Chicago pays millions but punishes few in police killings

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Dana Cross, the mother of Calvin Cross, a 19-year-old killed by the police in Chicago in 2011, outside her home. Credit Andrew Nelles for The New York Times

The gunshots blasted on and on, 45 in all, until Calvin Cross lay dead in a vacant lot. Mr. Cross, 19, had run away after three Chicago police officers pulled alongside him on a South Side street near his house. Bullets hit his chest, arm, back, face and the little finger on his right hand.

The officers, who fired four weapons including an assault rifle that night in May 2011, said that Mr. Cross had fired at them. Investigators found an old revolver several hundred feet from Mr. Cross’s path. But tests later showed definitively that the gun was inoperable and did not have Mr. Cross’s fingerprints.

Among the officers, part of a special unit that some have accused of aggressive stops and illegal searches and that has since been disbanded, there have been 17 complaints over the years, but none led to discipline. The three were cleared of wrongdoing in Mr. Cross’s death, too, and returned to duty.

“One officer reloaded and another one shot at him with two different guns,” Dana Cross said of her son’s shooting, which she heard from inside her house. “I want to know why those officers are still working.”

The release last month of a 2014 video showing a Chicago police officer fatally shooting another teenager, Laquan McDonald, has upended this city. The police superintendent, Garry F. McCarthy, was forced out, despite having overseen a reduction in crime citywide. So was the leader of an authority charged with disciplining officers. The Justice Department has opened an investigation into possible civil rights abuses by the department. Demonstrators call nearly every day for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign.

But the Chicago Police Department’s record of brutality began long before Mr. McDonald, 17, lay crumpled on Pulaski Road. For decades — back to violent clashes at the Democratic National Convention of 1968 and the confessions coerced by a “midnight crew” of detectives accused of using suffocation, electric shock and Russian roulette on black men in the 1970s and 1980s — the Chicago police have wrestled with allegations of torture, racism, weak oversight and a code of silence.

“There is a problem in the city of Chicago when an officer who was sworn to serve and protect can gun down a citizen for no other reason than that he was black,” the Rev. Marvin Hunter, who was Mr. McDonald’s great-uncle, said last week at his church on the West Side. “Laquan McDonald represents thousands of Laquan McDonalds — same black skin, same poverty, same social and economic injustice that is put upon them, but with different names and different ages.”

In Chicago, the nation’s third largest city, officers shot and killed 70 people, most of them black, in a five-year span ending in 2014. That was more fatal police shootings than in any of the nation’s nine other largest cities during the same period, according to the Better Government Association, a nonprofit watchdog organization.

The Chicago Police Department has also been known for issuing little or no punishment to its own, even after a 2007 overhaul of its discipline system that was portrayed as creating a tough, autonomous authority.

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