A police officer in Chicago has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of an unarmed man earlier this month. Lowell Houser was off duty when he shot and killed Jose Nieves, a man whom police said the officer had previously confronted.
The details of the case can’t help but recall some of the ugliest findings of the recently released 161-page report by the Justice Department on the systemic failure by Chicago police to address misconduct.
Both the report and the story behind the murder of Nieves are indicative of a police department where accountability for abusive police officers takes a back seat to a culture of protecting bad cops at the expense of average citizens. In Chicago, the people who face the least support when they claim their rights have been violated by cops are the city’s black and Hispanic citizens.
In the case of Houser—a 28-year department veteran—the system’s lack of accountability for bad police officers appears to have resulted in a cold-blooded murder. The 57-year-old transit officer had been the subject of at least 20 disciplinary investigations since the 1990s, according to the Chicago Tribune.
From the paper:
Most of the complaints resulted in no discipline or a reprimand, but he was suspended several times, the records show. In 1994, for example, he received a five-day suspension in an incident described as a domestic altercation or disturbance that happened when he was off duty, according to the records.
On Jan. 2, Houser shot and killed 38-year-old Jose Nieves after an altercation between the two men, police reported. Nieves’ sister, Angelica Nieves, told local media that her brother had in the past repeatedly called 911 to report that his downstairs neighbor Houser had pulled a gun on him, but that police had not acted. "They don't do nothing about it. He's an officer," she said
"911 calls had been made before about that gentlemen pulling out his gun at my brother," Angelica Nieves said. She said he had called police as recently as a few days ago.
[The] morning [of the shooting], Jose Nieves was moving furniture into his apartment when his sister says the 57-year-old officer started harassing his girlfriend. When Nieves had words with him, his girlfriend says the off-duty transit officer shot Nieves three times, in the leg, the stomach and the back.
Chicago police confirmed that an earlier incident had taken place, although a department spokesman initially said that Houser had been acting in a “police capacity” during the latest incident. "These two individuals knew each other from a confrontation a few weeks ago," Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said after the shooting.
This appears to be a very blatant case where a department’s pervasive “code of silence,” as the Justice Department report described it, resulted in a man losing his life.
Had police acted against Lowell Houser’s apparent harassment instead of treating him as above the law, or had he faced serious enough discipline for his numerous misconduct incidents over the years, then perhaps Jose Nieves would be alive today.
In that DOJ report, released last week, investigators described a culture of poor accountability and even cover-up when it came to police abuse. Of 30,000 complaints over the course of the five years preceding DOJ’s investigation, only 2 percent of those complaints were sustained. “This is a low sustained rate,” the report notes. The reason the rate is so low? “The City does not investigate the majority of cases it is required by law to investigate,” says the report.
When alleged police abuse is investigated, cases are often “resolved through a defective mediation process, which is actually a plea bargain system used to dispose of serious misconduct claims in exchange for modest discipline.”
Basically, as described by the DOJ report, the worst offenders are often guided into a mediation process that allows the department to pretend to victims that it is doling out justice while never actually revealing the punishment or charges to the public, and simultaneously offering cops reduced charges and slaps on the wrist.
According to the DOJ, here’s how investigations occur when they actually do go forward:
Civilian and officer witnesses, and even the accused officers, are frequently not interviewed during an investigation. The potential for inappropriate coordination of testimony, risk of collusion, and witness coaching during interviews is built into the system, occurs routinely, and is not considered by investigators in evaluating the case. The questioning of officers is often cursory and aimed at eliciting favorable statements justifying the officer’s actions rather than seeking truth. Questioning is often marked by a failure to challenge inconsistencies and illogical officer explanations, as well as leading questions favorable to the officer. Investigators routinely fail to review and incorporate probative evidence from parallel civil and criminal proceedings based on the same police incident. And consistent with these biased investigative techniques, the investigator’s summary reports are often drafted in a manner favorable to the officer by omitting conflicts in testimony or with physical evidence that undermine the officer’s justification or by exaggerating evidence favorable to the officer, all of which frustrates a reviewer’s ability to evaluate for investigative quality and thoroughness.
The outcome, as the DOJ notes, is that since 2004 the city has paid out $500 million in settlements for misconduct cases that did not even result in an investigation half the time, or did not result in recommended discipline 96 percent of the time. Angelica Nieves is suing the Chicago Police Department for the death of her brother.
The “code of silence” cited in the report is tolerated by investigators who don’t follow-up when police officer protect brothers in blue who have committed misconduct by lying and undergoing affirmative efforts to conceal evidence.
Of course, the DOJ reports that there is a racial disparity in how misconduct allegations are treated:
[F]or each allegation contained in a complaint, a white complainant is three-and-a-half-times more likely to have the allegation sustained—and the officer held accountable for his or her misconduct—than a black complainant, and twice as likely to have the allegation sustained than a Latino complainant.
[W]hites were three times more likely than black complainants to have CPD uphold their allegations of excessive force, and six times more likely than Latino complainants to have their excessive force allegations sustained.
After the outrage surrounding the murder of Laquan McDonald in a high-profile police shooting incident that languished unprosecuted for months, Chicago sought to reform its police misconduct investigation procedures with a revamped agency called the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
The Department of Justice report expressed that these reforms were “not enough.” The death of Jose Nieves proves that.