambert was a poor employee.’” Blisset says he asked them where they got that. “They said, ‘From you. That’s what the chief of detectives said you told her.’” Blisset was incensed: “I told them, ‘The chief is a damn liar. We never had a conversation about Lambert.’” The lawyers seemed stunned; here was another cop who wouldn’t fall in line with the official story. “I told them, ‘I’m not lying for anyone, so get your shit straight before you go into court.’”

After years of investigating the CPD and breaking major stories, reporter Jamie Kalven built the Citizens Police Data Project database so the public could access disciplinary records of every cop in the city.

Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times/Redux

In January this year, Blisset was booted from his post. No explanation, he says, no announcement, just stony silence from the department he’d served for decades. Like Lambert, Blisset’s career is irreparably harmed. As commander of a South Side district in Chicago, he’d expected to become the chief of a smaller city when he retired at 60. Instead, he suddenly finds himself unemployable after resigning from the force. “This will follow me for years,” he says. “I might never get a job in law enforcement.” So he, too, waits for his day in court, seeking consolation from a jury. “My whole life, I’ve gone by my father’s words: ‘Tell the truth and deal with the consequences, or lie and live with the consequences,’” Blisset says, sighing. “I can live with what I did. Can they?”

Lambert says he wanted to work until he got his 30 years in, but it literally makes him sick to show up now. “I have a chronic condition that’s been aggravated by this stress,” he says. “It might force me to retire prematurely.” As for Ricky, the city settled with his lawyer Hardy after the videotape aired. “They cut him a check for $2.25 million, which went straight to a special-needs trust,” says Hardy. “He’ll have money for any treatments he needs to get past this, though frankly, that could be a long while.”

In the three years since the shooting, Ricky’s been a different kid, tortured by rages and terrors. He cries uncontrollably, puts his fist through things, and pines out loud to be dead. “I wish they’d just killed me,” he says over and over while Shirley tries to console him. After the check from the city clears, Shirley plans to find a house for them in the suburbs, where Ricky can play outdoors and see his cousins. “I just want him out of this city,” she says. “It gives me chills to think of that man still out there, maybe looking for the next kid to shoot.”

Six months after the George Floyd slaying — six months of blood and heartbreak in the street; of legislative busywork around reform; of jackbooted pushback from the cops — is it fair to wonder whether all of that ferment was so much tilting at windmills? No city has defunded its police department or opted out of its contract with the union. No mayor has stepped forward to fire officers with dozens of allegations lodged against them. No police chief has broken with the rank-and-file to denounce excessive force or no-knock warrants. The killings continue, the days of rage follow, and the curtain drops on another week of theater.

But the kids in Chicago could have told you that. They’ve been marching for six years against the CPD, and here’s what they have to show: mothers of dead teens silenced by a check, grieving the unsolved shootings of their sons; jerry-rigged probes that grind their gears while brutal cops rule the streets; honest cops banished for telling the truth, suddenly obsoleted in their fifties. It’s worse than that, actually: We’d know nothing of Cross and Hayes if not for whistleblowers. Any system hinging on the valor of the few is a system built to fail — and the city knows it. It grovels before the cops and their labor union, and brazenly breaks faith with black communities. It elects state’s attorneys who refuse to try cops even when given gifts of video evidence. It squabbles with itself while shootings spike and no one trusts the police enough to call them. Until its leaders finally say “enough,” Chicago will shed citizens by the thousands each month. (Its population shrank each of the past five years.)

For Dana Cross, the mother of Calvin, a murdered church kid, Chicago died the day it cleared his killers. She moved her family south to a collar-county suburb of Chicago, and still aches when she thinks of her lost son. “I see moms [in other cities] get justice for their kids, but where’m I supposed to get mine?” she says. Several years ago, her daughter Senetra confronted Kim Foxx at a luncheon. Senetra says Foxx promised her that she would take a fresh look at the case — then never followed through with the Crosses. (Foxx did not respond to requests for comment.)

Years later, when the feds launched their probe of the department, Hamilton urged their agents to investigate Calvin’s killing. What they learned so chagrined them that they featured his case in their findings on wrongful shootings by the CPD. Meanwhile, something very unusual happened: COPA did a review of the Cross case. It sat down two of the three cops and challenged their statements, going over them blow by blow. (The third cop, Mohammed Ali, “suddenly decided he had PTSD and sued to block COPA from bringing him in,” says Hamilton.) After a year of weighing the facts, COPA ruled against Officer Chavez, citing his “reckless disregard for human life.” The punishment it prescribed for the slaughter of an unarmed teen? Thirty days’ suspension, without pay. Chavez appealed; he hasn’t served a second.

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